A Short History of Saint Francis of Assisi Church

Pro-Cathedral of the Archdiocese of San Francisco
Established June, 1849


When gold was discovered in California in 1849, a fortune-hungry horde poured into Yerba Buena, which recently had been renamed San Francisco. Practically overnight, the bayside settlement with a scant 450 inhabitants burgeoned to thousands. Many of the newcomers were Catholics, yet there was no church for them other than the Franciscan mission, three and a half miles from the docks.

Although Blessed Junípero Serra and his Franciscan brothers established the mission church of San Francisco de Asís, commonly known as Mission Dolores, in order to evangelize the Native Californian population, by the time of the California Gold Rush, it served primarily the local residents of Mexican and Iberian origin. Though mass was celebrated in Latin, the universal language of Roman Catholic liturgy, pastoral ministry and preaching were only in Spanish. Nor were services held on a regular schedule.

U.S. Military spokesmen from the Army and the Navy appealed to the bishops in Hawaii and Oregon, and to the Archbishop of Baltimore. The bishop of Portland in Oregon sent two priests from the Pacific Northwest, and U.S. troops stationed at the Presidio built a small shanty to serve as a church.

While the City of San Francisco did not formally incorporate until 18 April 1850 and California did not become the thirty-first state of the Union until 9 September 1850, the twelfth of June 1849 witnessed the formal establishment of Saint Francis Parish. Five days later, on June 17th, Catholics gathered for the first parochial mass celebrated in California. As an official juridical entity, therefore, Saint Francis of Assisi Church antedates both the City of San Francisco and the State of California.

Within a short time, an adobe church replaced the wooden shack that U.S. Army personnel had built. The newly appointed Bishop of Monterey, Dominican friar Joseph Alemany, consecrated the new structure for Saint Francis Parish in 1851.

Bishop Alemany used the church as his cathedral for three years.

Saint Francis of Assisi Church, Vallejo Street, 1851 In 1852, Bishop Alemany ordained Fr. John Quinn to the priesthood in the church of Saint Francis: the first presbyteral ordination in California.

With pastoral ministry and preaching being conducted in English, Spanish, French, and Italian, it soon became clear that the small church could not accommodate its rapidly growing congregation.

Parish leaders laid the cornerstone of a new church on October 2, 1859. In order to avoid interrupting the continuity of liturgical services, workers built the new church right over the old structure. Saint Francis of Assisi Church, looking down muddy Vallejo Street to the west.

The present Norman Gothic church, with its elegant twin campanile, was dedicated on 17 March 1860.

On 18 April 1906 at 5:13 AM, the earth trembled violently; the water mains of San Francisco crumbled. Shortly after the earthquake, devastating fires broke out all over the city consuming even the interior of Saint Francis Church. The mighty brick walls of the Church, however, together with its badly scorched towers, remained entirely intact.

After much consideration and careful study the diocese decided to rebuild a new church within the original walls. Engineers drew up the plans to support the floor and roof with steel girders. On 2 March 1919, the Catholic community of San Francisco rededicated the newly restored church.




Located in the heart of San Francisco's historic North Beach district, Saint Francis of Assisi Church today continues to build upon its historical mission. No longer a parish, the church has become the NATIONAL SHRINE OF SAINT FRANCIS OF ASSISI and as such bears witness to Christ within the beautiful city named for the poor troubador of God.

The contemporary ministry of the National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi invites pilgrims, visitors, and all people of faith to encounter God's love in its sanctuary of quiet and prayer. Moreover, the Shrine offers a rich experience of the sacramental life of the Church for the Catholic faithful who come seeking spirituality, faith, and grace.

The Shrine Church, a place of sanctity, beauty, and quiet, rejoices in its beautiful architecture, colorful murals and stained-glass windows, and holy relics of the Franciscan saints Francis and Clare of Assisi and Anthony of Padua.

The church itself is open from 10:00 AM through 5:00 PM every day, during which time the Capuchin Franciscan rector is present to welcome pilgrims and visitors.

Along the aisles the prayerful pilgrim will find individual saints and images: St. Francis of Assisi, St. Anthony of Padua, San Damiano Cross, Christ the King, The Pieta, St. Rita, Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Anne, St. Joseph, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Our Lady of the Angels, and St. Clare.

At the front of the church, and surrounding the altar of repose, exquisite murals executed by the Italian fin-de-siècle painter and illustrator Luigi Brusatori vividly portray the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. Throughout the length of the church radiant stained-glass windows depict Gospel events.

The church also rejoices in its acclaimed pipe organ, installed in 1926 by the Schoenstein Organ Company of San Francisco. This magnificent instrument was recently enlarged in 1993 and is a regular voice in all of the National Shrine's liturgical celebrations.

On 1 October 1972, the California Historical Society dedicated the church as an historical landmark.

Throughout its history as a parish, nineteen priests served as pastors of Saint Francis of Assisi Church.

Through the Archbishop of San Francisco's continued interest and intervention, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops granted to this church the title of the NATIONAL SHRINE OF SAINT FRANCIS OF ASSISI in September of 1999.

The Conventual Franciscan Friars of Saint Joseph of Cupertino Province assumed the apostolic and sacramental ministry of the National Shrine until 2005. After several years under the care of Archdiocesan clergy, the care of the Shrine was entrusted to the Capuchin Franciscan Friars of the Provice of the Our Lady of Angels of the Porziuncola. Father Gregory Coiro, O.F.M.Cap., was appointed the first Capuchin rector by Archbishop George H. Niederauer on July 1, 2010.

Your prayers and generous support are invited so that the NATIONAL SHRINE OF SAINT FRANCIS OF ASSISI may prosper as a spiritual destination for the many visitors and faithful who come to pray for themselves, for others, for the city of San Francisco and for all our world.