St. Paul's History
Serving in Noe Valley for over 125 years
St. Paul Catholic Church is the story of its people. Through its long history runs the loyalty and love of resolute people who form that great family which is and always has been St. Paul's.
This unique spirit initiated with George Shadbourne who wrote to Archbishop Joseph Alemany in 1876 and stated that a new parish should be established, indicating his willingness to collect money, buy a lot, and build a church. The Archbishop approved the request; a collection was taken and a lot was purchased on Church Street. The property cost $2,800 and included the key lot at 29th and Church, as well as three additional lots facing Church Street.
Father Lawrence Breslin was appointed first Pastor and initially used an abandoned hospital on Noe Street between 29th and Valley Streets for religious services. Construction of the church and residence began early in 1880 and on April 29th, 1880, the cornerstone was laid by Archbishop Alemany. Originally, the church seated 750 with approximately 200 families in the parish. Total cost of construction was $18,000.00.
But the Parish Community was growing, and the decision was taken to begin construction on a new church building. Designed by Frank T. Shea, the most prolific church architect of the time and responsible for St. James', St. Brigid's, and Old St. John's, Shea chose a modified English Gothic style for St. Paul’s. Construction began in 1897, took fourteen-years to complete, and was built on a pay as you go formula. Therefore, when the Church was finished in 1911, the Parish Community was debt-free!
Then pastor, Monsignor Michael D. Connolly, acting as contractor and builder, is said to have recruited every able-bodied person in the parish, including himself, to work on the project. Thus, began the building of our steel and granite church. Parishioners, including the Saturday morning religious education students, would according to the parish centennial history, "tended to end up at the Thirtieth and Castro Streets quarry hauling rocks down to the church". They gave many long hours of hard work constructing our beautiful church. The new Church building, with a capacity of 1400, was dedicated May 29, 1911 by Archbishop Patrick Riordan.
The final result is resplendent with many finishing touches, envisioned by Monsignor Connolly, such as the beautiful Frank Mayer stained glass windows from Germany, and the impressive organ. St. Paul’s quickly became one of the most venerable landmarks of San Francisco, and reflects the indefatigable leadership of Monsignor Michael Connolly and the dedication of hundreds of parishioners who volunteered labor on its construction.
Once the Church was complete, Monsignor Connolly and the parishioners wished to provide a program of Catholic education for the children. In 1916, St. Paul's Elementary School for Boys and Girls was established; in 1917, St. Paul's High School for Girls; and in 1920, St. Paul's Primary School for Boys and Girls. The Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary were entrusted with the education and religious training of the children. Sister Mary Conradine Davies, BVM, was the first superior, and over the years three hundred fifty Sisters have served St. Paul's Schools.
Father Cornelius E. Kennedy became Pastor in 1932 and served until 1951, at which time, Monsignor Robert I. Falvey was appointed pastor. He initiated a program of renovation and modernization of the church and schools. Monsignor Falvey was succeeded as Pastor by Monsignor John T. Dwyer, followed by Father Kevin P. Gaffey, Father John J. Cloherty, Father Martin Greenlaw, and finally in July 1993, Father Mario P. Farana was appointed Pastor.
Much progress in identifying buildings that pose a serious risk to the public in earthquakes has been made and unreinforced masonry buildings, like St. Paul's, have been identified as major safety hazards. This public danger was demonstrated in 1989 during the Loma Prieta earthquake when unreinforced masonry buildings failed and resulted in some fatalities in Bay Area communities from San Francisco to Watsonville. Although St. Paul's was not damaged during the earthquake, seismic upgrading became law in California and within the City and County and the Archdiocese of San Francisco began an extensive multi-year endeavor to seismically retrofit and adaptively reuse its existing structures.
On November 14, 1993, we suffered a devastating blow when the Archdiocese Planning Commission put St. Paul's on a list of parishes to be closed. It was believed that the required funds to retrofit the unreinforced masonry buildings of St. Paul's (six building in all - High School, Elementary School, Primary School, two convents, and the Church) could not be raised by the community; however, on November 19, 1993, Archbishop John Quinn and the Commission heard our pleas and removed St. Paul's from the closure list.
The Parish Community went into action, developing an extensive fund-raising campaign, obtaining a $1,000,000 grant from the Archdiocese, and making the hard decisions to close and sell some properties - St. Paul's High School, its adjacent Convent, and Primary School. With funding in place, a new facility for St. Paul's Elementary School, and a Parish Center were built; the Church underwent seismic retrofit and restoration, as well as the remaining Convent, which now serves as a Novitiate House for the Missionaries of Charity. In all, the total cost was $8,500.000.00, and took eight years to complete.
The construction techniques used for St. Paul's in the first decade of this century reflected the best engineering available at the time. The walls of the church were built of multiple rows of brick onto which thick exterior stone facing and interior finished-plaster, were placed. Above the walls a frame of light steel and wood to support the steeply pitched slate roof, and the two steeples were framed in an intricate collection of diagonally braced and interconnected wood members.
Under the tireless and effective leadership of Pastor Father Mario Farana, the Parish undertook a multi-step revitalization. Initial efforts focused on the disposition of buildings made surplus by changing San Francisco demographics and by evolving Parish needs. It was then necessary to insure the vitality of Catholic education in this portion of Noe Valley so the Parish next concentrated on the planning and construction of the new St. Paul's Elementary School.
With the completion of the school in January of 1999, attention shifted to the Church. The agreed upon work to the Church included the vital seismic bracing and structural upgrades, associated architectural work made necessary by the structural work, upgrades to facilitate disabled access to the Church, and miscellaneous electrical and mechanical work.
Working closely with the Building Committee of the Archdiocese, the Parish reviewed the credentials of several qualified contractors and selected Nibbi Brothers Construction for this difficult project. Nibbi is an institution in the San Francisco construction industry that had recently celebrated its fiftieth year in business. They pride themselves in bringing Old World craftsmanship to their projects. It is this attention to quality that Nibbi and their subcontractors consistently displayed on St. Paul's that was a major contribution to the success of the Church renovation.
With the contractor selected, the Church closed in January of 2000 and the work began. The seismic upgrades were easily the most difficult phase of the work. Ably designed by Degenkolb Engineers, the new bracing system included the construction of four massive concrete shear walls. These walls located under the existing towers and in the North and South Transepts of the Church - serve two functions. They help dissipate back to the earth seismic pressures from the upper levels of the building and resist seismic force in the north-south direction. Tying the entire church together was an important component of the seismic bracing. The exterior east-west masonry walls were continuously braced back to the existing roof frame and the roof framing was in turn reinforced and tied together with a continuous steel tension ring, located in the attic.
Throughout the course of construction over fifty tons of new steel were installed on the roof and in the attic of St Paul's. Attention was also paid to strengthening both of the towers and bracing the remaining parapets of the building. Additional work to the church included constructing two new roofs above the North and South aisles to cover the new steel bracing.
Making the Church accessible to everyone was an important Parish concern. An accessible entrance was built off Valley Street, and new accessible seating and an accessible bathroom at the main church level were added. A side hallway in the South Transept was rebuilt as a ramp to make the Sanctuary accessible to those in wheelchairs. The North and South Vestibules were re-built to cut down on wind drafts and accommodate the new shear walls.
Historic windows were incorporated into the interior wood doors of these new vestibules. The interior finishes were revitalized. This work included refurbishing the main lighting fixtures, repainting as necessary, restoration of damaged artwork, and re-carpeting.
The hundreds who served the Parish, and the thousands who have contributed to the renovation are acknowledged on commemorative walls in the new BVM Chapel and in the side Vestibule. And finally, in December 2000 the Parish Community was able to use St. Paul's Catholic Church for Christmas Eve Masses after a year-long absence.
For seven months in 2009 and 2010 St Paul's Church was shrouded with scaffolding to replace the slate tiles on the steeples. When the original construction was completed in 1911, the California Gold Rush had been over for 60 years and the decision was made to not finish St. Paul's two large crosses with gold. But, in 2009, with scaffolding in place all the way to the top of each steeple since 1911, we were given another opportunity to revisit this decision. However, the quote for applying gold leaf to our crosses was too much after the considerable expense of the steeple repair. It seemed that once again the decision would be made to not finish St. Paul's crosses with gold. Fine Custom Painting, Inc. to the Rescue.
In a discussion regarding St. Paul's situation, a parishioner offered to donate the gold leaf, and he knew a local gold leafing and painting expert Evan Auchard (owner of Fine Custom Painting) who was willing to donate the preparation materials and labor to St. Paul's and make our crosses shine, and do they!
Since the first decade of the 20th century, St. Paul's has been the spiritual center of Catholic life in the Noe Valley. St. Paul's is a vibrant community, with extensive programs, community events, education, a commitment to the Gospel, and an unshakeable belief and trust in God, and a love of neighbor characterize our Parish Community. We’re even in the movies, in 1992 St. Paul’s was the principal location for the hit film Sister Act.
We are indeed a City of God. To quote Red Spillane: "God visits other churches but lives at St. Paul's." We are grateful to Almighty God for His blessings.
St. Paul's in the 1880's
Rev. Lawrence Breslin
the first pastor of St. Paul's
St. Paul's new building
Mother Teresa visits
Dismantling of the old
St. Paul's School building
2001 Redidication Mass
Roof and Spire Retrofit
adding gold-leaf to
St. Paul's Spire Crosses
And how they shine!