St. Brigid survived the 1906 earthquake – can’t we save it now?

St. Brigid's Church, at the left, looking down Van Ness, 1936

St. Brigid’s Church, at the left, looking down Van Ness, 1936

By Joe Dignan

In Memoriam, 6/19/1957 – 6/29/2006 ~ St. Brigid’s Committee

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA: The face of San Francisco is changing. Landmarks are falling to development and parts of the city’s history – irreplaceable parts – are vanishing before our eyes. But after 106 years as a spiritual refuge in our community, St. Brigid Church deserves better than to be carved up into another condominium project.

That could easily happen.

For a year and a half St. Brigid’s committee has been working to get both the interior and exterior of the church declared an official city landmark to help protect it from demolition.

The outside walls of St. Brigid are beautiful and historic. They’re made of recycled San Francisco granite curbstones collected by St. Brigid’s thrifty first pastor. But it is the inside which contains a century’s worth of statuary, stained glass and artwork. The inside of St. Brigid is where San Franciscans took refuge after the 1906 earthquake. San Francisco’s Irish community came of age inside St. Brigid. And it is inside St. Brigid that the important milestones of 100 years of San Franciscans were mourned and celebrated.

So city planners carefully drafted a proposed landmark ordinance for both the inside and outside of St. Brigid. It was unanimously approved by the Landmarks Board a year ago. The Planning Commission said yes, also unanimously, in October.

The Altar at St. Brigid's
The Altar at St. Brigid

But as of this moment, nothing protects St. Brigid from demolition.

Why? You may remember that as former-Archbishop William Levada was leaving for Rome, he closed a deal to sell St. Brigid to Elisa Stephens of the Academy of Art University.

At the time, Stephens said her interest in the church was historic preservation, that she wished to use the church only as an auditorium and would leave the inside as it is and has been for 100 years.

So far, so good, right?

Maybe not. The reason this is taking so long is that now Stephens is opposing the landmark ordinance which would preserve St. Brigid. She has a strong motivation: Stephens paid the cash-strapped Archdiocese only $3.7 million for the church, which was looking for a quick source of cash to pay off child-abuse lawsuits. But a year ago last January the Archdiocese had an offer of $8 million for the lot under St. Brigid – if only they could get permission to demolish the church.

Stained Glass from Harry Clarke Studios

Stained Glass from Harry Clarke Studios

Stephens has been very effective; and our district supervisor, Michela Alioto-Pier, has deleted everything but the exterior four walls of the building from the ordinance. Alioto-Pier now wants to move forward with protecting only the facade. So we’re seeing visions of St. Brigid carved up into condominiums.

To be fair, Stephens has done nothing that we know of to destroy the church. In fact we understand she has painted and done some other cosmetic improvements.

But for the long term, we’re not going to be fooled by a proposal that would protect only the four walls, when the treasures inside could be gutted out at any time. We hope you won’t either.

Supervisor Alioto-Pier told the Times that the supervisors could landmark the interior of the building with the snap of a finger.

It’s time to snap.

For information about who to contact, please go to

Harry Clarke’s Stained Glass Windows at St. Brigid’s

For information about the Harry Clarke Studios, creators of the stained glass windows at St. Brigid’s, please see, Neil Ralley’s blog on Squidoo.

I had actually known about St. Brigid’s plight, but seeing Neil’s blog spurred me into action.

From his blog on Squidoo, Neil Ralley writes: “This is what Art Historian Shelley Esaak wrote about me on “Not all preservation movements have public funding or corporate underwriting. Neil Ralley is one person who is single-handedly bringing awareness to an often-neglected art form: stained glass. He travels, at his own expense and on his own time, to photograph windows that have historic and artistic value – and then makes these beautiful images available for all to see at his website.” You can read the whole of Shelley’s article here at

2 thoughts on “St. Brigid survived the 1906 earthquake – can’t we save it now?

  1. I work for AAU and see St. Brigid almost every day. AAU repaired everything damaged by the 1989 quake. A new ceiling was constructed. AAU uses the Church for art classes. The only thing that was taken out was done by the Archdiocese, and that was the relic in the main altar, which required that its surface be cracked open. I am a Catholic and was very sad to see us lose St. Brigid. The child-abuse and other charges have become repetitive, because the same leadership, clergy, and school employees are still in place collecting their salaries and pensions.

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