San Francisco’s Cathedral Hill: A Brief Tour of an Historic Neighborhood

Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption

Cathedral Hill is a relatively small neighborhood of about eight square blocks and so named because it’s home to several large Christian churches from a number of different denominations. I worked in the heart of it for a number of years. The king of the hill is the modernist cathedral for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, St. Mary of the Assumption. Some people describe it as a big washing machine, as its unusual looking top resembles an old fashioned washer’s agitator. According to Wiki, the top is made up of “…eight segments of hyperbolic paraboloids”. It was built in 1971, just after the Second Vatican Council, which had relaxed Church building codes. The design of the cathedral itself, in my opinion, is stunning, especially the interior. I fell in love with it when I attended a performance of J.S. Bach’s Mass in B minor; the acoustics in sanctuary are excellent.The 9:00 AM Sunday mass is beautifully sung in Gregorian Chant.

Chancery of the Archdiocese of San Francisco

There’s a lot of San Francisco history within short walking distance; Archbishop Cordileone is very lucky to be here (actually, I think it’s San Francisco that’s very lucky to have him!). Kitty-corner from the cathedral is the Chancery of the archdiocese. When I worked across the street from it, the building was abandoned and in disrepair and attracted the homeless.

Peace Plaza

The Cathedral is a block from the entrance to SF’s Japantown, the nation’s oldest Japanese community. The annual Cherry Blossom Festival reportedly draws 200,000 people. Many years ago, I would bring my kids and even my dog — at that time it was a small event. Benkyodo is the oldest continuing business in Japantown; it opened in 1906. The’re famous for their “mochi”, prepared on site, a Japanese confection made out of pounded rice. bkyodo1There is also an old-fashioned diner inside as well. It is run by a friend, the original founder’s great-grandson, Bobby.

St. Francis Xavier

A few blocks further is the Japanese-styled St. Francis Xavier Church, built in 1939 specifically to serve Japanese Catholics. When The Japanese were sent to internment camps during WWII their priest, Fr. William Stoecke, insisted on going with them and remained in the camp in Topaz, Utah, serving them until they were released from detention in 1945. Even today the church still offers a mass celebrated in Japanese. Across the street from it is the national headquarters for BCA (Buddhist Churches of America).

Kokoro Assisted-Living Facility

A couple blocks away is this structure which is part of a large assisted living facility called Kokoro (“Heart”). This had been a synagogue, built in 1895 for Congregation Ohabei-Shalom (“Lovers of Peace”). In 1934 it became a Buddhist church. While the Japanese were interned, it was leased to an African-American church, Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church. Japantown had become home to many African Americans, who had flocked to San Francisco from the south to work in the shipyards during the war. The building was eventually abandoned and taken over by the city. Like the Chancery building, when I worked nearby it was in disrepair and attracted the homeless.

St. Dominic’s Church

There is a third Catholic church within walking distance, the Gothic-designed St. Dominic’s Church. They also have a solemn mass on Sundays, sung in Latin.

San Francisco is not very Catholic-friendly; but the rich legacy of Catholicism here is evident throughout the city. With Archbishop Cordileone, Cathedral Hill will be the scene of confrontations between the city’s secular culture and orthodox Catholicism. He needs our prayers and support.



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