Charles “Charlie” Farruggia isn’t just a resident of North Beach. For many, he is the epitome of the old Italian neighborhood. Known as the “Dean of...
When gold was discovered in California in 1849, a fortune-hungry horde poured into Yerba Buena, which recently had been renamed San Francisco. Practically overnight, the bayside settlement with a scant 450 inhabitants burgeoned to thousands. Many of the newcomers were Catholics, yet there was no church for them other than the Franciscan mission, three and a half miles from the docks.
Although Father Junípero Serra and his Franciscan brothers established the mission church of San Francisco de Asis, commonly known as Mission Dolores, in order to evangelize the Native Californian population, by the time of the California Gold Rush, it primarily served the local residents of Mexican and Iberian origin. Though mass was celebrated in Latin, pastoral ministry and preaching were only in Spanish. Services were not held on any regular schedule.
U.S. Military spokesmen from the Army and the Navy appealed to the bishops in Hawaii and Oregon, and to the Archbishop of Baltimore. The bishop of Portland in Oregon sent two priests from the Pacific Northwest, and U.S. troops stationed at the Presidio built a small shanty to serve as a church.
While the City of San Francisco did not formally incorporate until April 18, 1850—and California did not become the thirty-first state of the Union until September 9, 1850—the twelfth day of June, 1849 witnessed the formal establishment of Saint Francis Parish. Five days later, on June 17th, the first parochial mass in California was celebrated. Saint Francis of Assisi Church, therefore, antedates both the City of San Francisco and the State of California.
Within a short time, an adobe church replaced the wooden shack that U.S. Army personnel had built. The newly appointed Bishop of Monterey, a Dominican friar by the name of Joseph Alemany, consecrated the new structure for Saint Francis Parish in 1851. Bishop Alemany used the church as his cathedral for three years. In 1852, Bishop Alemany ordained Father John Quinn to the priesthood in the church of Saint Francis; it was the first ordination of a Catholic priest to be held in California.
With pastoral ministry and preaching being conducted in English, Spanish, French, and Italian, it soon became clear that the small church could not accommodate its rapidly growing congregation. Parish leaders laid the cornerstone of a new church on October 2, 1859. In order to avoid interrupting the continuity of liturgical services, workers built the new church right over the old structure. The present Norman Gothic church, with its elegant twin campanile, was dedicated on 17 March 1860.
On 18 April 1906 at 5:13 a.m., the earth trembled violently, and the water mains of San Francisco crumbled. Shortly after the earthquake, devastating fires broke out all over the city consuming even the interior of Saint Francis Church. The mighty brick walls of the church, however, together with its badly scorched towers, remained entirely intact.
After much consideration and careful study, it was decided to rebuild a new church within the original walls. Engineers drew up the plans to support the floor and roof with steel girders. On March 2, 1919 the newly-restored church was rededicated.
Located in the heart of San Francisco's historic North Beach district, Saint Francis of Assisi Church today continues to build upon its historical mission. Though it is no longer a parish, the church has become the National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi.
Next door to the church, the former Marini Gymnasium—donated to the children of North Beach by one of the Italian Community’s greatest benefactors, “Mayor of North Beach” Frank Marini—was in 2008 converted into La Porziuncola Nuova, a scaled replica of Saint Francis’ Porziuncola in Assisi, Italy. Porziuncola is a small portion of land, and refers to the abandoned chapel that Saint Francis of Assisi restored when he was a young man.
Nickolas Marinelli serves as the Director of Community Relations at the Italian Cemetery in Colma. Nickolas can be contacted by e-mail at: Nickolas@ItaloAmericano.com