Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe’s future uncertain

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Above photo: Kelly D. Swedick


The church, located in Russian Hill on the corner of Broadway and Mason St. was closed, along with a few others, in 1992 during a period when the Archdiocese of California was engrossed in an embezzlement scandal and declining membership. When it was discovered that the archdiocese was planning on selling the property, the former parishioners including “elderly Catholic Mexican ladies marching downtown to the cathedral on their grandsons’ arms” came together to save the church by preserving the structure as a SF Historical Landmark in 1993; since then, the community of former parishioners has been requesting that the Archdiocese of California attempt to work with them to return the church to the community.

The archdiocese resisted, and instead allowed the property to be the temporary location of the St. Mary’s Chinese School (whose building was damaged in the 1989 Loma Pierta earthquake) with the assurance to former parishioners that once the church was made vacant, it would be restored and returned to the community (a process that lasted until 6/2011).

…for many, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe is more than just another church, it is the only remaining structure in San Francisco built by Mexicans.

However, on 11/19/2010 shit hit the fan when the Archdiocese quietly placed the property on the market creating uproar from former parishioners and others in the community who wanted to preserve the church as a cultural landmark rather than watch it be sold and possibly demolished.

The Archdioseses response: “We understand that people are going to be upset about this […] There are strong emotional connections. But we have to move on […] There are numerous other parishes named after our Blessed Mother that our Mexican-Latin-American communities should attend.”

“So, the archdiocese wants to sell a church in Russian Hill that hasn’t had a mass in almost 20 years. What’s the big deal?” you ask. Well, many of you may not know this, but [gasp] The Mission hasn’t always been the Latino neighborhood of San Francisco. It wasn’t, really, until about the 1940’s that the Mission’s demographics changed from primarily Irish, German, and Polish to one of largely Latino heritage.

In fact, pretty much from the point The Treaty of Guadalupe was signed, the “Latin Quarter” of San Francisco was based largely in the area that is now known as North Beach and the eastern part of Russian Hill.

At the heart of this neighborhood, which was also erroneously referred to as “Little Mexico,” was Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. Founded in 1875 via the collections and donations from parishioners, lots at 908 & 910 Broadway were purchased with the intention of constructing a church in which they could hear mass in Spanish. Following the 1906 earthquake, it was practically destroyed in the resulting fire. The only part of the original that still remains is framed image of our La Virgin that survived because a young Mexican couple rescued and buried it in the ground. The newly rebuild Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe became the anchor of a thriving Latino neighborhood throughout the first half of the 20th Century. A city guide book from 1940’s even describes the area Latin Quarter in this colorful way:

although a common religion is their strongest bond with the immediate neighbors, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe differs in aspect form the Italian church which overlooks Washington Square. Along the base of Russian Hill they have also their restaurants and social clubs, their abarrotes which offer Mexican candies, pasty, huaraches, and pottery. Spanish phonograph records are sold in a store which displays Spanish books, South American and Mexican periodicals, and American “pulp” magazines printed in Spanish.

The Church went through an age of splendor in this period, developing a highly respected musical program known for its brilliant pipe organ and talented choir. It even hosted a free performance by the famed Opera singer Luisa Tetrazzini shortly after her famous Christmas eve performance in 1910.

“So, the archdiocese wants to sell a church in Russian Hill that hasn’t had a mass in almost 20 years. What’s the big deal?” you ask.

The same 1940’s guidebook describes the beautiful interior in the following way:

“By day, light streams through stained-glass windows portraying the miracle at Guadalupe and the Sermon on the Mount; by night, from massive and ornate candelabra.”

It then continues to describe in this manner a fresco of the Holy Sacrament and the Coronation of the Blessed Virgin on the ceiling, a white marble altar, and a mural depicting the last supper which can be found at the end of the exquisitely tiled main aisle.

The Broadway Tunnel Plan
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So what changed? The growing Italian and Chinese populations throughout the early 20th began to make their mark in the area, and by the 1950’s the construction of the Broadway Tunnel had a devastating effect on the remaining community displacing many homes and stores and ushering in the migration of Latinos to the more affordable Mission district culminating with the eventual closing of the Church in the 1990’s.

So you see, for many, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe is more than just another church, it is the only remaining structure in San Francisco built by Mexicans. It is a historical reminder that Mexican’s have been in San Francisco since before the American invasion of Mexico, and have continued to make cultural contributions ever since – a fact that seems to get lost in the discussion of the history of SF. In many city guides, and even Wikipedia, the Latino population is simply portrayed as sort of just appearing in the Mission District in the 40’s

So what do you guys think? Is Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe an important cultural heritage site that should be returned to the community or is it simply another old church that should be sold to the highest bidder?