There are a lot of different opinions about the Catholic Church. Whatever one’s opinions about the Church may be, everyone would agree that the Church is impressive. Not the least of what impresses about the Church is that it is the custodian and creator of what is probably the most astounding and astonishing hoard of art and culture ever accumulated and created in the history of mankind. The Church has in the past maintained the ancient sense that the art and adornment of sacred buildings was a kind of sacrifice, and was done for the greater glory of God. Now that our churches have become auditoriums, it is a little difficult to remember that a Gothic Church was a kind of collective prayer.

Since the Church is perhaps the most “conservative” institution the world has seen since the priesthood of Ammon, it is difficult to fathom why the Church thinks it is entirely okay to tear down older church buildings of great architectural character, built with the sacrifice and contributions of the community. You would think the Church would understand what it is to consecrate a space, and would not view a church lot simply as real estate. Isn’t this irreverence some kind of sin?

It does not surprise that more church buildings are threatened with demolition in San Francisco. Willie Brown, in passing his state law exempting religious institutions from local landmark laws has insured that all churches in the future will be sensible suburban meeting halls hardly interesting enough to be bowling alleys.

What surprises is that it is the Catholic Church, the greatest patron of the arts since the pharaohs, that is tearing down Sacred Heart and St. Bridget’s, two of the finest churches in San Francisco. They really should know better.

Sacred Heart is a true landmark, a skilled and grand Italianate pile with a beautiful tower that defines the area around it, and can be seen from many points around the City. St. Bridget’s is all you could want in an essay in Celtic Church culture plunked right down on Van Ness Ave. Two buildings representative of two mighty branches of Catholic culture, the Irish and the Italian, right here in San Francisco. Both slated for the wrecking ball. It seems the Catholic Church is suddenly incapable of caring for its own history.

Options for saving these buildings are few: One option is to raise money and give it to the Church in the hope they will use it on the buildings (unlikely). Another option is pleading with the Church, which is what the congregation is doing now, with little success.

One possibility might be to argue for these churches on theological grounds. Catholic theology does integrate aesthetics and the purpose of art into life and religion. Art is not considered a product intended for commerce, but as means to come close to the sacred. Theology is not my field, and I am not even Catholic and ultimately it might be pointless, but it might be worth a try.

Another option might be the Environmental Impact review on a replacement project and State CEQA regulations which define substantial adverse change "as the physical demolition, destruction, relocation or alteration of the historical resource or its immediate surroundings such that the significance of an historical resource would be materially impaired” may slow down or stop the demolition. This supposes that permits aren’t granted for demolition before a replacement project is proposed.

I don’t have an answer to the church situation; I don’t know anyone who does. What we are left with as the best and perhaps only immediate course of action is to make as much fuss as possible.

Tower Detail - Sacred Heart Parish, San Francisco


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