Drive to save Old St. Marys gathers interfaith support

San Francisco's Jewish community is pitching in to help save the historic Old St. Mary's Church from the wrecking ball, and the citywide interdenominational effort seems to be paying off.

St. Mary's is one of more than 30 churches and synagogues that fail to meet the City of San Francisco's seismic retrofit requirement. A San Francisco ordinance requires that all unreinforced masonry buildings such as St. Mary's be reinforced, or face demolition.

San Francisco's Interfaith Council has created a task force dedicated to raising funds for the churches and synagogues that fail to meet the retrofit requirement. And thanks to a media blitz of attention, Old St. Mary's has become the project's poster child.

Sandwiched between Chinatown and The Financial district at 660 California St. at Grant, the 142-year-old Old St. Mary's was the first cathedral built in California and is the city's second most visited landmark. Unless the building is retrofitted, though, it must be razed.

Interfaith task force members include its chair, Father John E. Hurley, C.S.P., pastor of Old St. Mary's, and Rabbi Martin Weiner of Congregation Sherith Israel. Both Old St. Mary's and Sherith Israel, historic in its own right, are designated for costly repair .

"We have gotten together on the mutual need that we have to retrofit," said Rabbi Weiner, who co-hosted a luncheon of more than 200 to kick off St. Mary's public fund-raising phase.

"As a Jewish religious community we are mindful that all of us are facing this city-mandated retrofitting."

"There is just not the public or private funding available that once was; so people from all parts of the community need to come together like never before to save these places of worship," said Jim Foster of the Corporate Campaign Committee..

As funds for St. Mary's retrofit just exceed the $6 million mark, the fund-raising goal of $8 million seems within reach.

Fund-raisers marvel at the response from so many outside of the Catholic or even religious community.

"We have had a wide, diverse base of people that have provided support for this project," said Foster.

"Old St. Mary's is a hub of activity in the downtown area," said Martin Murphy of Tobin and Tobin law firm, a sponsor of the project.

This isn't the first time that the future of Old St. Mary's has hung in the balance. Built in 1854, the building was the seat of a Catholic archdiocese covering much of the West. But as the neighborhood began to deteriorate, the archbishop moved to a new cathedral along the more peaceful environs of Van Ness Avenue.

Old St. Mary's became a parish church, taken over in 1894 by the missionary Paulist fathers.

In the 1906 earthquake and fire, the entire interior of the church was gutted. Downtown merchants, many of whom were Jewish, rallied to rescue Old St. Mary's, contributing money to have the church rebuilt.

This historic bond remains, as many of Old St. Mary's current sponsors are found in the Jewish community.

If the more than $8 million needed for seismic upgrading is not raised and St. Mary's finally gives in to the wrecking ball, more than just St. Mary's parishioners would feel the loss. The building is used by other groups as well, such as the Asian Women's Resource Center and Self-Help for the Elderly.

"There is widespread support to justify a civic project because use of the church is nondenominational," said Foster.

Though he has rallied support for St. Mary's, however, Rabbi Weiner also issued a cautionary note. He urged the community not to forget that many other places of worship also need retrofitting, and support.