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Wayside Chapel of St Francis

by Gail MacGowan

The City’s smallest and largest churches once stood side-by-side atop Nob Hill.

Perched in the shadow of Grace Cathedral, the Wayside Chapel of St. Francis opened on May 28, 1945. When the Episcopal Bishop wanted a chapel where people could come 24 hours a day to pray for their loved ones at war, the bishop’s chaplain suggested they convert a tiny construction shed on the California Street side of the still-unfinished cathedral. Built in 1932, the wooden structure had been used as the fund-raising office for the cathedral building campaign, and subsequently as Dinwiddie Construction’s on-site office. And thus in the waning years of World War II, generous donors helped to convert it into the twelve-seat Wayside Chapel of St. Francis.

The Chapel was apparently the only place in the City open round the clock where persons of any faith could go to pray. Serviceman passing through the busy embarkation port of San Francisco flocked to the chapel, and it also proved to be a popular site for early post-war weddings.

Grace Cathedral, whose cornerstone had been laid in 1910, was finally completed in 1964. The chapel, moved west several yards and turned around, continued to attract worshippers. As author Randolph Delehanty says, “It and the Cathedral used to present an engaging dialogue between simplicity and grandeur.”

Of the many people who sought the chapel when they were down on their luck, one of the most intriguing cases was that of William Henry Mitchell. In February 1949, the 37-year-old Mitchell was found slumped over a pew in the chapel, unconscious and with an empty bottle of sleeping pills in his pocket. Police had gone to the chapel looking for a purse or some kind of identification for Martha Jeanne Westwood, 21, who shortly after midnight had stumbled into a nearby service station hysterically muttering “Get police.” Unable to identify herself, Mrs. Westwood was taken to the hospital, where she confessed that her discovery of Mitchell’s unconscious body in the chapel had caused her panic-stricken appearance at the gas station.

There was no connection between her and Mitchell until she happened upon him in the chapel. Mrs. Westwood was initially listed as an amnesia victim, but was eventually identified as a Berkeley resident who had vanished from her home the previous month, leaving her husband and 7-month-old daughter and registering under an assumed name at the San Francisco YWCA. Her chance encounter at the Wayside Chapel saved the life of William Mitchell, who eventually pulled out of his pill-induced coma.

Problems continued to plague the chapel with its 24-hour open-door policy. Its alms box was a favorite target of thieves. After a fire was started with the chapel’s votive candles, paintings and statues that had cost $3,000 in donations were removed for safekeeping. These included a, who had painted the murals in the nave of the mural over the altar by the artist John de Rosen main cathedral. He created for free the chapel mural of St. Francis and a beggar after spending an hour meditating in the chapel.

After 1965 and the advent of San Francisco’s hippie era, problems in the chapel increased. In addition to being regularly used as a “comfort station,” a church spokesman also reported that

the chapel was “a favorite trysting place for those who believe sexual intercourse is one of the sacraments.” By the late 1960s, people were too scared to go there, and in the early 1970s the Wayside Chapel of St. Francis was closed because of vandalism and “other desecrations.” In 1973 the tiny chapel was moved to the Napa Valley ranch of Charles Crocker III. The Crocker Family had donated the site of Grace Cathedral to the Episcopal Church after their two Nob Hill mansions located on the block were destroyed in the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. Today the little chapel still resides in St. Helena, where it is the site of occasional weddings and other celebrations.

Sources: Michael D. Lampen, Archivist, Grace Cathedral SFPL History Room Grace Cathedral clipping files. San Francisco Walks and Tours in the Golden Gate City, Randolph Delehanty (1960). San Francisco Examiner, 2/9/49; 4/3/73.

Historic photos reprinted with permission, SF History Center, SF Public Library.

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The tiny white Wayside Chapel is visible to the left of the looming Cathedral, still under construction in this January 1956 photo. The Cathedral’s South Aisle and Tower were not completed until 1964.

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The Wayside Chapel of St. Francis in March 1953

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