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St. Dominic’s Church

by Maria Vickroy-Peralta


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Dominicans first arrived in San Francisco from Spain in 1850, and established their first priory in 1863 at Van Ness and Broadway. That same year, the Dominican Friars paid $6,000 for the city block bounded by Steiner, Bush, Pierce, and Pine Streets, anticipating the future development of what was still the largely open country of the Western Addition.

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Interior view of St. Dominic’s Catholic Church

The first St. Dominic’s Church, blessed in 1873, was a small, unpretentious wooden church at the corner of Bush and Steiner Streets. To accommodate a rapidly growing congregation, a second, much larger church was built of brick on the same site; this church opened in 1887 but was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. During the months following the great earthquake, parishioners gathered for Mass outdoors until a third, “temporary” wooden church opened on the Pine Street side of the block.

Construction began in 1923 on the current, fourth St. Dominic’s. In 1928, Archbishop Edward Joseph Hanna blessed the new Tudor Gothic style church, describing it as “an edifice that has caught as much of beauty and glory as any parish church in the world.” Even then, work continued for many years until the building was brought to completion in time for St. Dominic’s centennial celebration in 1973.

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The second St. Dominic’s Church, which opened in 1887, was damaged beyond repair in the 1906 earthquake, which left its dome balanced precariously atop the tower.

In 1984, engineering tests determined that the church was seismically unstable. Work began immediately to find a solution and a way to pay for it. Following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which destroyed the beautiful stone “lantern” on top of St. Dominic’s tower, parishioners and friends from around the world supported the preservation of St. Dominic’s by providing the funds needed to complete the $7.2 million seismic rehabilitation in 1992.

The remedy implemented in the seismic retrofit was inspired by the flying buttresses that support the great Gothic cathedrals of Western Europe. This medieval concept was the best solution to a twentieth-century problem. Nine flying buttresses were installed, the church walls and foundations were stabilized, and the church was saved from being demolished.

St. Dominic’s remains an acclaimed architectural and aesthetic gem. Its interior incorporates several sacred art traditions, including English Gothic architecture, Italian marble, German wood carving, and Belgian stone carving. Among the church’s great art treasures are glorious American and French stained glass windows. There are thirty-six windows in all, some as tall as thirty feet. Remarkable for their beauty and high narrative content, the matchless windows of St. Dominic’s are irreplaceable works of art.

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Construction of top front of St. Dominic’s Church taken at 80-foot height (photo dated 7/17/24).

The windows in the sanctuary, the Lady Chapel, the sides of the transepts, and most of the small windows in St. Dominic’s were designed and created in the 1920s and 1930s by Charles J. Connick of Boston, whose signature appears on several. Max Ingrand of Paris created the windows that line the nave, the large east window, those on the north and south sides of the transepts, and the suite of small windows in the sacristy. These were installed between 1964 and 1973.

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Early photo of the current St. Dominic’s Church showing the stone lantern on top of the tower. The lantern was destroyed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Flying buttresses were added during the seismic retrofit of the church completed in 1992.

However, decades of unforgiving weather left their mark on the exterior stonework and eroded the structural integrity of the stained glass windows. Time also took its toll on the interior masonry, marble altars, wood carvings, and stone statues. Since 2002, St. Dominic’s has raised over $8.5 million toward a $12.5 million church restoration effort, and approximately 65% of continuing exterior and interior repairs has been or is currently being completed.

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Following the 1989 earthquake, nine flying buttresses were constructed to seismically retrofit St. Dominic’s -- a medieval solution to a twentieth-century problem.

St. Dominic’s Church is more than a historic landmark and artistic treasure: it serves as the heart and soul for the ministries and programs of a diverse and growing congregation of 2,500 parishioners, a hub of cultural and civic activity, and a symbol and inspiration to people throughout the Bay Area.

Guided tours of the church, covering its art, architecture, and history, are given most first Saturdays of the month at 10:00 AM; tours meet at the main entrance of the church (Steiner Street at Bush). To confirm a scheduled tour or arrange a private group tour, or to find more information about St. Dominic’s, call 415.567.7824 or visit www.stdominics.org.

Author Maria Vickroy-Peralta is the Development Director of St. Dominic’s Catholic Church.

Photos courtesy of St. Dominic’s Church, with the exception of St. Dominic’s following 1906 earthquake, courtesy of SF History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

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