The Fight To Save St. Brigid's - San Fransico's Irish Civil War Church

(First published 11/4/11) Guthrie, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, spent six years covering the parishioners’ fight.  Her book tells the story of the parish’s history, the drama of the fight to save it, and what the parishioners learned about their own faith through their fight.             

The’s Daniel Marrin spoke with Ms. Guthrie about her book, and the place of Irish Catholics in San Francisco’s history.

WG: Julian, when I think about the Bay Area and religions, I usually think more about Buddhism, yoga and meditation.  Has there been a strong Irish or Catholic influence over the years in San Francisco?

Guthrie: Yes, there has been.  It hasn’t been as covered nationally, but the Irish have been one of the strongest bases of the city.  They’re the people that made the city what it is.  The Irish and the Italians really poured into the city in the mid-1800s and built up a great number of churches and neighborhoods.  St. Brigid’s sat on the corner of Van Ness and Broadway, bordering a number of different ethnic neighborhoods.  It was built by Irish Catholics and a little later by Italian Americans, and they were really the founding families of the parish.

Julian Guthrie’s new book, 'The Grace of Everyday Saints', tells of the fight to save St. Brigid Church, a historic Irish church in the heart of San Francisco.  The church had originally been built by Irish immigrants during the Civil War in 1864, originally just a one-story building with two rooms.  Over the next 100 years, the church survived the great earthquakes and fires of San Francisco history, but it faced its toughest battle against an archdiocesan order to shut its doors in 1994.

Since that order, the parishioners, a medley of Catholics from Irish, Italian, Latino and Asian backgrounds has fought to preserve the church and re-establish it as a house of worship.

San Francisco has a very strong Irish tradition in the city that persists to this today.  For my book, I interviewed a number of new Irish immigrants who had settled in San Francisco and were drawn to St. Brigid, as she’s the patroness saint of Ireland.  These were new immigrants who had come in the last 10 or 15 years, who continue to come to the city and find a home here in some of these [historic] churches that were founded by the Irish Catholics.

WG: Do you think that the religious ties of the Irish population in San Francisco are on the decline, or is that tie to Catholicism still strong?

Guthrie: It’s still relatively strong.  You still have these prominent Catholic high schools.  You have the working class of this city, the cops and the firemen, huge numbers of Irish who have carried their faith with them over the years.  But again this is a city where the Asian population has grown more and more prominent in proportions of the city’s population.  So there are fewer of the Irish Catholics, but it’s still – still very strong.  You go up into the avenues, you go into certain working class communities, and you find very strong Irish Catholic traditions and pubs that have been around forever drawing huge crowds.

WG: A lot of urban Catholic churches that used to be heavily Irish have become more Latino-oriented, to accommodate shifts in neighborhoods.  Did that happen with St. Brigid?

Guthrie: It did happen.  When you get along into the 1960s, 70s, 80s, there was a big shift in the population of San Francisco with fewer Irish and Italian Catholics, and more Asians coming to the city with different religions.  So you had this very significant demographic shift; you had the same number of parishes with a fewer number of Catholics.  That was one of the reasons given for the closure of St. Brigid Church.  The archdiocese decided to close 13 parishes, including St. Brigid Church, because of this demographic shift.

Also, the earthquake of 1989 had undermined the foundations of a lot of buildings, and the city ordered the diocese to retrofit a number of these large parishes.  The archdiocese did a study and they put the study around 60 million.  So they were facing a $60 million price tag to fix these churches … That was another reason they gave to close the church.

WG: And at this point the church is closed, correct?

Guthrie: The church has been officially closed since June 30, 1994, but the parishioners keep fighting for it some 17 years later.  It was sold out from under them and is now owned by an art school in the city.  But the parishioners say as long as the building is still there, there’s still the chance that they might be able to get it turned back into a church.  They’re fighting for the interior of the church, through historical landmark channels, so that the new owners can’t remove the pews and the stained-glass windows.

The Irish, Seamus Murphy, one of the great stone carvers of Ireland did a lot of the statuary for the church.  The stained-glass windows were made in Ireland.  The carpets were made in Ireland.  A lot of the beautiful artifacts were made there.  The parishioners fought and are continuing to fight to preserve those as we speak.

WG: And yet the parishioners fighting for the church are quite a mix of ethnicities, right?

Guthrie: The parishioners who fought for St. Brigid Church came from across the globe.  They were from Burma, they were from the Philippines and Mexico, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy. … They had settled in this one corner of San Francisco and found this church that felt like home and brought their faith traditions of all sorts with them, and blended them all into one at St. Brigid. 

DANIEL MARRIN is a Queen's, N.Y. -based journalist and videographer.

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Tags: Diaspora History, Irish history, civil war, irish american history, irish catholic church, irish immigrants, julian guthrie, st brigid church san francisco, the grace of everyday saints


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