Layers of Time
Recently a crane operator turned up the tooth of a woolly mammoth in San Francisco while digging holes for the supports for a new downtown transit center.
Woolly mammoths were shaggy relatives of the Asian elephant that are thought to have made their way to this continent over the Bering Strait. They were likely done in 10,000 years ago by climate change, loss of habitat and human hunters, although stragglers are thought to have survived on an Alaskan island until about 1700 BC.
Our San Francisco woolly mammoth seems to have fallen somewhere between Mission and Folsom Streets and is so buried in time that our understanding of his life and death is pretty sketchy. But the discovery of his 10-inch-long tooth, found more than 100 feet deep in the sandy soil under the city, is a timely contextual reminder as we celebrate the sesquicentennial of Saint Mary’s College:
Every day we stand unawares upon many layers of history and millions of stories that are, nonetheless, the very foundation for our world today.
Brother President Ronald Gallagher noted during the Sesquicentennial Mass in September that it was humbling to think of all the people whose zeal, genius and faith have sustained Saint Mary’s for 150 years.“We stand proudly today on their shoulders,” he said.
In preparing to tell Saint Mary’s story during this landmark year, we’ve learned a lot about these hardy souls who simply refused to give up on a great idea: providing a life-changing Christian education for working-class kids who couldn’t afford the more expensive Jesuit schools in the area. It was a thoroughly American idea — education for all — but also rooted in the ethos of the Christian Brothers, founded in France in 1680 to educate the children of the poor, in cheeky defiance of then current practice. It’s no surprise that Archbishop Joseph Alemany, who doggedly championed the founding of Saint Mary’s, recruited the Christian Brothers to run his school after it struggled to get a foothold in San Francisco.
Alemany worried about the temptations that the Barbary Coast presented for San Francisco’s young men. The 19th century Irish families living in the neighborhood where our woolly mammoth tooth was found surely must have worried about this, too. The excavation between Mission and Folsom also turned up numerous artifacts of their lives.
Meanwhile, the excavation also uncovered a sizeable gold nugget, a symbol of 19th century events that turned the tide of California history and also played a role in the founding of Saint Mary’s College. To fund his idea for a school, Archbishop Alemany engaged a plucky young Irish priest, Father Croke, to go up into the Sierra to convince gold miners, many of them tender-hearted Irishmen, to share some of the bounty they’d dug from the mountains. Father Croke came back with more than $30,000, some of it paid in gold dust. It wasn’t quite enough, but it seeded a plan for a school that has survived and thrived for 150 years.
So, this year, we celebrate a significant anniversary of this remarkable college. We’ve named it the Year of the Gael, for everyone who has made this college possible. As we excavate the past, we’ll share the big dreams and tales of derring do, and marvel at the close calls and David and Goliath moments that are part of our history. Of course, we’ll also look to the future, standing on the broad shoulders of people who had a really good idea.