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Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -

Streetwise - The Finest, the Greatest, and the Best

by Frank Dunnigan
December 2010

AUTHOR'S NOTE: My esteemed colleague, JoAnne Quinn, wrote a wonderful account of the history of St. Cecilia's Parish back in January of 2009. Her story prompted me to take a further look at the one individual who made it all happen, Monsignor Harold E. Collins. He was a one-man show from the time that he became pastor of St. Cecilia's in 1946 until his death on December 16, 1980—exactly thirty years ago this month. So set aside the Christmas card lists, the outdoor twinkle lights, and the holiday baking chores for a few minutes, and relax with a nice cup of seasonal cheer for a look back to an earlier time…

Many people said that if Harold Collins hadn't become a priest, he would have been the best governor California could ever have hoped for, since he knew how to raise money, make people work together, and still enjoy life—all at the same time. Now that he has been gone for thirty years—exactly the same amount of time that he spent as pastor of St. Cecilia's—it's time to reflect on what made this remarkable man such a memorable part of so many lives in the Outside Lands.

Born in San Francisco's Mission District on August 17, 1899, Harold E. Collins was ordained a priest at the old St. Mary's Cathedral on Van Ness Avenue in June of 1925, and covered a variety of assignments in his early years, including a brief teaching stint at both St. Ignatius and Sacred Heart High Schools during the Depression years. Even before his arrival at St. Cecilia's, he was well known in San Francisco's religious community as Secretary to Archbishop Mitty from 1939 to 1946, as well as for his authorship of a detailed reference book, The Church and Its Appointments, which, for decades, was the definitive work on ecclesiastical architecture throughout the United States.

Monsignor, as he preferred to be known, arrived at St. Cecilia's four days after Christmas of 1946 to find a quiet, middle-class parish with not much going on. He knew intuitively that change was coming fast, as GIs were returning home en masse to settle down, buy homes, and raise families.

Upon seeing the crowded conditions at Sunday Mass, he immediately went to work to have the sand lot adjacent to the old church on 17th Avenue paved and used for parking, in order to accommodate the increasing number of automobiles that were appearing following the conclusion of the war years. As homes continued to be built on the remaining sand dunes in the neighborhood, he also remodeled the hall under that old church into a "lower church" in order to increase seating capacity and better serve his new congregation.

Portrait of Monsignor Harold E. Collins at St. Cecilia's. -

Also sensing the advancing age of some of his parishioners—the "50-plus crowd" he once called them—he made the simple change of adding a couple of sturdy concrete benches to the entrance to the church, so that those senior members of the community could have a seat while waiting to picked up by younger family members after Sunday Mass—something that Grandma Dunnigan thoroughly enjoyed before the new Church was built in 1956 when Dad would pick her up after the 12:15 Mass for the ride back uphill to her house on 21st Avenue between Quintara and Rivera.

One small idea that Monsignor implemented upon becoming Pastor was highly indicative of his future successes. For years, it had been the practice at St. Cecilia's and elsewhere to allow worshippers to make change for paper currency and 50-cent pieces by distributing a plate full of quarters, dimes, and nickels prior to the collection basket. Monsignor decided to help increase the collection by insisting from the pulpit that he wanted a "silent" collection—that is currency only, with no coins—or that he was looking forward to a "green" Christmas. His gentle reminders spurred everyone to be more generous as the Depression and the austere war years began to fade from memory.

Parishioners expressed immediate satisfaction for the changes that they saw, and Monsignor himself was proud that the various construction projects had been accomplished at the least possible cost. He knew that he was about to embark on an expansion—in fact, a doubling of size—of the modest eight-classroom school building, in order to cope with the baby boom that he knew was already underway. Almost overnight, he achieved this goal, and by February of 1948, a mere fourteen months after his arrival, the Archbishop was presiding over the dedication of an expanded school building that included eight additional classrooms (allowing for two classes at each grade level, and accommodating 50+ students apiece during the boom years of the 1950s and 1960s), plus space for both morning and afternoon Kindergarten classes. That project also included a renovated cafeteria, plus a large auditorium at the basement level, both of which continue to sustain heavy use more than sixty years later. The students were his "little pigeons," and it was clear that Monsignor's primary focus was the support and development of the children of his parish.

By the early 1950s, the post-War growth of the parish was well underway. Monsignor's next project was his most ambitious ever, and it was one that had eluded both of his predecessors: that of constructing a permanent church building that would be large enough to serve the community adequately into the future, thus relieving the overcrowded conditions that still existed every Sunday morning in both the upper and lower portions of the existing church. That old "temporary" church, just north of the present rectory, and facing 17th Avenue, had been serving the parish for decades, first as a parish hall on Taraval Street in the World War I era, and then moved to its new site and renovated into a church in the late 1920s and expanded in 1947.

Frieze over entrance of St. Cecilia's Catholic Church -

When it came time to raise money for the construction of the present Church, circa 1952-53, Monsignor demonstrated his phenomenal fund-raising skills by asking everyone in the parish to pledge a certain amount, payable over a few years. Then, understanding human nature and peer pressure only too well, Monsignor had a group of parish ladies type up 3x5 file cards with each household's name, address, AND DOLLAR AMOUNT PLEDGED, and then posted these cards on bulletin boards in the vestibule of the church. There was practically a mob scene, as parishioners gathered around to see what the neighbors were giving. "Any of you who might like to increase your pledge, just call me—my door is always open to you," he said innocently. His phone rang off the hook as people called in to increase their donations to far more generous amounts. When ground was broken in May of 1954, there was Monsignor, complete with his usual black cassock and magenta sash, wearing a hard hat and taking the controls in the cab of the first steam shovel to appear at the site—a bit of showmanship that he had borrowed from one of his idols, the late San Francisco Mayor Sunny Jim Rolph.

Again, Monsignor's architectural knowledge led to the design of a magnificent structure that was more than double the capacity of old church, while still respecting the style and character of the neighborhood. Based on the hilly terrain, he also designed a new "lower church" as well, that could be used for overflow attendance on Sundays and holy days. With a wall-to-wall drapery drawn across the sanctuary, it could also serve the parish as additional auditorium space. Again, with a nod to his "senior" constituents, the new church was designed with an ambulatory entrance on 17th Avenue. "The only church building in San Francisco which can be entered without climbing a single step," he proudly announced. Another small point that was appreciated by many was the installation of electronic hearing aids in all the confessionals. As Monsignor insisted, only partly tongue-in-cheek, "No one wants to have the neighbors hear what they are confessing, since in most cases, the neighbors usually know all about it."

In addition to creating a space conducive to worship, Monsignor also insisted on a few creature comforts, including daylight and fresh air. Putting aside the gloomy interiors of most churches, he designed the requisite stained glass windows with religious scenes depicted in magnificently colored center ovals that were surrounded by lighter pastel-colored glass panels that allowed more daylight into the building. Further increasing the comfort of worshipers, he also insisted on multiple ground-level windows, depicting various saints, all of which could be opened easily to provide better air circulation.

Insisting that all parishioners hear the same sermon on Sundays, even with Mass being offered in two separate locations, the main level and the lower church, Monsignor designed the sound system in a way that the homily being delivered in the upper church was simultaneously broadcast in the lower church. Even though a different priest was saying Mass in each location, Monsignor firmly told them to coordinate the pace of the liturgy, and they did so, week after week, so that when the priest in the lower church pressed the speaker button, there was smooth transition as the sermon in the upper church was electronically piped into the lower church.

Entrance to Monsignor Harold E. Collins Center -

In the mid-1950s, just as the new steel frame was rising from the sand dunes, Monsignor managed to save the entire neighborhood from the devastation of the planned Western Freeway (essentially eight elevated lanes of concrete in a straight line from SFO to the Golden Gate Bridge) by leaning hard on politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike. Over drinks and dinner (including desserts supplied by his favorite spot, the late, great Blum's), he made all of them see the wisdom of his point of view. His persuasion always managed to include a gentle reminder of how St. Cecilia's thousands of parishioners and the power of the pulpit might somehow affect reelection prospects for all of them. (See the Streetwise column of January, 2009, Dad & Bill's Night Out, for more details on what the politicians had once planned for the neighborhood.) Thanks to the influence of Monsignor Collins, the Western Freeway was deader than the proverbial doornail, and the new church was formally dedicated in May of 1956, as the school's population neared its ultimate capacity of 800 students.

When the Archdiocese was raising funds to build a new St. Mary's Cathedral after the 1962 fire, Monsignor again used the same technique involving 3x5 file cards posted with each family's pledge amount, and then proudly announced that the generous parishioners of St. Cecilia's—"the finest, the greatest, and the best"—had contributed more to the Cathedral building fund than any other parish in San Francisco.

The final debt on the new St. Cecilia's Church was paid off in January of 1965, incredibly, only nine years after its opening. Monsignor hosted a parish-wide banquet at the then-new Hilton Hotel and set a scroll "mortgage" on fire with a flaming sword, in a dramatic bit of showmanship that remains unrivaled in the history of fund-raising by any house of worship in San Francisco.

For more than thirty years, until his 1976 retirement, Monsignor distributed report cards to every grammar school student once every six weeks (and with fifty students per classroom—800 total—that was nearly 5,000 report cards per year). Most of the comments were standard: "beautiful," "very nice," "good," or "fine improvement." Anything less than a "B" in Religion or in any of the "below the line" categories—"Deportment," "Courtesy," or "Application"—was met with a cold stare. "What's this?" or "What happened here?" He was equally ruthless with families whose public school children failed to attend the weekly religious instruction classes in which they were enrolled. "We haven't been seeing your sister at CCD class lately—has she been sick?" Monsignor might ask a startled seventh grader. He knew the motto "It takes a village…" long before anyone else did.

Likewise, he came down hard on engaged couples who did not attend Mass regularly: "Do I know you? Let me see you at Mass every Sunday for a few months, and then we can sit down and talk about your wedding. I'm not running a social hall here, you know." Yet at the same time, he knew his audience well enough to announce sports scores from the pulpit as the 12:15 Mass was coming to an end just after 1 p.m., so that the congregation would not bolt for the doors before the final hymn: "Giants 2, Dodgers 1, bottom of the second…"

He also exerted a subtle influence on neighborhood morals in much the same way. When Reis Brothers' Pharmacy at 18th & Taraval began stocking Playboy magazine in the early 1960s, Monsignor urged his parishioners from the pulpit to "be sure and tell my good friends Monte & Morris Reis what you think of their new selection of magazines." By Monday morning, the Reis Brothers had received hundreds of phone calls, and the offending periodicals were gone from the shelves before the students from St. Cecilia's were on their way home from school that afternoon.

Monsignor's hey-day was the early 1960s, and the parish's nick-name of "Harold's Club," after the South Lake Tahoe party spot, was fitting. John F. Kennedy was in place as the first Irish-Catholic President of the United States; Pat Brown was the Irish-Catholic Governor of California (and a St. Cecilia's parishioner as well); and by November of 1963, Jack Shelley had just become the Irish-Catholic Mayor-elect of San Francisco. (Other politicos in the parish included State Senator Gene McAteer, along with members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Leo McCarthy and George Moscone.) When Pat & Bernice Brown came down to Sunday Mass at St. Cecilia's from their home in Forest Hill, they would try to slip in and out of church unobtrusively, but Monsignor always spotted them in the crowd (some said he was constantly "counting the house" in order to estimate the day's income from the collection plate) and he never missed the opportunity to announce from the pulpit, "Mr. Maestro, may we please have a little something for the Governor and the First Lady?" The organist and the choir would dutifully launch into a rousing version of I LOVE YOU, CALIFORNIA, with the entire congregation joining in. Years later, in 1996, the Brown family returned to St. Cecilia's for Pat's funeral—the largest single gathering of past, present, and future politicians ever seen in the western neighborhoods.

As the 1960s progressed and the political landscape changed due to elections, assassinations, and general unrest, new faces found their way into office, but in 1967, Monsignor was on the bandwagon once again, this time to elect Gene McAteer as Mayor. Yet the hand of fate was to intervene when a sudden heart attack on the Olympic Club's handball court ended the debonair candidate's life at age 51, without warning, just prior to Memorial Day, thus resulting in an enormous funeral instead of a victory celebration. Today, a public high school for the arts stands as a memorial to Gene McAteer, while the tennis courts at nearby Sigmund Stern Grove were named for his wonderful wife Frances, who was the longest-serving member of the City's Recreation & Park Commission.

Interior of old St. Cecilia's Catholic Church, n.d. -

Monsignor was open and forthright with his parishioners, offering a "State of the Parish" sermon every January. He could recall expenses better than any trained accountant. He knew exactly how much money had come in from the collection plate, school tuitions, and bequests from deceased members of the parish. He knew precisely what had been paid out in staff salaries, water, PG&E, telephone, groceries, janitorial service, and garbage collection. He spoke of how many baptisms, confirmations, weddings, and funerals had taken place over the past year, along with how many families were registered in the parish, and what the total head count was for all of these households combined. He often closed with the gentle reminder, "Unless you've invented something that I don't know about, you can't take it with you," encouraging his audience to "Leave your money with me—I'll take better care of it than your children and grandchildren will." As a result, more than a few people have remembered St. Cecilia's very generously in their estate plans over the years. To this day, thirty full years after Monsignor's passing, the parish school continues to receive generous surprise bequests from the estates of elderly parishioners who remembered Monsignor's words, and provided for posthumous donations via their written estate plans.

The parish festival, the school's primary fund-raiser, coincided with Halloween each year, and Monsignor saw it as another chance to remind everyone that it was all about the children. For decades, he ran two festivals: a "Children's Festival" on Halloween Day, and the regular festival on the weekend. It was easy enough to keep the same booths, while switching the prizes from goldfish in plastic bags and cupcakes to quarts of bourbon and chances to win a new car. From his deep pockets filled with dimes (and also his beloved jelly beans), Monsignor would toss out coins to the crowds of schoolchildren, knowing that they would certainly return with additional revenue from their parents and grandparents. Monsignor wisely decided one year that the top prize in the raffle should not be a new car, but rather, cash. When questioned about the choice, he smilingly told his advisers that it was cheaper in the long run. "I might pay $2,000 for a car at dealer's cost, but when I hand out $2,000 in cash to someone, I know that I'm going get up to half of it back as a donation to the school!" And right he was. He often played the role of Jack Benny, reluctantly handing over the winnings in $100 bills, counting them out ever-so-slowly to some lucky winner, right there on the stage of the school's auditorium. That person often felt just enough peer pressure from the audience to turn around on the spot and give a sizable chunk of the winnings right back to St. Cecilia's School.

Monsignor loved wheeling and dealing in the world of finance, and tooling around the neighborhood in a series of late-model Irish-green Oldsmobile 98s supplied by the long-gone C.M. Murphy dealership on 19th Avenue (and always outfitted with an AH-OOGA horn, a slide whistle, or a loud bell, controlled by a floor button). Yet in spite of this, he kept those clear blue eyes focused on the people of his parish. Any family that suffered an unexpected job loss or death of the bread-winner was quietly assured not to worry about the school tuition for their children—a whopping $6 a month back then—because "it has been taken care of." Likewise, Monsignor was not shy about notifying those in charge of various Catholic high schools if there was a difficult situation impacting any family in his parish, and that some financial consideration on the part of the Jesuits or the Christian Brothers or the Sisters of Mercy would be most appreciated.

Understanding the financial diversity of the parish—the wealthy enclaves of Forest Hill and St. Francis Wood were represented, along with the teeming family-filled Sunset District, plus lots of elderly apartment-dwelling pensioners on fixed incomes—Monsignor was careful to mold his messages to fit all circumstances and all "customers." With politicians and corporate executives, he sounded fiscally conservative and almost Republican. With the rank-and-file, he expressed strong support for the working masses, sounding fiercely Democratic. With the elderly, he made it clear that he, too, was one of them, "born in the Mission District before the Fire." The rectory pointedly subscribed to both of San Francisco's two morning newspapers of the era: The Examiner (then Democratic-leaning) as well as The Chronicle (then Republican-leaning). When the parish held its memorable 1965 banquet, Monsignor shied away from the Republicanism of the St. Francis Hotel as well as the Democratic leanings of philanthropist Ben Swig's Fairmont, for the "neutral" territory of the then-new San Francisco Hilton. His comments from the pulpit over Labor Day weekend were always politically perfect statements. "We recognize and celebrate the contribution of all those who work for a living, be they labor or be they management".

At a time of uneasy racial transformation in the western neighborhoods, it was Monsignor Collins who set the tone by welcoming Terry Francois and his family when they became the first African-Americans to purchase a home on nearby Taraval Street. Likewise, when Willie Mays and his wife experienced difficulty in purchasing a home in the area, Monsignor decided to throw a "Sports Night" at St. Cecilia's for him and for other famous athletes, so that everyone could meet the Giants' slugger personally.

Further sensing the winds of social change, Monsignor also hired the first Asian-American teacher for St. Cecilia's School in the early 1960s. There was also the inclusion of Spanish, French, and "new math" in the school's curriculum at that time, which was unheard of in most other parishes, which were still separating the elementary school classes by gender, a practice that Monsignor did not support. He took some parental heat for these new educational components, but he understood where secondary education was heading, and he wanted all of us to be ready. Not surprisingly, though, he was also still a part of his generation and upbringing, and throughout his years as Pastor, female teachers at St. Cecilia's were absolutely required to wear skirts or dresses, and the few male teachers hired beginning in the late 1960s were told that they must always be attired in a coat and tie.

Old St. Cecilia's Catholic Church, 1940s or 1950s, circa 1950 -

Every Sunday morning, he was front and center at the 9:00 a.m. Mass, the "Children's Mass." With the student body seated by grade level, Monsignor focused on the first graders seated at the front, explaining to them exactly what was taking place during each part of the service. His daily involvement in the education of the school's children was an import part of his overall being. However, the question of whether he might occasionally have stepped on the toes of a nun whose grading policies were a bit too honest is a topic that may best be left unexplored.

For all his enthusiastic support of the children, however, many parents wondered why he was so adamantly opposed to constructing a gymnasium for school athletics on the property—an oft-repeated question in the 1960s. Fund-raising would have been no problem, for Monsignor knew that drill perfectly. He acquiesced to the on-going parental requests, but only with assurances that there were adequate basketball hoops and volleyball equipment in the school yard, plus upgraded night lighting, so that the children could play safely after dark. Pressed by his confidants to reconsider the idea of constructing a full-sized gymnasium on the property, he replied simply that he refused to take Sunday morning parking spaces away from "the paying customers" because that would negatively impact the financial base upon which the school depended.

By the 1970s, Monsignor was forced to acknowledge the serious decline in the number of women entering religious life. He further noted that many of the lay people being hired as teachers were unmarried career professionals, and thus did not have a spouse's union or government health plan and pension to fall back on. He was forced to abandon the standard paternalistic stance of the era: "They are doing the same work as the nuns, so why should I pay them more?" He struggled with the necessity of tuition increases because of the rising costs of salary, health, and retirement benefits for the ever-growing number of lay teachers who were quickly beginning to outnumber the nuns. These increases, he feared, might place the cost of a Catholic school education beyond the means of many families. Although he was just beginning to grapple with this problem during his final years as Pastor, there was no easy fix.

When he finally retired in 1976, Monsignor remained in residence on 17th Avenue as "Pastor Emeritus," still involved in tending to his flock. Ill health slowly began to take its toll, and his busy schedule was eventually reduced to an occasional Sunday night dinner out with family and close friends. In early 1980, he reluctantly gave up his room overlooking the schoolyard, and spent his last few months living under the supervised care offered at Nazareth House in San Rafael.

At his pre-Christmas funeral in December, 1980, the mood was joyous and grateful, a service of thanksgiving rather than one of grief. As Monsignor left his beloved church for the last time, more than one mourner wiped a tear away, and gazed after him saying, "We'll not see his like again…" The hearse began its slow ride down Vicente Street and turned onto 19th Avenue, with a police escort all the way to Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, as the organist and the choir continued to play the recessional "hymn" that was Monsignor's favorite, The Beer Barrel Polka:

Monsignor Collins directs a steam shovel for the groundbreaking of the new St. Cecilia's Church, May 31, 1954. -

There's a garden, what a garden,
Only happy faces bloom there,
And there's never any room there,
For a worry, or a gloom there.

Oh, there's music, and there's dancing,
And a lot of sweet romancing,
When they play the polka,
They all get in the swing.

Every time they hear that oom-pa-pa,
Everybody feels so tra-la-la,
They want to throw their cares away,
They all go lah-de-ah-de-ay.

Then they hear a rumble on the floor, the floor,
It's the big surprise they're waiting for,
And all the couples form a ring,
For miles around you'll hear them sing…

Roll out the barrel,
We'll have a barrel of fun.
Roll out the barrel,
We've got the blues on the run.

Zing, boom, ta-ra-rel,
Ring out a song of good cheer,
Now's the time to roll the barrel,
For the gang's all here.

Upon Monsignor Collins' death, the parish established a most appropriate legacy, The Monsignor Collins School Fund, an endowed trust fund, in the same manner as large Eastern universities, that generates investment income to support the school's operations.

From 1980 until the end of the millennium, the Fund grew to more than $1 million, and to more than $2 million today, with only the interest income being used to offset today's ever-spiraling annual tuition costs of more than $5,000 per student. ("Never touch principal" is the ages-old advice of experienced financial counselors.) Thousands of children from homes throughout the Bay Area have passed through the halls of St. Cecilia School over the past thirty years, all of them benefitting from the work of Monsignor Collins, and the generosity of countless previous donors to his Fund.

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