St. Ignatius Comes of Age (1861–1880)

In its second campus, just next door to its first Market Street school, SI became one of the leading colleges in the Bay Area thanks to three great pedagogues — Frs. Varsi, Bayma and Neri. Fr. Neri shined the first electric light in San Francisco from the window of St. Ignatius College, Fr. Bayma authored several major texts on religion and “molecular mechanics,” and Fr. Varsi studied astronomy at the University of Paris. These men produced generations of Ignatians steeped in both classical and modern education.


These early years saw the birth of several SI traditions, from the Sanctuary Society to drama, with SI students performing the first school play west of the Mississippi. It did not take long for SI to outgrow its new campus, however. This, and the sting of high property taxes levied on Market Street buildings, led to the decision to build the third campus on Hayes and Van Ness Avenues. That building campaign met opposition from the people of San Francisco, upset that SI had hired Chinese brick makers, and from Archbishop Alemany, fearful that the new church and school would be too close to the proposed cathedral. SI faced all these obstacles, and more, as it continued to grow and define itself. 

The Opening of the Second Campus: 1861-1862

Tension between SI and the archdiocese convinced Maraschi to put plans to build a new church on hold as early as 1861. Something had to be done, however, as the old church was far too small. When Fr. Bouchard preached, “the little edifice [of the church] was taxed to its utmost, so that crowds stood without, unable to gain admission. Still his voice, which was remarkably powerful, reached even to these; and they stood in rapt admiration, for never before had they heard a man speak like this man.”1 In order to hold the crowds, Maraschi decided to use the upper level of the new college as a large hall, which could be used as a place of worship, and classrooms would occupy the first floor. From the base of the brickwork to the top of the cross, the school would measure 75-feet high.

On January 21, 1862, Maraschi stepped down as SI’s first president-rector at the end of the usual six-year term, and Fr. Congiato, an old friend of Alemany and the former head of the California mission, took over. The Jesuits hoped that Congiato’s close ties with Alemany would delay any decision regarding the St. Ignatius parish, as Sunday contributions were essential in keeping the school running. Also, the over-worked Maraschi needed more time to attend to finances, teaching and parish work.

The official announcement to the people of San Francisco that SI would build a new college came from Bouchard on February 23, 1862, who proclaimed that the Jesuits hoped “to erect a more commodious building and place of worship and also a college for the youth now growing up in our midst…. We are but poor Jesuits, but with God’s help, we anticipate no apprehension of failure. Our work here is to promote the honor and glory of God by affording means of worshipping Him in a suitable temple.”2

Building soon began, and after workers had laid the foundations of the Jesuit residence and college, the school held a ceremony in May 1862 that marked the laying of the cornerstone before a crowd of 3,000. Among those attending were Fr. Villiger from Santa Clara College and a Jesuit novice, Hugh McKeadney, who was also a talented architect and builder. He had drawn the plans for the new school and would serve as the project manager.

By July, SI had spent $60,000 on the new structure, $55,000 of that lent by the Hibernia Bank with a monthly interest rate of 1 percent. Due to the dispute over the church’s status as a parish, the Jesuits could not raise funds throughout the city but had to rely on voluntary gifts. “To tell the truth,” writes Riordan, “the offerings were generally small; $250 was certainly not a large amount, yet it was the largest individual gift that the fathers received, and the number of donors could be counted on the fingers of one hand.” Among those donors, Riordan notes, were several parish priests who were friends of the Jesuits.3

In August 1862, SI purchased a three-ton steel bell, measuring 6 feet at its mouth, cast in Sheffield, England. One of the city’s voluntary fire companies had ordered the bell, but by the time it arrived, the company had no funds to pay for it. The bell, christened the “San Francisco” went up for sale, and Villiger and Maraschi discovered it in an iron foundry while walking one day. “Father,” said Villiger to Maraschi, “that would be a fine college bell, but we have no money to buy it.” The two went to see the foundry’s owner, and Villiger asked for the bell, noting that “it would be a fine college bell, but we are too poor.”

Three weeks later, workers at Conroy and O’Connor Foundry marched the big bell up Market Street to the college and left it in the middle of the garden along with a letter indicating that the priests could take as long as they wished to pay the $1,350 bill for the bell. The Jesuits built a 30-foot tower in the garden and hung the bell atop it, ringing it “regularly for the college exercises and the Angelus, and its peal resounded for miles around.”4 (That same bell was moved to the school’s third site and crashed to the basement of the church during the 1906 earthquake and fire. The bell was rescued and installed in the bell towers of the following two St. Ignatius Churches. It was refurbished in the 1990s and still rings each day at noon, the oldest bell in daily use in the city.)

By Christmas Day 1862, the Jesuits had spent $102,500 on the new school and had amassed a debt nearing $140,000. With great faith that the school would succeed, they opened the great hall in the new building for worship. Visitors found the new brick building to be “severely plain in style but substantial and commodious.… The classrooms were large and airy and extended the whole length of the building…. Two rooms on the ground floor of the Fathers’ residence, and fronting Market Street, were devoted to science. Between these last, there was a permanent partition; not so, however, between the others. With these, everything save the outer walls was moveable.” Those who toured the new facility walked westward on wooden sidewalks and a newly graded Market Street past the old school and church (now used as a chapel for the sodalities). They passed the Market Street entrance for the new church and then turned south at Jessie Street where they found SI’s front doors. In short, what these Christmas Day visitors saw was a church and college that “were the best in the city” and by the end of the year, the student body swelled to 457 who were drawn to this impressive new school. The number of faculty, too, had increased to care for these new students. In 1861, SI employed four Jesuits and three laymen, and those numbers grew to eight Jesuits and four laymen by the end of 1862.

Two years later, in 1864, one San Francisco newspaper wrote of the new SI: “Today the Jesuits have built the most prosperous and populous education institution in California.”5

Stability & Earthquakes: 1863–1868

The debating society began February 4, 1863, with the unwieldy name of the “Philodianosian Society.” Riordan writes that this name “must have been a matter of long and deep consideration. It had to be learned, uncommon, drawn from the parent Greek and with enough roll to it to give due distinction to such as fortune favored sufficiently to admit as members.”6 The society’s first officers were Prof. W.J.G. Williams, president; A.J. Bowie, vice-president; H.P. Bowie, secretary; G.K. Pardow, treasurer; A.A. Pardow, librarian; and A.A. O’Neil, censor. The society lasted only one year, but would soon resurface the following October as the Philhistorian Debating Society “since history was to supply the main themes for discussion.”7

The 1863 school year ended with an impressive exhibition. By removing the wall partitions, students transformed the entire first floor into an exhibition hall, arranged chairs in tiers and built a stage. The morning session offered literary, musical and scientific demonstrations by students, with music supplied by the Santa Clara College Band. The evening session included a dramatic presentation entitled “Joseph and his Brethren” with James M. O’Sullivan (later to become a Jesuit priest) as Joseph. Playing the roles of Joseph’s brothers, Issachar and Nepthali, were Jeremiah F. Sullivan (SI 1870) and Frank Sullivan, brothers who would later become judges. (Jeremiah would go on to become an associate justice of the California Supreme Court, and his younger brother, Matthew Sullivan (SI 1876) would advance to become Chief Justice and later the first dean of the SI School of Law.) This play, a popular one for Catholic schools in the 19th century, was most likely the first dramatic show staged at SI and the start of a long and continuous tradition of student theatre. (USF’s College Players and SI’s drama department both point to this play as evidence that they are the oldest theatre companies west of the Mississippi.) These end-of-term exhibitions, which continued for 50 years, also provided great entertainment for the citizens of San Francisco, many of whom came even though they had little or no connection with the school.

That commencement ceremony also marked the first time St. Ignatius College conferred a Bachelor of Arts degree. The recipient was Augustus J. Bowie, Jr., who went on to study in Europe and earned a Doctoral degree in engineering. (Only recipients of Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees took part in graduation ceremonies; other students simply matriculated to the next grade.) This first degree was proof of a claim the school advertised in the 1863 City Directory of San Francisco in which the Jesuits noted that they were empowered by its 1859 state charter to “confer degrees and academical honors in all the learned professions and to exercise all the rights and privileges common to any other literary institution in the United States…. [The] design of the institution is to give a thorough English, Classical, Mathematical and Philosophical Education … provided with a full staff of professors, this institution presents considerable advantages for the mental and moral training of the students; a complete Philosophical apparatus has been ordered from Paris and the Laboratory contains over 250 pure chemicals and all that is necessary for the most complicated manipulations and analysis…. The College has, moreover, a complete photographic gallery; a telegraphic apparatus has also been provided which, through the kindness of the California State Telegraph Company, connects St. Ignatius College with Santa Clara College.” The advertisement listed monthly tuition as $3 in the preparatory department, $5 for the grammar department and $8 for the higher department.8 In today’s dollars those figures translate to $40, $70 and $110 per month — a significant sum.

Perhaps the school had to advertise so extensively because it faced serious competition for the first time in its career. San Francisco boys could now choose from among five colleges: SI, Santa Clara, Sacred Heart College (later to become St. Mary’s College), Union College and San Francisco College. Also, the loss of parish status in 1863 led to a drop in income. Helping to spend what little money the school had was Fr. Anthony Cichi, SJ, an eminent chemist, who purchased “magnificent photograph apparatus.” Maraschi continued to keep the books and kept track of every penny spent, including the purchase of figures for the manger scene of “houses, shepherds and even St. Joseph … camel and horses for the wise kings.” By the end of 1863, the debt grew by $18,000.

Fortunately, 1864 began with good news. Though SI opened in 1855, it did not receive official recognition from the Society of Jesus until 1859, when it was granted the status of “Collegium inchoatum” or “College commenced.”9 In 1864, Rome upgraded that conditional status to make it a “complete institution.”10

The fine libraries of SI and USF had their start in 1864, when the school purchased a complete edition of the works of the Fathers of the Church and solicited donations from students, families, friends and benefactors. Soon the Jesuits accumulated a large collection of volumes in the college library. (All these books were destroyed in the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906.)

SI welcomed its third president on July 2, 1865, after Congiato was assigned the general superiorship of the California mission. He appointed Villiger as his successor and he, in turn, handed over the presidency of Santa Clara College to Masnata. His term would only last one year, as his superiors recalled him to the Maryland Province to serve the Church there as an administrator. Before he left, he cancelled SI’s elementary program and vocational courses. He hoped to institute a strictly classical curriculum, similar to those of Jesuit colleges in Europe and on the East Coast. As a result of this unwise decision, SI’s enrollment fell to 188, though it grew to 236 the next year when a commercial course was reintroduced. As Riordan notes, “the San Francisco of that day was certainly not prepared for classical standards.”11

During much of the 1860s, the Civil War had little effect in California and while it stirred the interests of SI’s students and faculty, few were directly touched by this bloody conflict. All, however, were profoundly shaken by the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. When he died on April 15, 1865, a mob ransacked the newspaper office of the Monitor (the Catholic newspaper) and crowds talked of doing the same to Catholic churches and institutions. Riordan blamed the mayhem on “bigots [who] are [ready] to take advantage of whatever may be distorted to the prejudice of the Catholic Church [and to] invest the dastardly deed with a religious significance which it did not bear.”12 On the day of the funeral, SI draped its exterior walls in mourning and the school’s 490 students and 17 faculty (12 Jesuits and five laymen) marched in the April 19 funeral procession.

Two years later, the SI Jesuits petitioned Archbishop Alemany to allow them to minister to the growing number of African-Americans coming to San Francisco. Alemany wrote to Congiato, who was in his second term as college president (1866-69), that he preferred “to wait before availing myself of your charitable offer.”

(Later, in 1871 and 1874, the Jesuits turned down two requests by Alemany to minister to the Chinese community in San Francisco. As Fr. Riordan writes: “burdened as the Fathers were with many duties flowing from their educational commitments as well as those coming from the maintenance of a large church … it was felt, and this after proper consultation with superiors in Rome, that it was not expedient to undertake a work so excellent and so desirable which must necessarily interfere with other works already accepted and established.”)13

In August 1865, several more Italian Jesuits joined their SI brothers, the foremost among them being Fr. Joseph Neri, the skilled chemist who would later illuminate Market Street for the nation’s centennial celebration. Also that year, James M. O’Sullivan became the first SI graduate to enter the Society of Jesus.

A new tradition began in 1865, when students started serving Mass at St. Ignatius Church as altar boys. This group later became known as the Sanctuary Society and continued until the 1960s when SI moved to its Sunset District campus. As McGloin writes: “Many Jesuits who have served or are at present serving in the Jesuit apostolate in San Francisco can trace their religious vocations from their first contacts with this organization.”14

(Many alumni from the Shirt Factory and the Stanyan Street Campus have fond memories of being in the Sanctuary Society. Priests said Mass from 5:30–7 a.m. and then, in later years, treated the altar boys to a simple breakfast. Peter Devine ’66, tells one story of a time when his father, George Devine ’19, sat down for breakfast along with dozens of other boys. “Fr. Mootz, the prefect of discipline, had the bright idea to order donuts for the kids. After everyone had a donut, they asked for a second one. When he refused, they playfully grabbed the box out of his hand and began throwing the donuts at him. Even though he was the prefect of discipline, he was a pushover. Just then the rector walked in and accused the boys of assaulting a priest, a crime he called a sacrilege. It made a big impression on those kids!”)

The school population increased in 1867 with the reintroduction of the elementary classes, and the Jesuit apostolate in San Francisco grew too, when Accolti returned that year to serve as chaplain at San Quentin Prison and to teach at SI. (Over the years, other Jesuits who lived at SI also worked at a number of apostolates including San Francisco General Hospital, the city jail, Alcatraz, and the Presidio.)

Alexander A. O’Neill received the school’s first Master of Arts degree in 1867, though not due to any work completed at SI since the conferring of his Bachelor’s degree two years prior. The college awarded a Master’s degree to anyone who completed two years of study at any institution after leaving SI, and O’Neill had studied medicine elsewhere to earn this distinction.15

Stephen M. White, the first in a long line of SI alumni to make a name for themselves in politics, enrolled at SI for the 1867-68 term and stayed until 1870, when he transferred to Santa Clara College. He later served as the U.S. Senator representing California from 1893 to 1899 and was known as the “Father of Los Angeles Harbor.”

This relatively stable period in the life of the school was disrupted by several earthquakes, the first occurring on October 8, 1865, and another one day later. Then, on October 21, 1868, a 42-second jolt caused major damage throughout the city. Two chimneys on the church and school building collapsed, and plaster ornaments inside the church fell and shattered on the floor; fortunately, no worshippers suffered injury. Students were dismissed from class between Wednesday, October 21, and Monday, October 26, for fear the frequent aftershocks might bring the school down on their heads.

Other churches in the city suffered severe damage, and SI allowed the Lutherans to use their old wooden church, which had been converted into a chapel for the various school sodalities. “It was with great pleasure that the Fathers were able to do them this act of kindness, for the most cordial relations had always existed between St. Ignatius and the German pastor and his flock.”16

Fr. Joseph Bayma:
SI’s Fifth President: 1869–1873

Born in Piedmont, Italy, Joseph Bayma entered the Society of Jesus in 1832 and began a distinguished career as a teacher of literature, mathematics, physics and chemistry. (Look for more on Bayma’s scholarship in the next section.) While administering an Italian seminary in 1860, Bayma found himself in the middle of anti-Catholic riots, forcing him to flee to England where he taught at Stonyhurst for seven years. He left for California in 1868 and became SI’s fifth president in 1869 before moving to Santa Clara College three years later. He taught there until his death in 1892.

For his first task, Bayma borrowed $30,000 for the construction of 16 classrooms in a three-story wooden addition to the school, and the new wing was completed by December 1869. This expenditure, of course, simply added to the vast debt. Despite swimming in red ink, the Jesuits still committed themselves to educating those who could not afford to pay tuition. A reporter noted this in the January 8, 1870, edition of The Monitor: “The rules of the college require pay, but there are many attending whose parents cannot afford the pension, small as it is, so the good Fathers teach their children gratis. But all that can afford are required to pay regularly. There are about five hundred boys attending the college; nearly one-half of them, we are informed, do not pay a cent.” (Every Jesuit school still follows the policy that no child be denied an education because he or she cannot afford tuition.)

Two years later, when the Jesuits heard of rumors accusing them of a lack of generosity, Bayma sent this letter to the editor of the Monitor: “As we have heard on unquestionable authority that, in a certain public place in this city, in discussing the merits of Catholic schools, it has lately been asserted that, at St. Ignatius College, the Jesuits make their scholars pay very well, and that very few receive the privilege of a gratuitous education, we think it proper to bring before the public the following facts…. Our yearly receipts pay for an average of 184 pupils at most, leaving a balance of 201 pupils per year, from whom we receive no compensation. When this is taken in connection with the nature of our institution, which is not a common school, but an incorporated college having all the rights and prerogatives of the best universities, imparting to her pupils every branch of knowledge and fitting them for the highest positions in society, it will be evident to any unbiased mind that the assertions we criticize are illiberal and uncharitable. Those who made them could do something more useful to the community than dissuade Catholic parents from sending their children to a Catholic college. Their zeal would show to better advantage if they spoke of helping Catholic schools to teach the thousands of Catholic children in this city, whom Catholic schools are unable to accommodate. As it is, we do not require payment as a necessary condition of admission; but we do require quiet behavior, close application and gentlemanly manners. A deficiency in these requirements, especially the last, and not that of money, justifies a refusal either to admit or to keep a pupil. Time and again have we admitted deserving pupils who had been refused admission into other schools, for the reason, we were informed, that they could not pay. Were it our primary object to make our college a paying institution, we would certainly adopt a different policy. But we can inform our patrons and the public that our expenses are considerably greater than our receipts, and this is the best apology we can offer for inviting our friends to the College Hall sometime next month, that we may dispose of some gifts at the ‘Ladies Enterprise’ for the benefit of the school.”

As a symbol of the school’s commitment to the people of San Francisco — and of its poverty — the Jesuits erected a tower for the 6,000-pound bell on December 28, 1869, but the priests couldn’t raise enough funds to build a working clock atop the tower. They did paint hours on the face of the clock, but had no money to buy hands or the clockworks. The big bell, writes Riordan, “[rang] out the old and [rang] in the new; though to our thinking, the new that it rang in for St. Ignatius was only an increase of the old that it rang out — debt — debt — debt….”17

Despite the money owed by SI (more than $170,000 by now), Bayma and his brother priests began discussing the need to build a larger college and church in a quieter part of San Francisco. The primary reason for the move was the large tax-burden the Jesuits faced ($12,000 in 1877) for their valuable Market Street real estate. As Riordan adds: “those that scanned the future knew that, on the present site, permanence could never be.”18

Maraschi believed SI could best provide for its future by investing in real estate. Toward that end, he purchased a portion of the San Pablo Ranch in the East Bay. No one farmed this barren land, but Maraschi saw it as valuable as it bordered the deep water of the San Francisco Bay. The sale of this land in 1902 for $200,000 would help SI repay its debts.

Not all the Jesuits approved of Maraschi’s money-making schemes. At one point, he encouraged his friends to buy stock in a company that owned a gold mine. When that company went bankrupt, the Jesuits were afraid that they would be liable and that Maraschi would be accused of being an accessory to fraud. Maraschi also rented out apartments and organized an informal insurance company. Fr. Henry Imoda, SJ, SI rector in 1888, wrote to his superiors of his concern, noting that if Maraschi died without a will, the Society of Jesus could face numerous lawsuits.

Life at the school continued despite earthquake and debt. In 1871 the school inaugurated a new Debating Hall and instituted the Ignatian Literary Society, dedicated to “the improvement of all connected with it, in debate, social advancement and general literature.” The group barred any discussion “bordering on immorality, sectarianism and direct politics,” and set the minimum age of membership at 16.19 Also, the first school band and choral group formed on February 12, 1874, “to cultivate music for innocent social enjoyment and to add solemnity to civil and religious festivals.”20

Three Greats: Bayma, Neri & Varsi

Throughout the 1870s, the school’s fame increased as a result of the work of three key professors: President Joseph Bayma, SJ, Fr. Joseph Neri, SJ, and Fr. Aloysius Varsi, SJ.

Bayma authored several major works including The Love of Religious Perfection in 1863, Treatise on Molecular Mechanics in 1866, Force and Matter (published posthumously in 1901), and a series of high schools texts on algebra, geometry, analytical geometry, trigonometry and calculus. “The series was unique and revealed his specialized genius in that no proofs or methods were presented from other persons — all were derived from his own speculations and research.”21

In his major work, Treatise on Molecular Mechanics, Bayma, along with the noted Jesuit scientist Roger Boscovich, “reduces all matter to unextended points, centers of force acting in the inverse square of the distance; thus acting upon one another, but of course not touching.” This work was studied in Oxford and Cambridge and at science departments of other noteworthy universities. Bayma wrote poetry, too, and was considered an English scholar, remarkable for a man who started learning the language at 32.22

Neri, an early experimenter of electricity, built and perfected his own electrical lighting system in 1869 to use during his lectures, and he became the chairman of the natural sciences department in 1870. To illustrate his lectures on electricity, he built the city’s first storage battery (a peroxide of lead combination with about 30 plates), and his exhibitions of electric lights in the 1870s drew huge crowds. The first such demonstration occurred in 1871 when he showed an amazed crowd an electric arc light from a window of the college facing Market Street in what was the first known use of electricity in San Francisco.

On July 4, 1876, for the Centennial Celebration of the Declaration of Independence, Neri lit Market Street with arc lights, Foucault's lamps and reflectors, the first exhibition of public arc lighting on the Pacific Coast. From the college roof to the other side of Market Street, Neri hung several wires from which he suspended three arc lights to illuminate the night parade. “They threw a stream of soft, mellow light all along the line of march of the military and civic procession down to the ferry at the bay….”23

A decade would pass before other cities tried this method of street illumination. Even Thomas Edison’s first incandescent lamp would not shine until 1879, and it took until 1881 before New York installed the first central electric power plant. Neri’s electric demonstrations impressed the city fathers to the point where they installed “an electrical system of illumination then regarded as the largest in the world.”24

The machine that gave Neri the ability to conduct those electric experiments was a large electro-magnetic device (called the Alliance Machine) that had been used in the second Siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War for “lighting defensive work.”25 Tiburcio Parrott, a great friend and benefactor of SI, purchased this machine and donated it to the school.

This machine was featured in an 1874 notice advertising one of Neri’s public electrical experiments: “The experiment will be an exhibition of the electric light, with the new mammoth magneto-electric machine lately received from Paris, from the Compagnie l’Alliance, with a new electric light regulator for first-class lighthouses, spherical mirror and large Fresnel lens a échelons, mounted on a rotating table to project the light to the most distant points around San Francisco and the bay within the range of the tower. The light is such as to be seen at a distance of two hundred miles.… The apparatus used on the occasion alone, and for the purpose indicated, represents over $5,000…” Neri improved upon the machine by strengthening its magnets by current from a storage battery.26

According to Riordan, Neri hoped to “popularize and spread as much as possible the discoveries of science, freed from the errors with which infidel scientists ever sought to yoke them; and he thought, and thought well, that this was an excellent form of missionary work, since it removed prejudices from the minds of non-Catholics, helping to strengthen the faith of ill-instructed Catholics, and make good Catholics prouder of the old Church of the Ages, by demonstrating practically that there was no true advance of science that she could not bless; that there was not, and could not, be any conflict between true science and true religion.”27

In 1876 Neri came to the rescue of the Mechanics Institute of the University of California. That institute held an annual industrial fair, but faced stiff competition that year from Philadelphia’s centennial celebration. Neri lent the institute nearly all of his scientific apparatus, which was moved to the Mechanics Pavilion where it was displayed and operated. For most of August and September that year, Neri offered lectures and demonstrations twice weekly with help from SI students. He also helped to power the first miniature electric train to run west of the Mississippi.28

The Institute directors praised SI for its aid, noting that “we may well congratulate ourselves for possessing within our midst, in this young city and state, such facilities for scientific education as St. Ignatius College affords to our rising generation, and such a cabinet of [scientific laboratory equipment], second to none in the United States.”29

Neri’s scientific exhibitions and demonstrations were also a part of the three-day commencement exercises that marked the end of the school term and the conferral of advanced degrees on college-level students. (High school-level students did not celebrate their own graduation exercise until 1916.)

By the time he turned 75, Neri suffered from near complete blindness. His eyesight was always defective, but years of working with spectroscopes ended his vision. By the time of his death, Neri had amassed scientific equipment worth nearly $100,000 and gave SI the most notable science department in the West. A commission from the Smithsonian Society rated SI’s collection of scientific apparatus among the top five in the United States.

Another gift helped make SI the leading scientific institution of the West. In 1875, Joseph Donohoe gave to the school an extensive collection of stuffed birds, minerals and Native American artifacts. “As generous as was this gift,” notes Riordan, “it was outdone by the richness of the cases that contained it…. The cabinet contains … remains, shells, coins, rarities, curiosities and historical records of various kinds, collected in the course of many years, and contributed by donors from different parts of the world. The collection made up three or four wagon loads in transportation.” The gift also gave SI one of the best ornithological collections in the United States.30

The final teacher in this distinguished triumvirate was Aloysius Varsi, a nobleman, born at Cagliari on the island of Sardinia of Corsican parents on March 9, 1830. He joined the Society of Jesus at 15 and studied in Chieri, near Turin. In 1848, revolution forced the Jesuits to flee, and, according to an account given by Fr. Richard A. Gleeson, SJ, Varsi and his comrades barely escaped with their lives. “They took refuge with the Brother Hospitallers of St. John of God, living, as they did, on alms collected from door to door.”

Varsi studied in Belgium and France and became “a deep philosopher; a profound theologian; a beloved pupil of Father, afterwards Cardinal, Franzelin…. Owing to his extraordinary ability as a mathematician and a scientist, he was sent to Paris where he attended the lectures of the most distinguished scientists of the day, who found in him a prodigy. This training was to prepare him for the Mission in China, there to take charge of the Imperial Observatory.”

Ordained in 1856 at 26, Varsi eventually came to the U.S. in 1862 where he served as a chaplain in the Civil War. Later he taught at Boston College and at Georgetown, where an Italian artist selected him as a model of St. Charles Boromeo for a fresco above the main altar in the Church of St. Aloysius in Washington, D.C., depicting the first communion of St. Aloysius. (That fresco can still be seen in this Jesuit parish church.) While in Boston, “he gave a public lecture with experiments on electricity, the first of its kind to be given in the United States.”

Varsi’s superiors, knowing the needs of the California mission, sent him there instead of China. McGloin describes him as being a “cultured and mellow person with a gift for friendship,” and Br. Tom Marshall, SJ, former archivist for the California Province, calls him a “giant of a man, bigger than any of the men around him.” His greatest contribution to SI was his astute administration and fund-raising during a time of great expansion. Thanks to his leadership, the Jesuits built SI into one of the finest colleges in the world and St. Ignatius Church into a beautiful house of worship, all in the center of the city.

Another Battle with the Archbishop

In 1873, Bayma stepped down as president, and the next two presidents — Fr. Aloysius Masnata, SJ, and Fr. John Pinasco, SJ — began making plans to move the school and church westward to Hayes Street and Van Ness Avenue, the present site of the Louise Davies Symphony Hall.

For all the success of the school, the Jesuits were fearful of losing SI College. Property taxes on Market Street, already at $12,000 per year, kept climbing as the property rose in value, and the school’s debt kept growing along with it. SI needed to move to stay alive, and it had to act fast when property became available. However, the Jesuits ran into a rather formidable roadblock in the person of Archbishop Alemany, who opposed the move on the grounds that any new church would lure parishioners away from the second site of the Cathedral, planned for Van Ness and Geary (and dedicated in 1891), and from neighboring churches, especially St. Joseph’s, which would soon move to larger quarters at 10th and Howard Streets.

The Jesuits needed to do something to continue their ministry in San Francisco. In desperation, they sent Varsi to Rome to seek permission with the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, which had all U.S. churches under its jurisdiction. Varsi eventually met with its prefect, Cardinal Franchi, who had the final say in the matter. “Varsi submitted maps of San Francisco to the Cardinal, indicating two lots which were located closer to Market Street than the site ultimately selected. [The Cardinal’s answer] which was to afflict Alemany and to cause him to renew his opposition to the move [was] ‘Facciano pure’ (Let them by all means.)”31

Even with permission from the Cardinal, the Jesuits knew they had a fight ahead of them. To give Varsi more stature in facing Alemany, Beckx appointed him superior of the California Jesuit mission in October 1877. He returned to San Francisco, bringing with him 13 Jesuits from Europe and the East Coast. (More on this in the next section.)

Shortly after Varsi’s return, land owned by D.J. Oliver became available in the Western Addition. The Jesuits paid $200,000 for a city block of land bordered by Van Ness Avenue, Hayes, Franklin and Grove Streets on October 29, 1877. The figure was high for its day, but the land was about to be sold in subdivisions, prompting the quick decision by the Jesuits to purchase the property.

Even with Vatican permission and with the sale a fait accompli, Varsi waited nearly a year before writing to Alemany to seek local permission. In a letter dated June 21, 1878, Varsi wrote the following:

“Most Reverend Archbishop:

“I have received information from Very Rev. Father General Beckx that it has been decided in Rome by the proper authority, that we are at liberty to remove St. Ignatius Church and the College to lot 74 of the Western Addition; and Father General says that we should commence building at once.

“This decision relieves me of a very great anxiety; but yet I should feel very much grieved if I were to proceed without first obtaining Your Grace’s blessing on it. I therefore most humbly beg Your Grace, for the love of Jesus’ Sacred Heart and of St. Aloysius, whose feast we celebrate to-day, to grant us this favor; for which we shall ever feel most grateful.

“Hoping to receive a favorable answer soon, I remain, with the most sincere respect,

“Your Grace’s very humble servant in Christ,

— A. Varsi, SJ”

Alemany wrote to Cardinal Simeoni in Rome seeking confirmation of this news. When he received it, he sent a sad reply to Seimeoni on July 22, 1878, noting his displeasure with the judgment: “I bow my head and accept your decision with holy resignation.” The August 5 letter Alemany penned to Varsi had a more contentious tone; in it, he insisted on being compensated for losses and expressed his concern for the financial well-being of the archdiocese. The tone of the letter hints at Alemany’s anger over Varsi’s Roman maneuvers:32

“Very Reverend and dear Sir:

“The Cardinal Prefect informed me that considering what had been done, the immense injury which would accrue to you if your new building was not built in your new lot, purchased with a most heavy sum, etc., you may be allowed to proceed; consequently, I can have no objection. The Cardinal, however, intimates that should any injury result to the Cathedral (and I request the same in regard to St. Joseph’s) from your proximity, it would become necessary to have such compensated. When answering His Eminence, I added that, in case to avoid trouble it was deemed prudent to build [a] new Cathedral elsewhere, and the heirs of N. Hawse would sue and recover the lot donated for a Cathedral at [the corner] of 10th & Howard St., I would expect to be indemnified.

“Yours truly in Christ,

+J.S. Alemany, A.S.F.”33

The Memoirs of Fr. Richard Gleeson, SJ

As mentioned in the previous section, Varsi returned to the states with far more than permission to relocate the college. He brought with him 13 Jesuit novices, much needed recruits for the school in a time of dwindling vocations. Among those young men was Richard A. Gleeson, SJ, an enthusiastic 15-year-old. The following accounts of Gleeson’s meeting with Varsi and of his journey west are taken from A Memoir: Richard A. Gleeson, SJ, by Alexander J. Cody, SJ, and fromMy Golden Jubilee Thoughts, by Richard Gleeson, SJ. These accounts offer a glimpse of what life was like for Jesuits in the 1870s, especially as they traveled across a burgeoning America.

“Father Ferrari, one of Richard’s teachers, was expecting a distinguished visitor in the person of a fellow Jesuit priest, Aloysius Varsi, just returned from Rome, then in New York and on his way back to California. He had been looking through Europe for recruits to serve on the Jesuit Mission in California and had some 12 young men awaiting him in New York. He was to come to Philadelphia in search of possible others.”34

Gleeson was called out of a Latin class and taken to a parlor in the rectory of the Gesu in Philadelphia to meet Varsi. There, Gleeson’s teacher said, “Father Varsi, this is Richard Gleeson. He may go with you to California.” Gleeson felt that “the piercing eyes of the stranger-priest read me through. He arose, approached, his face lighted with his inexpressible smile, took my hands into his large warm hands, and sat me beside him on an old-fashioned sofa. Before he said a word I was captivated. I was ready to go with him to California, China, Africa, anywhere in the wide world. In a few minutes he was satisfied that I had a vocation to the Society of Jesus. Within two hours I had returned joyfully with the permission and the blessing of my truly Christian Father and Mother and the next day, the Feast of St. Matthew Apostle the Evangelist, I was on my way to California with 13 others, who formed the band gathered in Europe by Father Varsi, for the Jesuit Mission by the Golden Gate. From my first meeting with Father Varsi until this hour he has been an inspiration and an ideal.”35

Gleeson’s fellow novices on the trip came from England, Ireland, Belgium, Poland, Holland, Germany and Italy, and eight of the group barely spoke English. The group boarded a train in New York for the weeklong journey to California, with Gleeson, the youngest member, spending much of the time teaching English to his fellow novices.

“Generally the days were dull and uneventful; and as far as the classes in pronunciation went, to the embryo teachers, most disappointing. The evenings were better, when the rosary was said in common; afterwards, everyone joined in a sacred concert of Latin hymns and of a Latin version of the Litany of Loretto. Fellow travelers who had sedulously avoided the coach through morning and afternoon hours then cautiously peeked in and invariably stayed to listen. They could not really be blamed for their suspicion and their caution. It was indeed, a motley group, each member tailored to his own national costume, which, in turn, was not too new, and, sometimes, not too well-fitted. Besides, each member spoke some foreign language, and for a long period in American history foreign languages were anathema to native American ears. The group, also, were an odd lot. They served themselves two meals a day out of their own capacious hamper baskets. They ate the third in the dining car. Invariably they walked in, following the same leader, who, the more boldly curious learned, answered to the name of Allen; and the more boldly curious learned, too, just the exact bill of fare. On a particular morning the leader ordered spring chicken; the group ordered thirteen more; the leader followed with a second order for lamb chops; the thirteen solemnly repeated “lamb chops.” Foreigners, evidently, ate as heavily as Americans. On leaving the diner when Father Varsi answered the steward’s casual query, ‘Were the boys satisfied?’ with the off-hand reply that he had heard no complaint, the dining-car manager burst out with ‘Complaint! I never met such a crowd! It will take a couple of trips to Omaha to make up for it.’

“It was different, though, the natives reasoned, when it came to singing. The group, really, could be an opera company. When the train reached the North Platte River country in the midst of an electric storm it was delayed for a day at North Platte. The bridge behind collapsed just after the train’s crossing and the rails to the westward were partly washed out and needing immediate repair. One of the passengers mustered up courage to speak to Richard Gleeson, for his language, it was noticed, was just as theirs. Richard Gleeson at that moment was in sore need of merriment. A twenty-four hour wait to a 16-year-old boy can be unbearably long, even with the adjuncts of lightning and cloudburst and flood and buckled railroad tracks. Confidentially, the passenger asked, was it a theatrical troupe? ‘Yes! Yes!’ There were eager possibilities. ‘Would you boys put on a show for us tonight at the theatre in town?’

‘Quite willingly!’ The words held every enthusiasm and consideration that a young, and an obliging, and a hoping actor could put into the phrase, but they were bolstered conditionally with an appealing glance towards the riverbank and the intimated submission to official management.

“Now Richard Gleeson knew Father Varsi as a nobleman of Cagliari. He knew, too, that while at Georgetown, Father Varsi had served as a model for the Cardinal, St. Charles Borromeo…. But his questioners knew none of this and saw neither the blue Mediterranean nor the robe of cardinal red; they beheld merely a silent, elderly Italian, presumably a temperamental impresario, studying the river’s flood in the whipping wind and rain. One look was enough. They made no appeal.

“The train at length got started. At Cheyenne the night grew bitterly cold. Father Varsi wrapped his great overcoat as a blanket over the sleeping Richard and sat motionless in the freezing dark until the dawn. The lengthening miles clicked along to the far West. The snow-clad Sierras swept down into sunny valleys and to marsh lands and to the margin of San Francisco Bay.”36

Arson and Racism, Bricks and Crosses

Hugh McKeadney, who as a Jesuit novice had designed SI’s second Market Street school, began drawing plans for the Van Ness campus. He designed the school in the shape of an “E” — with rooms and corridors extending alongside the church. Varsi first wanted the church to face Van Ness but decided to abandon this plan due to the clouds of dust that blew down the avenue from time to time, and they moved the church façade to Hayes Street. Construction of the new church, campus and residence buildings lasted from 1878–1880 and cost $323,763.

The one controversy surrounding construction had to do with the company supplying the 7 million bricks used to build the church and school. San Francisco was suffering from an economic depression and thousands of men were out of work. Anti-Chinese sentiment ran high as the unemployed blamed Chinese immigrants for taking jobs away from whites by accepting low pay. In the midst of this resentment, a rumor began to circulate that the Jesuit fathers were purchasing bricks “of Chinese manufacture.” The Call published an article July 2, 1878, claiming that Maraschi “had been waited upon by members of brick-making firms where white labor is employed, and these made offer to supply the bricks at the same cost as the chinamen [sic]; but they had received no encouragement from the Reverend Father. In fact he declined to meet with them. Some very bitter comments were made by the members at their meeting yesterday over the proceeding. White labor, it was said, was employed in response to a general demand; but unless the firms employing it receive more encouragement than heretofore, the men will have to be discharged.”37

Another newspaper accused the Jesuits of purchasing 15 million bricks and claimed the priests bypassed firms that hired “white men only.” The next day, July 3, 1,500 men, most of them members of the Brick Makers’ Protective Union, staged a rally on Market Street in front of the school denouncing SI. The newspaper articles and rally enflamed emotions and led someone to set fire to the Market Street college during the Fourth of July parade. Fortunately, the fire was discovered and extinguished in short order and caused only $200 worth of damage. Varsi responded to this incident with a letter published July 7 in the Call, which corrected many of the accusations against SI. No Chinese brick company existed, he noted; the Patent Brick Company, from which SI had purchased the bricks, “employs Chinese men but not to the exclusion of white men.” He went on to warn that “should we … be compelled by the undue dictations of your publication to adjourn the work to another indefinite season, the workingmen would be the losers.”38

McKeadney, too, published a statement noting that he alone had signed the contract with the company in question. “We simply wanted first-class hard brick, for which we were to pay hard dollars. It did not occur to us to demand a stipulation that the brick should be made exclusively by white men, any more than it did to the sellers to demand that the gold of the coin should be mined by such.”39

The letter worked, and the diatribe against the Jesuits ceased. The Examinerblamed the Call for setting workers against the priests and added: “We hope to see [the college and church building] completed and bounteously endowed, to be at once an ornament to the city and a blessing to all.”40

The Jesuits, sensitive to the racist demands of the white-controlled unions, did make one concession that modern readers would find most objectionable. They agreed to pay an extra 50 cents per thousand to ensure that white men only would make the bricks used to build the new church and school. The Evening Postnoted that “in order that no bricks might be delivered other than as agreed, a mold was stipulated to be used that should identify the manufactured articles.” That mold was a cross to show that Christian men made the bricks.41

The Jesuits and white union leaders discovered a hitch in this compromise. According to the Evening Post “there is one portion of the work where white labor is unwilling or unable to compete. This is in taking the heated bricks from the ovens. About twenty men are so employed, and the ovens reach 240 degrees of heat. The Chinamen [sic] who have been engaged for some time at this work are said to be bleached white with the intense fires to which they are subjected. Just here comes in the necessity of a little common sense in the matter… It is impossible to correct all the evils of this Chinese plague in a moment or a month, and it is the part of wisdom to always do the best we can under the circumstances, never throwing away an advantage because it is not greater.” Thus, in the end, the Christian bricks of SI were made with the combined effort of white and Chinese labor, in spite of the fear, racism and shortsightedness of those involved.

(When the workers were building Davies Symphony Hall in September 1978, they uncovered a large cache of these bricks, marked with crosses. Kevin Starr, an alumnus and former faculty member of USF, wrote of this discovery in “Free to Speak a Secret,” published by USF: “David H. Zisser, an attorney employed as contracts administrator for the Southern Pacific Communications Company, was taking a break from a bout of research in the law library at City Hall. He strolled over to the construction site to get some fresh air and to watch the spectacle of the great bulldozers moving tons of earth. Zisser noticed that among the earth and debris being cleared were countless bricks, many of them marked with the sign of the cross.” A graduate of USF, Zisser knew the history behind these bricks and contacted USF, which had them mounted and presented to those who donated $1,250 in honor of the school’s 125th anniversary.)

Workmen began laying the foundations for the new school July 11, 1878, and the school celebrated the dedication of the cornerstone on October 20 with 6,000 in attendance. The text of the Latin dedication read by Fr. Bouchard was placed in the cornerstone. (After the 1906 earthquake, the Jesuits recovered that cornerstone and its contents. You can find that same cornerstone outside the entrance to the bell tower of St. Ignatius Church on Fulton and Parker Streets; the contents, however, were removed and placed in the cornerstone of the present church.)

Accolti, who worked so tirelessly to found the California mission, never saw the new school completed. He died November 7, 1878, of what was most likely a massive stroke. His funeral was held in St. Ignatius Church two days later, and he was buried at the Jesuit plot in the Santa Clara Mission cemetery.

The new buildings were dedicated February 1, 1880, and the school opened July 2, 1880, with three distinct sections — the Preparatory Department, the Literary and Commercial Department and the Philosophical and Scientific Department — which occupied separate floors of the three-story college. Most would agree that the new church and school “were among the finest structures in all of San Francisco” up until their destruction in the 1906 earthquake and fire.42 Among those who helped decorate the interior of the church, especially the elaborate side altars, were many women benefactors, foremost among them being Mrs. Bertha Welch who, in 1890, donated $50,000 to provide for the interior adornment of the church. Among those adornments were 24 stained-glass windows crafted in Munich, decorations by the famed Italian artisans A. Moretti and Trezzini and paintings by the European-trained Domenico Tojetti, one of the city’s most famous painters.

Five years later Mrs. Welch gave the Jesuits another $50,000 towards the purchase of a church organ, with 85 stops and 5,301 pipes. Its various parts arrived packed in four extra large railroad cars in September 1896. After a performance, the famous soloist Clarence Eddy judged the organ to be “one of the greatest and finest” in the world.43

In 1880, the Jesuits faced a total debt of $862,510 and paid $42,500 in annual interest. Given these numbers, we can understand why the Jesuits grew angry whenever the papers referred to the “million dollar home of the Society of Jesus in San Francisco.”44 Varsi chose to ignore these remarks in public but told his supporters, in private, the size of the debt that supported this “million dollar home.”

He also ensured the success of this third campus by hiring more teachers for the 680 students and appointing Fr. Robert E. Kenna, SJ, as the school’s eighth president. Kenna, born in Mississippi and raised in San Francisco, was the first non-Italian president the school had since Maraschi opened the doors of the little wood-frame school in 1855.

AMDG
St. Ignatius College Preparatory

Courage to Lead; Passion to Serve

2001 37th Avenue San Francisco, CA 94116
(415) 731-7500
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