And now a little history to whet your appetite. That part of San Francisco over which Star of the Sea presides was not incorporated into the City until 1866. It was known as the “Outside Lands,” a lonely area of drifting sand dunes and sagebrush. Only one street marked this blank area on county maps: a dirt track called Point Lobos Toll Road (now Geary Boulevard) pierced the billows of salty fog all the way to Ocean Beach. Locals called it “Pneumonia Gulch” because of the frigid fogbound summers. Also known as “Beyond the Graves,” this area lay west of the great cemeteries known as the Silent City (these graves were exhumed to Colma, south of the City, in the 1920s, and today the University of San Francisco sits atop the former sepulchres).
By 1870 sports fans had built the Bay District Track for horseracing and a few enterprising Irishmen established horse ranches, farms, and public houses among the rolling dunes. At one point there were more horses than people, and then more cows than horses or people, but finally the Irishmen got to work having large families. These families needed a Catholic Church. They had been making the trip to Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral east of Nob Hill, but in 1886 forty-one Catholic families felt “strong” enough to maintain a church of their own. The first Mass was celebrated at Farrell’s Dance Hall at Ninth and Geary on Easter Sunday 1887. Within a year the Irishmen had built their own 500-seat framework building at a cost of $10,000. Father John P. Coyle, the first native San Franciscan to be ordained a Catholic priest, became the first pastor of Star of the Sea Parish in 1894.
A photograph taken from Golden Gate Park shows some houses near Star of the Sea and then an almost unbroken undulation of sand dunes stretching to the Pacific Ocean. Father Coyle worked hard to build up the new parish and pastored the community through the 1906 earthquake, which led to a westward expansion of the city and rapid growth of the church.
Fr. Coyle survived the earthquake by only two years, and in 1908 Archbishop Riordan realized he needed a man of vision and energy for the growing community. A gifted young priest from Country Tipperary, Father Philip O’Ryan, became the second pastor. He set about bringing a measure of discipline and gentility to the men and women of the “Outside Lands.” They described their pastor as a man of tireless effort, a marvelous teacher who was a gentle, loving guide to children and adults alike. In the first year of his pastorate he built a school with the Sisters of St. Joseph, opening Star of the Sea Grammar School in 1909 with 137 parish children. It was he who built the first stone structure in 1914, the dedication of which is portrayed in the photograph above.
Star of the Sea Parish has since seen eight more pastors, all of whom have had to respond to the ebbs and flows of demographic shifts and changing attitudes toward organized religion. In recent years the church has grown as it has offered more traditionally Catholic liturgies and devotions, and God only knows how the parish will develop in the years to come. I welcome you to our Anniversary Gala on November 9th. Come to the Mass at 4:30pm, even if you don't come to the banquet, and thank God for 125 years of Beauty and Catholic Worship in San Francisco's Richmond District.