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History and Purpose


Church History

St. Paul's Parish is and always has been the story of people. Through its history runs the loyalty and love of resolute people who form the great family, which is and always has been St. Paul's Parish. This unique spirit initiated with George Shadbourne who wrote to Archbishop Joseph Alemany in 1876 and stated that a new parish should be established and indicated 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, and three additional lots facing Church Street.

Construction of this English Gothic landmark began in 1897 and it was dedicated by Archbishop Patrick William Riordan in 1911.  The architect was Frank T. Shea, "the Church Builder of San Francisco," already known for his design of Pacific Heights' St. Brigid's Church and St. Paul neighbor St. James.

Father Michael D. Connolly, then pastor, is said to have had every able person in the parish, including himself, at work on the project. Reports say many were called and chosen, including Saturday morning religious education students who, according to the parish centennial history, "tended to end up at the Thirtieth and Castro Streets quarry hauling rocks down to the church."

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.

The parish was growing. In 1897 the second Pastor, Monsignor Michael D. Connolly, began the building of a steel and granite church. He acted as contractor and builder and parishioners gave many long hours of hard work constructing our beautiful church. The church was dedicated May 29, 1911, by Archbishop Patrick Riordan. Its capacity was 1400. The project took fourteen years because it was done on a pay as you go formula. When the work was finished, there was no debt.

Once the Church was completed, 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. Over three hundred fifty sisters from 1916 to the present have served St. Paul's Parish.

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 church and schools. Monsignor Falvey was succeeded as Pastor by Monsignor John T. Dwyer and in turn by Father Kevin P. Gaffey, Father John J. Cloherty, Father Martin Greenlaw, and in July 1993, Father Mario P. Farana was appointed and continues to be Pastor of St. Paul's Church.

In 1989 the Loma Prieta Earthquake struck. Although St. Paul's Church was not damaged, seismic upgrading became State, City and County Law. The most devastating blow to the Parish occurred on November 14, 1993, 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. On November 19, 1993, Archbishop John Quinn and the Commission heard our pleas and removed St. Paul's from the closure list.

St. Paul Church was the principal location for the hit film "Sister Act" in 1992.

During the next eight years - St. Paul's High School, adjacent Convent and Primary School were sold, extensive fund raising was initiated (and continues), as a $1,000,000 grant was received from the Archdiocese. The Convent which serves as Novitiate for the Missionaries of Charity was retrofitted, a new St. Paul's Elementary School and Parish Center were built and the Church retrofitted and restored. In all the total cost was $8,500.000.00.

Through the years, St. Paul's has been and continues to be a vibrant community. Extensive programs, community events, education, commitment to the Gospel, and unshakeable belief and trust in God and love of neighbor have characterized St. Paul's Parish.

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.

Description of Retrofit Work

Since the first decade of this century, St. Paul's Catholic Church has been the spiritual center of Catholic life in the Noe Valley. Built over a fourteen-year period starting in 1897, St. Paul's Church reflected the indefatigable leadership of the pastor Monsignor Michael Connolly and the dedication of hundred of parishioners who volunteered labor on its construction. The Church was designed by the most prolific church architect of the time, Frank T. Shea, who was also responsible for St. James', St. Brigid's, and Old St. John's. For St. Paul's Frank Shea chose a modified English Gothic style. The final result resplendent with many finished touches envisioned by Monsignor Connolly such as the beautiful stained glass windows from Germany and the impressive organ quickly became one of the most venerable landmarks of this portion of San Francisco.

Click here to read the history and details of St. Paul's magnificent stained glass windows.

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. Since 1911 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. As a result, the Archdiocese of San Francisco has undertaken an extensive multi-year endeavor to seismically retrofit and adaptively reuse its existing structures.

St. Paul's has been a major focus of this activity. 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 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 useable by all portions of the public, including the disabled, 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. Finally the hundreds who served the Parish and the thousands who have contributed to this renovation will be acknowledged on commemorative walls in the new BVM Chapel and in the side Vestibules. In December 2000 the Parish was able to use St. Paul's Catholic Church for Christmas Eve Masses after a year-long absence.


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