I once tried to crack a joke with a church lady that if the Old St. Mary's Cathedral wanted to attract more potential Catholics, then maybe it could reference the classic 1945 Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman classic The Bells of St. Mary's. in its promotional materials. But as faith would have it, the woman would have nun of my puns.
Located on the corner of Grant and California streets, this was the first California building erected with the sole purpose of being a cathedral. Old St. Mary's served the Archdiocese of San Francisco from 1854 to 1891 before the new Saint Mary's Cathedral was built to better serve the growing number of Catholics in the City.
Old Saint Mary's cornerstone was placed on Sunday, July 17, 1853 by Archbishop Joseph S. Alemany and construction was completed just in time for midnight mass December 24, 1854. It is built of brick brought "around the Horn" in sailing ships, and much of its stonework was quarried and cut in China.
On December 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, and on Christmas midnight mass of that same year, Archbishop Alemany dedicated the building as the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception, thus gaining it notoriety as the first church in the world dedicated to mother of God under this controversial title, according to the history kiosk found inside the building.
Once erected, the Cathedral was one of San Francisco's most prominent buildings and used its stature to encourage locals to take the moral high ground. Under the clock face are etched the words: "Son, Observe the Time and Fly from Evil" (Ecclesiasticus 4:23). This Bible verse was aimed at the men who frequented the surrounding brothels in the area during the late 1800s.
In the morning of April 18, 1906, San Francisco began to tremble. Old St. Mary's survived the famous 1906 San Francisco earthquake, but not from the subsequent fires that broke out in the quake's wake. The building was gutted and the fires were so hot that they melted the church bells and marble altar. All that remained of San Francisco's first cathedral were its outer walls and its bell tower.
The building underwent renovations and was reopened in 1909. Ever since then, Old St. Mary's has been a religious center for the nearby communities in Chinatown, Nob Hill, and Union Square. During World War II, it became a social gathering spot for military serviceman who were stationed in San Francisco prior to being dispatched to the war zone. According to historical materials, 450,000 members of the military visited Old St. Mary's to get a slice of normalcy and peace.
To this day it continues to be a functioning parish and is currently undergoing seismic retrofitting. When visiting, we encourage you to admire the architecture and to have a cup of coffee in the park adjacent to the brick and mortar building. From there, you can enjoy gorgeous views of the FiDi skyline, watch tourists getting lost in Chinatown, hear the clang of the cable cars, and of course, listen to the bells of Old St. Mary's.