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Church History

Brief History of the Churches

Our magnificent St. Ignatius Church is the legacy of a dynamic and continuous Jesuit presence in San Francisco from the City’s earliest days. The first St. Ignatius Church was a simple, wooden structure on Market Street between 4th and 5th Streets. It was dedicated in July 1855, only six years after the first Jesuit Fathers arrived in San Francisco from Italy.

The first church grew to accommodate the needs of the growing city. A three story, brick school building was built adjacent to it in 1862, into which the St Ignatius Church worshipping community moved its services.

The first grand St. Ignatius Church was built at Hayes Street and Van Ness Avenue. It was dedicated in 1880 and stood on the site now occupied by Davies Symphony Hall. After its destruction by fire following the 1906 earthquake, the Jesuits moved to the western edge of the City near Golden Gate Park where a small, stucco building served as their church.

Engineer John E. Pope convinced the Jesuits to acquire the piece of land atop the hill at the corner of Parker Avenue and Fulton Street. He envisioned this as a perfect site to construct a building “with towering outlines visible from all parts of the City,” and “stately towers piercing the air above the breakers.”

Taking Pope’s vision of a landmark church to heart, architect Charles J. I. Devlin began drawing plans for the church in 1909. Built between 1910 and 1914, and dedicated on August 2, 1914, the fifth St. Ignatius Church is, indeed, a San Francisco landmark.

Exterior

Often referred to as “Jesuit Baroque,” the architectural style of St. Ignatius Church is eclectic, drawing inspiration from the Italian and Spanish Baroque, the works of Sir Christopher Wren and Greek and Roman classical principles.

One of the most noticeable features of the exterior is the rhythmic use of massive columns and pilasters of the Ionic and Corinthian Orders. The Ionic is recognized by the spiral scrolls or volutes on either side of the capitals, while the Corinthian bears a capital enriched by carved ranks of acanthus leaves. The exterior walls are clad with about a quarter of a million warm buff exterior face bricks with terra cotta used for decorative detail. Sculptural ornamentation, typical of the classical style, adorns the exterior, including the statue of St. Ignatius on the upper story above the Fulton Street entrance portico.

The Fulton Street towers rise over 200 feet above the street in four stages. Changing from square to octagonal as they rise, the towers are ornamented by urns and angelic figures.

The Italian-style campanile at the northeast corner houses a three-ton bell cast in Sheffield, England in 1859. The steel bell was originally cast for the Volunteer Fire Company of San Francisco who had insufficient funds to purchase it. It was subsequently acquired by the Jesuits for $1300.

The dome, which adds to the church’s dramatic silhouette, rises at the north end of the roof but is not visible internally. It seems to have been included in the architect’s design solely for its external aspect. In 1994 it was restored and its original sheet metal covering was replaced with lead-coated copper.

The east wall of the church facing the courtyard is relatively blank, as it was here that a connecting Jesuit residence building was to have been built.

The construction of the church includes a steel frame supporting the masonry exterior walls and towers with timber framing for floors and roof. The richness of the effect architect Charles Devlin achieved in the completed building is due to the skill with which the brick walls are detailed and the cast ornament, rather than to the use of expensive materials or finishes.

Interior

The SanctuaryEntering the church from Fulton Street, on each side, freestanding Corinthian columns support nine arches carrying a deep ornamental entablature. Above this, the clerestory wall rises to the ceiling and is divided into a corresponding nine bays by Corinthian pilasters framing arched windows. The deeply coffered ceiling offers a rhythmic counterpoint to the divisions of the bays below. The profusion of columns and arches produces striking and ever-changing perspectives as one moves through the space. Beyond the side aisles are individual chapels, each with a domed ceiling and central skylight.

The Nave & Sanctuary

The general layout of the nave is based on the ancient Roman basilica, or law court building. The focus of the nave is the sanctuary, which here takes the form of a semicircular, semi-domed space, or apse, often seen in the Roman basilica This space is separated from the nave by the chancel arch springing from grouped free-standing columns. The elaborately coffered half-dome ceiling contains a central stained glass panel representing the Holy Spirit descending toward the assembly below, and on either side wall is an elaborately framed plaster relief representing the Madonna and Child. The centerpiece of the sanctuary, the polychromed white oak baldacchino or canopy over the former High Altar, was added in 1949, as was the altar itself, along with the marble floor and communion rail.

Classical Ornamentation

In addition to its spatial complexity, an abundance of classical ornament lends further visual interest to the interior. These ornaments are derived from three sources: nature, in the form of leaves and flowers; elements of construction, as in the blocks and brackets supporting the cornices; and the human figure, whose proportions are implied throughout the design, and which is occasionally made explicitly visible in the form of statuary. The various motifs have a rich decorative quality, but they also serve as a link to the world of antiquity, the world within which the Christian experience and the Catholic Church were born.

Art & Iconography

To either side of the sanctuary, at the ends of the side aisles, are the Mary and Joseph chapels, each with a graceful carved reredos bearing a Carrara marble statue of the saint carved in Italy.

The framed oil paintings above the entrances to the side chapels depict the Stations of the Cross and are the work of Pietro Ridolfi of Rome. Other paintings in the chapels that were completed according to the original decorative scheme (the first three on either side) show scenes from Jesuit history. The side chapels demonstrate techniques of decorative painting used on plaster to resemble stone or wood, a practice often found in the buildings of this period. These chapels also illustrate the importance of the painted and carved human figure in humanizing and bringing a sense of intimacy to even very large buildings. At the same time, they reflect Jesuit spirituality, which places great emphasis on the use of concrete imagery in spiritual reflection.

The finishing of the interior of the church has been a continuing process. When construction stopped in 1914, the interior plaster walls of the church were unpainted and, except for the three side chapels just mentioned, remained so until the present color scheme was applied in 1962.

The altars of the side chapels appeared in the years up to 1936 as funds became available, and the stained glass windows were installed intermittently from 1938 through 1962.

In 1996, the Reconciliation Chapel was completed. Located at the southwest corner of the church, it is between the statue of St. Anthony of Padua and the recently installed Greek icons.

Side Altars

The side altars of St. Ignatius Church are dedicated to the following Jesuit saints and martyrs.

West Side East Side
St. Aloysius Gonzaga St. Alphonsus Rodriques
Sacred Heart &
St. Claude Columbiere
St. Francis Xavier
St. Robert Bellarmine St. Peter Canisius

 

Stained Glass Windows

The majestic stained glass windows of St. Ignatius Church have not always been a feature of this building. Originally, all the windows of the church were of amber colored glass. The original amber glass windows can still be seen at the back of the sacristy.

The change to stained glass windows was a long process involving many people and spanning the terms of several rectors of the Jesuit Community.

A Stainglass Window in the ChurchThe 18 circular triforium windows were installed between 1938 and 1942. The first circular window to be installed was that of St. Ives, which can be seen above the east doors of the church. (Three of these windows are shown below. You may need to scroll horizontally to see all of them.)

The 18 clerestory windows, which measure nearly eighteen feet high came next. The first window, of Christ the King, (west side and nearest the altar) was installed in 1945. It took 27 years for the remaining 17 clerestory windows to be transformed to stained glass. The last, St. Mary Magdelene (1962, shown above), is the clerestory window farthest from the altar on the left.

The five balcony windows were installed in 1953. All of the church’s stained glass windows were the work of the Cummings Studios of San Francisco. Today the estimated cost to create and install just one of the clerestory windows would be $25,000. Each of the circular triforium windows would cost about $5,700.

three triforium windows

Music

Music is alive and well at St. Ignatius Church today! Our musical tradition complements our religious practices, ceremonies, and rituals. Our music supports our prayers and offerings with hymns, psalms and acclamations. In keeping with the Vatican proclamation that church music reflect a “full, conscious and active participation in the liturgy,” we attempt to include a variety of musical styles. Today, the liturgical music and concerts at St. Ignatius Church include traditional and contemporary styles.

The Roman Catholic Church has a long history of music associated with prayer. Organs, in particular, have an association dating before the Middle Ages as part of Western liturgy. The organ has been endemic to our liturgy since about AD 900 and its use has been varied from place to place within each era and changing with each successive generation.

St. Ignatius Church had a different organ at each of its previous sites. Today, our Kimball pipe organ is an electronically retrofitted instrument obtained from the College of the Pacific in San Jose. It was installed in the church in 1926.