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Outside Lands Podcast Episode 201: 100 Years of St. Cecilia Catholic Parish (Repodcast)

St. Cecilia's Parish was established 105 years ago. Frank Dunnigan guested on the Podcast five years ago to talk about it's first century.
by Nicole Meldahl - Jan 7, 2023

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 201: 100 Years of St. Cecilia Catholic Parish (Repodcast) Outside Lands Podcast Episode 201: 100 Years of St. Cecilia Catholic Parish (Repodcast)

(above) 15th & Taraval, circa 1918

View west to post-mass crowd in front of second St. Cecilia's Catholic Church, 15th Avenue and Taraval Street. Tracks and streetcar poles in background.


Podcast Transcription

201R - 100 Years of St Cecilia Catholic Parish (Repodcast)

Nicole: [00:00:00] The following is a classic episode of Outside Lands San Francisco. Dates mentioned in this week's podcast pertained to past events only.

Woody: It's Outside Lands San Francisco, the podcast of the Western Neighborhoods Project. I'm Woody La Bounty.

David: And I'm David Gallagher.

Frank: And I'm Frank Dunnigan.

Woody: David. This happened a couple, few weeks ago or something. Frank Dunnigan showed up in our studio.

David: What? How'd you get in here? I thought we locked the door.

Woody: I know. It's sort of like he just sneaks in.

David: Frank's back.

Woody: We're very happy Frank's back because we had Frank here a few weeks ago talking about his new book, which was Growing Up in San Francisco: More Boomer Memories from Playland to Candlestick Park, and we have that for sale on our website.

David: Yeah.

Woody: It's selling like hot cakes.

David: Wow! Well, yes.

Woody: But as Frank mentioned.

David: Not Swedish pancakes.

Woody: No, not Swedish pancakes. But as [00:01:00] Frank mentioned in that podcast, he had another book he was writing at the exact same time, which commemorates an anniversary that's coming up. Frank, what is this other book?

Frank: The other book is a history of Saint Cecilia Parish in San Francisco. Ah, and it kind of segues from my first book. About a year and a half ago, I had a call from the pastor, Monsignor Harriman who said, you know, our hundredth anniversary is coming. I'd like you to write a book similar to the book you wrote about growing up in the Western Neighborhoods. And we talked back and forth about what he wanted and he was very specific. He reminded me that there had been a 50th anniversary book on the parish in 1967. Was a lot of color photos and a lot of descriptions about how many tons of steel went into the frame of the church and…

David: Nice.

Frank: How many cubic yards of concrete were in the schoolyard. And he said, I want you to read that book and I want you to do everything differently from that book. Make it like your first book on San Francisco, I want to hear about people.

Woody: Okay.

David: And [00:02:00] since he, representing the church, you said, I'll do it?

Frank: I’ll do it. I guess I had a bit of a head start. My grandmother was widowed in the thirties and my father and uncle were just out of USF. And grandma decided to move with the boys and picked a Doelger house on 21st Avenue and Rivera, in Saint Cecilia's Parish. And over the years, our family stayed there. My parents got married after the war. Bought their one and only house a block from the church. I went to school there and mom remained there until her passing in 2002. So, we had a 65-year family history in the parish.

Woody: Right.

Frank: So, it was a pretty good running start.

Woody: So, David.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Who is Frank Dunnigan.

David: Frank Dunnigan…

Woody: Who's here.

David: Who's here.

Woody: And telling us all this.

David: With his beautifully resonant voice.

Woody: We should give some intro to people who may not know and have just tuned in.

David: Well, Frank is a longtime Western Neighborhoods Project member and a longtime contributor. He's been writing a monthly column for us called [00:03:00] Streetwise, and it's mostly reminiscences of growing up in the west side of the city. And we, we, we talked about it last time he was here, that he's been doing it since 2009, so that's like eight years.

Woody: Yeah. Almost.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Or more.

David: Might be more now.

Woody: Yeah. And he's written these, these books and. And Frank, you gave us a good background on St. Cecilia and your relationship with it. So where is St. Cecilia Parish for people who are to, oh, let's say where the church is, where is that in the city?

Frank: Okay. The church is located at the corner of 17th and Vicente. It's adjacent to a school that is still very active. Two classes at every grade level, plus a kindergarten. Rectory and what used to be a convent is now parish offices and music rooms, but there is a small community of Indonesian Carmelite nuns living on the top floor, so a very active parish. Every square inch of that place is getting used daily. And since 2000, there's also been a gym multipurpose facility called the Durocher [00:04:00] Pavilion.

David: So, we would call it in, in the Parkside.

Frank: Correct.

Woody: Yeah. Right next to the Parkside.

David: Right.

Woody: Just over the hill from West Portal, right in the southern Sunset for people who really have no idea of micro neighborhoods.

David: Yeah.

Woody: So, so Frank, I mean, I grew up in a Catholic parish. You grew up in a Catholic parish. I think.

David: I didn't grow up.

Woody: David grew up in San Bruno, So…

David: Between a couple of parishes.

Woody: I think, you know, there's experience, a smell a, this sort of the, the, the gumwood of the floors and the banisters and the schools that were all, so many San Franciscans are gonna like immediately envision. They're gonna see it. But let's give a little bit for people who didn't grow up in a Catholic parish, in a city, a little bit of what the community's like. So, you have a, a church and this is a very big Catholic church.

Frank: It is. When I was born there was a much smaller church facing 17th Avenue, and that had been there since the twenties. It originally had been a parish hall up on Taraval. Moved in the twenties, converted to a church, and as the parish kept growing, [00:05:00] that church became smaller, smaller, smaller. After World War II, Monsignor Collins, who was one of the better-known pastors, spent 30 years there, expanded that church by developing a lower church to almost double the capacity. But the neighborhood was still growing and people were having lots of children in those days. And it got to the point there were 5,000 registered parish households and they simply could not accommodate them in that 17th Avenue Church.

Woody: Wow. 5,000 parish households in just St. Cecilia.

Frank: Yes.

Woody: I mean, you also have these other parishes in the nearby area that are growing.

Frank: Oh, exactly. You had St. Anne's to the north. You had Holy Name, west of St. Anne's, and you had St. Gabriel's west of St. Cecilia. So just within the confines of the sunset, there were four very large parishes serving the Catholic community. But by the 1950s, the feeling was St. Cecilia needed a new church and there was a vacant sandlot that the parish owned at the [00:06:00] corner of 17th and Vicente. And that was the spot for the new church. And it was a long, drawn-out process. The campaign for fundraising began in the early ‘50s, 1951, ‘52, and it wasn't until 1954 that ground was broken, and 1956 that it was completed. So that church is now 60 years old.

Woody: Yeah.

Frank: Amazing.

Woody: How many people do you think can fit in there? Do you happen to know offhand?

Frank: Roughly 1000 in the upper church. Until several years ago, there was a mirror image, lower church that would take overflow of about six or seven hundred that has since been converted and is no longer a church. It is more of a social hall, parish meeting groups.

Woody: Right.

Frank: But roughly a thousand people.

Woody: So, David, I was gonna say that, you know, when you have a Catholic parish in the City. It was always this sort of core complex, right? You'd have the church and then you would have a parish school usually.

David: Right.

Woody: And they all felt the same. They all feel like they were all built in like 1932 or [00:07:00] something.

Frank: St. Cecilia’s was built in 1930.

Woody: Okay. And, and they had these sort of varnished floors and this, this sort of varnished staircase is. The architecture was very similar. It kind of had this California feeling to it. A lot of it.

Frank: Red mission tiles on the roof.

Woody: Yeah. And then you had a rectory where the priests live and you had a, like, almost all of them had convents where there were tons of nuns.

David: Right.

Frank: Yep.

Woody: Who taught in school. So, and now there's almost, hardly any nuns in any of these schools.

David: It was, who teaches there now?

Frank: Yeah.

David: Regular, secular teachers or…

Frank: The staff is 100% lay faculty.

David: Lay people.

Frank: Both men and women. There are two nuns left. One is a special ed teacher and the other is the music coordinator. Even the principal role transitioned from a religious to a layperson back in 2012. So, nuns have really become few and far between in Catholic schools. It's just a change in the dynamic of people's career choices. I spoke with the last [00:08:00] religious nun who retired as principal in 2012, and I said, well, sister, you were a graduate of Saint Cecilia's. You went into the convent in 19, the early ‘60s. How many girls have gone in after you? She said, oh, I have the number right here. Zero. So it is…

David: She had to look it up.

Woody: She was the last one essentially.

Frank: She was the last one from Saint Cecilia's Parish to enter the convent. So, it's not surprising that there is a 100% lay faculty now.

David: Yeah.

Frank: But marvelous people. I know two people in particular who've been there for 40 years, dedicated their entire careers to teaching young people in our neighborhood.

David: Sure.

Frank: And it's been tough because as a lot of these teachers transition, many of them are approaching retirement now. And it's very, very tough to find replacements who can afford to work for, to be honest, a very moderate salary.

David: Right.

Woody: Yeah. So, David, do you remember in our photo collection we had the, this, these photos of the first Parkside [00:09:00] school, which was a very humble, almost a shack that they had the first…

David: Right.

Woody: Students in. It was a public school,

David: I think, I think a lot of the neighborhoods started with very modest school buildings.

Woody: Right. So that school was on Taraval Street and like 30th Avenue and the Parkside, when it's mostly sand, sand dunes, and they have like maybe 20 kids in the school.

David: Yeah.

Woody: But that building Frank lived on.

Frank: It did.

Woody: In, in St. Cecilia's history, right?

Frank: That building was moved to the corner of 15th and Taraval, where it became the very first church in 1917. Held about 250, 275 people. Very, very modest. It was expanded from its…

Woody: Wow.

Frank: Parkside School beginnings.

Woody: I can’t believe you fit that many people in that building. It looks pretty small.

Frank: It, it was expanded. It was expanded. Became the property of the church. But again, it only lasted for a few years and the decision was ultimately made that within 10 years or so, we have to get off Taraval Street and get to a little bit quieter place and [00:10:00] build a much larger church.

David: Right. I mean, we're talking about a time in the, in the west side, 1917, the Twin Peaks tunnel had just opened and there was…

Woody: Not yet. 1918.

David: Okay.

Woody: Yeah.

David: Oh, It was about to open. The Parkside had been developed and there were street cars going out down 20th Avenue, and, but there was a wave of people that were coming, that were going to be coming in the next few years, I believe.

Frank: And particularly in the years after World War I, the population of San Francisco began growing. More people became interested in moving west of Twin Peaks. I have several anecdotes in there. There's probably 25 individual stories that people I've, I've spoken to, either for the book or people that I spoke to many, many years ago, who told me their life stories. And one of them was a friend of my grandmother's, a lady named Kitty Wolfinger. And she and her family were in the mission. And after World War I, she and her husband decided they wanted to raise their children in [00:11:00] fresh air, away from traffic, away from noise. And ironically, their longtime home is only a block off 19th Avenue, but they did get away from the noise and the traffic and the congestion of the Mission. And for years they were in a very quiet, peaceful part of town.

David: Right.

Woody: Yeah. The other sort of relic that I, I imagine that, that I've heard or I've read got moved was there was a school bell in the Parkside school that, I had read in some newspaper account was donated to St. Cecilia Church to be used as a church bell. And then I've been trying to track that bell down for a long time. Do you have it, Frank?

Frank: I, I can give you a little bit of it. Yes, tucked away in my basement. No, the, I believe, the story that I heard was that it was from the Parkside Volunteer Fire Department.

Woody: Oh, that could be true. That might be right.

Frank: And they donated the bell, and that bell is still in the tower.

Woody: Is it, the same bell.

Frank: It is.

Woody: Wow.

David: We should get up there and see it.

Woody: Yeah. So, so there's this connection between the Parkside neighborhood and the church that, I mean, their, their [00:12:00] early history is all interwoven. And you make a good point when you were talking about the number of Catholic House households that were out there. I always hear that there was a giant Irish population in the Sunset. And I, I have friends that, you know, came from those families. But it seemed like that was a migration from the Mission to the Sunset and Parkside and that this was a big Catholic neighborhood. And it was a big Irish neighborhood too.

Frank: It was, but it, it, it evolved from even an earlier source. Many people told me, and I ran across a lot of documents to suggest that the big ethnic population in the parish originally was German. There were a lot of German social groups. There were picnics with oom-pah-pah bands and beer barrels and all sorts of things. Then it began transitioning to Irish. After the war, there began to be more of an Italian population and there, there was always a Spanish or a Mexican population within all these groups. And then in recent years it's [00:13:00] become more Asian. So, it keeps evolving as the neighborhood keeps changing, ethnic groups come and go and it, it's still a wonderful place for tens of thousands of people.

Woody: So, if you were, if I, I, I guess we shouldn't play this game, but if you were to compare Catholic parishes in the city?

Frank: Oh, that's a, a delicate and dangerous game.

Woody: Well, what I, what I think sticks out about Saint Cecilia is, is I think it was Monsignor Collins had a saying he used to say about…

Frank: Oh yes.

Woody: What was the saying that every Saint Cecilia grad's gonna remember?

Frank: The finest, the greatest, and the best.

Woody: So, he was a very humble Monsignor.

Frank: But that, that is true. And in reality, whenever there was a collection, whether it was for some far away mission, whether it was for raising money for a new Saint Cecilia's church, whether it was raising money for some campaign to fund the homeless or to build a new cathedral, whatever it happened to be Saint Cecilia parishioners tended to come in [00:14:00] on the top of the archdiocesan parishes. They, they simply donated more money to more causes than almost any other parish in the archdiocese. So, it, it was a real tribute to the people that they, they were, for the most part, very fortunate in their own financial lives, but they traditionally have shared that with many, many others.

Woody: And I think what Monsignor was getting at too was not to brag, but to sort of inspire people to be their best right?

Frank: Exactly.

Woody: And especially the kids that were growing up in the St. Cecilia Parish.

Frank: Exactly. A couple of interesting stories about the school. When the school began in 1930, there were only eight classrooms, one at each grade level. And at that time, believe it or not, there were 60, six-zero, children per classroom with one nun.

Woody: One nun total?

Frank: And no teacher's aides. And that went on for many, many years.

David: Wow. How is it possible?

Frank: Tough. Tough, tough, tough. Then after World War II, [00:15:00] when Monsignor Collins arrived, an expansion was built. So, there were now 16 classrooms plus a morning and an afternoon kindergarten. So, two classes at every grade level, plus morning and afternoon kindergarten, class size dropped to 45 per classroom and with the morning and afternoon kindergarten, there was a capacity of 800, and that was with the blessing of the San Francisco Fire Department. When I was ready to attend kindergarten in the fall of ‘57, kindergarten abruptly closed without warning. No one knew why. I finally found out the answer when I was researching. Over the years that 45 per classroom had crept up to 50. one by one by one. And that combined with a morning and afternoon kindergarten placed the school's population at close to 900. The San Francisco Fire Department realized this at some point in the ‘50s and was aghast, because that's just, you can't run a school like that. You can't pack a hundred extra kids in and still be safe. [00:16:00] So there was no way to reduce the population in the upper grades. The only thing that Monsignor Collins could do was close kindergarten, which he did. And so, like many of my classmates who are celebrating our 50th grad year of, of our graduation this year, a lot of us went to public school for kindergarten. I'm a Parkside alum. And many of my classmates went to West Portal. Or to the long gone Crespi school at…

David: Wow. Crespi.

Frank: At 24th and Quintara.

Woody: Yeah.

Frank: So, a lot of us had a public-school education for at least kindergarten, and some of us even went on to low first, before transitioning to Saint Cecilia, but they were able to reduce the population to 800 and that kept the fire department happy. And it was a good 25 years before numbers began dropping. And finally, in the early ‘80s, kindergarten was able to be reopened.

Woody: The other thing I think about is, was there a fast track? I mean, when I went to Star of the Sea in the Richmond district, a lot of the boys went to Sacred Heart High [00:17:00] School, because I think it was on a direct Muni route, essentially. Some went to St. Ignatius. Did Cecilia have, and the girls either went to Star of the Sea, which was the girls’ high school at the time, or St. Rose or Cathedral, was there a, a track that your graduates went to for high school?

Frank: I, I was thinking about that the other day. As I say, we're having our 50th year since graduation and looking back, we had a class of a hundred. Half the boys. went to St. Ignatius. That was kind of a given. The other half divided up pretty evenly between Riordan and Sacred Heart. Girls, it was a big, there were many, many more girls’ schools at the time, but clearly half the girls went to Mercy because it was just three blocks down 19th Avenue.

Woody: Right.

Frank: And Mercy had a population of 800 girls at the time.

Woody: Wow. That’s…

Frank: It is now at 400, so…

Woody: I can't believe they fit 800 in there.

Frank: Yeah, they did. But again, girls had many more choices. Convent of the Sacred Heart, St. Rose, Presentation, Cathedral.

Woody: Yeah, most of them have closed.

Frank: Star of the [00:18:00] Sea. And you're right, direct Muni lines played a big part.

Woody: Right.

Frank: In a lot of family's choices.

Woody: Right. So, are there any centennial plans of St. Cecilia going to, other than putting out this great book, which I don't know, David, do we have this available on our website to, to sell?

David: We do.

Woody: Okay, great.So, people get it there.

David: We have it and it's autographed.

Woody: Awesome. So…

David: By Frank.

Woody: Other than this, the pub, that's great. Other than the publication of this book, are there any other centennial plans that we should make people aware of?

Frank: There are many. They should check out the Saint Cecilia website, and there are everything from concerts to gala events planned in January on the actual centennial date. There are, there's an all-alumni picnic coming next spring. There is just a variety of things. Saint Cecilia 100. I don't know if it's dot com or dot org.

Woody: Okay.

Frank: And just check it out. Google it. You'll find it right away, and it will take you to a variety of links talking about many, many, many things going [00:19:00] on within the parish.

Woody: Terrific.

David: Is it fun for people who did not go to Saint Cecilia?

Frank: Indeed. They're okay.

Woody: Indeed!

David: All right then. I'm, I'm there.

Frank: St. Cecilia's has been holding an annual festival since about 1948 and the most recent one it used to take place in the school auditorium. It now spills out into the schoolyard into what was once the lower church, the Durocher Pavilion, the gym, multipurpose facility and the auditorium.

Woody: Gambling, David.

David: I know.

Woody: Gambling.

David: I, that's what I was gonna say.

Frank: Yes.

David: I love gambling.

Frank: All sorts of things.

David: I mean, I remember doing that sort of thing at St. Roberts or St. Dunston's in Millbrae.

Woody: Spin the wheel.

Frank: Oh, yeah. Yeah. So that, that is over. That took place a month or so ago, and there will be another one coming this next fall. Next fall.

Woody: Well, go to the website. David, I'm sure you'll find something to do with Saint Cecilia. And on our website, we have a lot of information on Saint Cecilia’s, mostly because, Saint Cecilia Parish, because Frank writes a lot about it being an alum in his columns and other people [00:20:00] have written things. We have photos, we have a lot of stories about the monsignor there. And, and so what is that website, David?

David: It's outsidelands.org. Woody, and what else can you do there?

Woody: You can become a member.

David: I'm already a member, Woody.

Woody: Well, well you were, you, being some other person listening, can become a member of the Western Neighborhoods Project by clicking on the Become a Member link. Wait.

David: Yeah.

I, you know, I've only done this like 194 times. I'm totally lost. Is it a, it's the Become a Member…

David: Become a Member.

Woody: Link.

David: Yeah.

Woody: At the top of…

Frank: The main page.

David: Any.

Woody: Any page.

David: Every page.

Woody: Yeah. And then…

David: But you know what?

Woody: What?

David:  Our old friend Rachel Lee wrote into us.

Woody: Yeah.

David: And she said that we are saying any page now. And we used to say every page. Well, it's on every page. So, you can click any page and find it.

Woody: And then, then you join and you can get our newsletter and you can come to our special events. You can, you can just, you know, help support us preserving and sharing the history of Western San Francisco.

David: You can call me at the office and [00:21:00] I'll know who you are.

Woody: Yeah, yeah. You can look at all pictures on our website. You do that for free. Anyway, do that, and Frank, I want to thank you for coming in again.

Frank: Thank you for having me.

Woody: I know it's a long trip from Arizona, but I'm happy you're, you could come back.

Frank: Well, thank you very much and hope to be back again for book number three and that'll be next year.

David: And beyond.

Woody: Uh-oh, it never ends. All right. I'll see you next week, David.

David: I'll see you too. Woody.

Ian: Outside Lands San Francisco is recorded by Ian Hadley. Content creation and media production at ihadley.com.

Woody: To learn more about the Western Neighborhoods Project and more about San Francisco history, go to outsidelands.org.

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