The Dominicans Province of the Most Holy Name of Jesus

Dominican Friars: Pioneers in the Archdiocese

Oct 1, 2003

Dominican Friars:
Pioneers in the Archdiocese

by Fabian Stan Parmisano, O.P.

SAN FRANCISCO, March 28, 2003 - In reflecting on the Archdiocese's 150 year history, it is good to remember that at its very inception stood the Dominican Order, prominently featured in its first archbishop and in his Dominican brothers and sisters who ministered with and under him, and who have helped continue and expand that ministry to the present day.

In 1216 the Order of Preachers, founded by St. Dominic de Guzman, was blessed by the Church and given the mandate to live, pray, study the Christian faith and preach it in all its fullness throughout the world. The Order, in both its male and female branches, spread rapidly throughout Europe and into Asia, and in the late 1400s when the first ships arrived from Spain in the new world, Dominicans were on board. They established missions in Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and in South and Central America. By 1700, they were also centered in Mexico and Baja with some friars now and again joining their Franciscan confreres in Alta California as far north as Monterey. In fact it was a Dominican, Father Ignacio Ramirez de Arellano, who was one of two chaplains serving in the constitutional convention in Monterey preparatory to California's entrance into the United States Sept. 9, 1850. [more]

Roots of Western Province

While the Spanish Dominicans were ministering in the southwestern regions of the new world other Dominicans were active in the northern hemisphere. Their labor blossomed in 1806 with the establishment of the eastern province of St. Joseph centered in Springfield, Kentucky. It was to St. Joseph province that, in the early 1840s, two Aragon Spanish Dominicans, Joseph Alemany and Francis Vilarrasa, soon to be united in the formation of the Western Dominican Province, were first missioned.

In February of 1849 a young Dominican of the eastern province, Father Augustine Anderson, came to Father Alemany, now his provincial, and asked if he might be assigned to California "to revive our missions there." With Alemany's whole-hearted approval, Anderson set sail from New York in the early months of 1850. After an arduous voyage south along the U.S. Atlantic coast into and across the Caribbean and a grueling trek across Panama (and by ship again north along the Pacific coast, he arrived in San Francisco July 6, 1850. He ministered there briefly, gathering funds for the building of the city's future St. Patrick's church. The center of his operation, however, turned out to be Sacramento. Here he offered what appears to have been that city's first Mass and built its first Catholic church which he named after the Dominican tertiary, Rose of Lima, the first canonized Saint in the Americas.

In the meantime, Father Alemany had been consecrated bishop of California (meaning all of California, inclusive of Baja, Nevada, most of Utah, and the southernmost part of Arizona), and he together with two other Dominicans — his eastern confrere, Father Francis Vilarrasa, and Sr. Mary Goemaere, a nun from France — set out by ship for the youngest state in the Union. They reached San Francisco the night of Dec. 6, 1850, only to find that Father Anderson, whose counsel and ministerial aid they were counting on for the new work ahead, had died of typhus while tending to the cholera plague victims of Sacramento, a "martyr to charity" as eulogized in the press of the time.

The bishop and his two companions took up residence in Monterey, where they were welcomed by the Spanish Dominican mentioned above, Father Ramirez, now pastor of the local church, San Carlos Borromeo, together with its mission in Carmel. Sr. Mary immediately founded a convent and school for girls with the bishop and Father Vilarrasa serving as chaplains and teachers. The bishop resided in the rectory of San Carlos, now his cathedral, and Father Vilarrasa, having been appointed "Commissary General" of the projected congregation, built a small convent on what is now Jefferson and Larkin streets. In addition to tending to his first novices, six young men from Spain, and ministering to the sisters and their students, Vilarrasa, once Ramirez returned to Mexico, took over as pastor of both cathedral and the Carmel mission.

From Monterey to Benicia to San Francisco

In 1853 when, the California diocese was subdivided into that of San Francisco and Monterey with Alemany appointed archbishop of San Francisco, Alemany moved his episcopal seat to San Francisco. In turn Vilarrasa with his novices moved to Benicia. On March 30, 1854, the archbishop deeded to the friars an as yet unfinished church on the corner of the future 4th and J streets in Benicia. Vilarrasa newly christened the church St. Dominic's and undertook the repairs and expansion needed for a proper novitiate and studium (seminary). A few months later Sr. Mary and nine other sisters together with their Monterey students followed and set up convent and school just a mile or so from the friars. Growth of the congregation (not yet of sufficient stature to be designated a "province") was slow. There were few novices/students — only two of the original six reached ordination and one of these left California for the Dominicans in South America shortly thereafter — and few priests from abroad. Yet within the first 50 years the friars were quite visibly present and active not only in Benicia but throughout Sonoma and Contra Costa counties, first as missionaries with their residence at St. Dominic's and then, with the growth of the local populations, as resident pastors of the newly constituted parishes.

As early as April, 1863, we find the Dominicans staffing parishes in metropolitan San Francisco. They helped in the construction of St. Brigid's on Van Ness Ave., celebrated the first Mass there on Jan. 31, 1864, and continued serving the parish until 1875. St. Francis of Assisi — the oldest Catholic church in the city besides the mission, and Alemany's pro-cathedral until St. Mary's was completed — was also entrusted to the Dominicans.

San Francisco also became the early location of a still more significant Dominican presence. In 1872 Father Vilarrasa with his council began planning for what soon became the new center of western Dominican life and ministry. This was St. Dominic's Church and convent (monastery). The church was formally dedicated by Archbishop Alemany June 29, 1873. By 1880 it was proving to be too small for the area's growing Catholic population, and so a much larger edifice was constructed. The designer/architect was Dominican Father Raymond Johns. This magnificent church, seating 2000, was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire. Another temporary church was quickly erected, giving place finally to the present St. Dominic's, dedicated Feb. 19, 1928.

In 1896 the congregation moved its headquarters from Benicia to St. Dominic's in San Francisco. The activities within the parish were full and rich. There were special ministries for homeless boys and jobless young men, concerts (with one of the friars, Father Vincent Di Marzo, an admired composer among the city's music devotees), a respectable theological and literary publication, conferences by civic and religious leaders, retreats for doctors and nurses of the city at large. Plus there was the Third Order (Dominican Laity) and the numerous Dominican sodalities and confraternities alive there as in every Dominican church enabling parishioners to have a more personal and intimate relationship with Christ and one another.

From St. Dominic's the friars reached out to the wider San Francisco and beyond, conducting parish missions, directing retreats for priests and religious, and serving the city's hospitals, care centers and jails. And in 1906 the friars and sisters were once again united in ministry as the Dominican sisters, now centered in San Rafael, moved their girls Academy, St. Rose, from lower Brannan street to within the confines of St. Dominic's, also staffing the parish grade school. National as well as local outreach was later achieved (1935) with the erection of the Shrine of St. Jude with its four preached novenas each year and its daily ministry to those in most need.

In July of 1893 the Dominicans expanded into the northwest, establishing a parish in Portland, Oregon, with school attached under the care of the newly formed Dominican Sisters, Mission San Jose. In 1908 the friars accepted the invitation of the then Bishop of Seattle to build and staff a parish together with a Newman Center for the state university there, once again with the help of their Dominican sisters, these of the Everett (Edmonds) congregation.

Raised to rank of province

Of sufficient size and quality now to be ranked by Rome as a province under the title of the Holy Name of Jesus, the western Dominicans continued to expand. In order to be closer to the University of California that they might better fulfill the intellectual ideals of their Order, they exchanged their parishes in Crockett and Martinez for one in Berkeley, St. Mary Magdalen. Toward the same end they now moved their studium from Benicia to Oakland. Yet again they were joined by the ever proliferating Dominican sisters in common prayer and ministry, first by the Edmonds and then the Oakford congregations.

Now a more serious engagement with matters intellectual became possible. There was, of course, the in-house teaching and learning at St. Albert's, raised to the status of "studium generale" in 1949 and affiliated with the Catholic University of America shortly thereafter. But the brethren were soon employed in other teaching and research at various colleges and universities in the archdiocese and elsewhere, adding up through the years to some 20 institutions. They also established and/or functioned at some 15 Newman Centers in the Bay Area and beyond, helping the young toward spiritual as well as intellectual growth. In 1966 St. Albert's became the first of the western Catholic seminaries to become part of the ecumenical Graduate Theological Union with its affiliation to the University of California in Berkeley. Besides college and university teaching the province also maintained their own high schools, first in Portland, Oregon, 1922-1927, and in Los Angeles from 1955 to 1981 with some of the brethren teaching in other secondary schools as well.

A perennial problem for and with the Dominicans is the balancing of their communal life, their study and prayer with their active ministry. The Dominican ideal has been encapsulated in the phrase contemplata aliis tradere: to give to others the fruits of one's contemplation. In the earliest days of the archdiocese the Dominicans sometimes ran afoul of their dynamic archbishop who, naturally enough, even though he himself, as a Dominican, had been guided by the same ideal, wanted more action from the friars than they thought they might give without compromising the fullness of their ideal.

But conflict often arose among the friars themselves with resolution more often in favor of action than prayer. Of help to them in remembering the value, and, indeed, primacy of the contemplative in their life have been the cloistered Dominican nuns with their clear and uncompromising emphasis upon the contemplative. In 1921, at the request of Archbishop Riordan and the then Dominican Provincial, Lawrence McMahon, eight Dominican nuns arrived in San Francisco from Hunt's Point, N.Y., and were housed in a private home at 1090 Eddy St., refashioned into a monastery for them. Here, in 1926, with the blessings and aid of the friars, perpetual adoration of the Eucharist was inaugurated, the first of such extended devotion in the archdiocese and probably in the whole of California. In 1928 the nuns moved to their newly constructed and much larger monastery in Menlo Park where the friars continued to serve as chaplains and retreat directors being in turn inspired and prayed for by them.

'Padre Blanco' and missionary spirit

In the later 19th, early 20th century, in kinship of spirit with his earlier brother missioners, Father William Dempflin (d. 1912), affectionately known by the Indians as "Padre Blanco" for his white Dominican habit, ministered full time to the Native American. Through some twenty years he did little else but ride horse or buckboard from tribe to tribe within the ambit of the San Francisco archdiocese and beyond throughout the whole of California and into Baja and Arizona, not just preaching to the natives but working for their violated rights, sometimes at peril of his life. In an early sketch (1891) emanating from an Indian school in Yuma, Arizona, it was said of him: "no man has done more in the United States for the 'red man' than Father William... he has devoted his years in the holy ministry almost entirely to the wants of the Indian; he has shared their camps, their food and their life."

It wasn't, however, until the Second World War that the longing for further expansion of mission was felt and realized. Father Leo Hofstee, having served in several Bay Area parishes, became one of five western Dominican military chaplains. While serving in the Pacific theater, he discovered the abandoned leper colony of Tala in the Philippines. At war's end he returned to the colony and through some forty years tended to the physical as well as spiritual needs of the people, establishing a hospital, orphanage, grade and high schools and even a college with the lepers themselves as administrators and teachers, and doing much else toward the cure of leprosy and elimination of the stigma attaching to that dread disease.

Father Hofstee was the province's lone missionary abroad. But in 1963 orders went out from the Dominican headquarters in San Francisco that three friars undertake as a province a mission in Chiapas in southern Mexico, bringing corporal as well as spiritual medicine to the indigenous people living throughout the vast extent of jungle. For the more seriously sick and injured the province built a medical center which soon was ranked by the UN among the best of third world hospitals. Later this particular mission was turned over to the Mexican Dominicans, though it is still financed in good measure by the western province. Mexicali now became the province's corporate mission territory, while individual westerners with the encouragement and backing of their province have been serving in Kenya and Guatemala.

This missionary spirit that sparked the dynamism that began and shaped the early archdiocese of San Francisco continues. Dominicans are still very much a part of the on-the-spot daily life, prayer and work of the archdiocese but their reach into other dioceses and countries has its positive effect "at home." Unlike the media in its reporting of world peoples and events, the resident Dominicans — men and women, lay and cleric — bring into the Bay Area an awareness of other peoples born of first-hand experience and rooted in Christian concern. And being themselves members of an international, inter-racial family, thriving on diversity yet living in unity and peace, they further demonstrate, locally, that in spite of and often because of the all but infinite differences among peoples one harmonious world may be something more than a dream.

Father Parmisano is the author of a book length study of the Western Dominicans entitled "Mission West." This is one in a year-long series of articles marking the 150th anniversary of the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

Reprinted with permission.  © 2003 Catholic San Francisco

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