By John Grennan
How a visionary Archbishop persuaded nine Christian Brothers to come to post-Gold Rush San Francisco and establish Saint Mary’s College
During the California Gold Rush, footloose Americans with dreams of striking it rich boarded Conestoga wagons and clipper ships headed west. By the 1850s, tens of thousands of Irish Catholics were searching for gold at the end of the continental rainbow in the Sierra foothills mining camps.
The luck of the Irish failed to pan out for most, and a growing number of erstwhile miners moved to the burgeoning port city of San Francisco. Before long, California’s Catholic Church leaders realized that they needed to provide pastoral shepherds for this temptation-laden frontier city.
Those leaders included Joseph Alemany, a Spanish priest who had success in other Catholic settlements on the American frontier and was appointed archbishop in 1850. His archdiocese — which included 260,000 square miles of territory between the Colorado River and the Pacific Ocean — had only 22 priests serving an estimated 60,000 Catholics.
Recognizing that this pilgrim church needed priests, Alemany began establishing a Catholic center of higher learning in San Francisco — the school we know today as Saint Mary’s College.
“Archbishop Alemany had two main goals in setting up a college in San Francisco,” says Ronald Isetti, a Saint Mary’s history professor from 1968 to 2005 and author of Called to the Pacific about the Brothers’ first 80 years in Northern California. “The most important was to promote priestly vocations. His new school would serve as a kind of minor seminary, where candidates learned Latin.
“The second most important goal was to protect the faith of the sons of immigrant Roman Catholics in this frontier territory and help them rise in society,” Isetti adds. “Saint Mary’s was a college primarily for Catholics, especially Irish Catholics, in the 19th century.”
The Jesuits were the first religious order to open colleges in Northern California, founding Santa Clara University in 1851 and opening Saint Ignatius College, the modern-day University of San Francisco, four years later. But Alemany was not satisfied with the schools’ leaders, who were training Jesuits to teach at universities rather than be parish priests.
“I invited (the Jesuits) here years ago… but they have not come up to expectations,” Alemany wrote in his diary in 1857.
So Alemany turned to the Brothers of the Christian Schools. In an era when most communications traveled via rail and ship, this courtship unfolded over several years.
The Archbishop’s Call
In 1856, Alemany began writing to Brother Facile Rabut, the provincial of the Christian Brothers of North America, saying that he “desired a colony of your good Brothers for the good education of our young men.”
When he received no reply, the archbishop continued pressing his case. By 1858, his letters to Brother Facile grew more urgent: “…Be so good to let me know, whether we may expect within a year or so, to see our boys gathered together and protected from danger and temptation under the good guidance of the Brothers of Christian Schools.”
Alemany was not pleased with the response. Brother Facile, alluding to the fact that there were only 200 Brothers in the United States, lamented “It is painful for me to be unable to second the zeal of Your Grace for the good education of your young people, but unfortunately I still find myself in the same penury of subjects.”
Undaunted, Alemany went ahead with his plans to open a college. He had considered placing the campus at Polk and Hayes streets, but he worried that students might be lured into the saloons and brothels of the nearby Barbary Coast. In 1873, Alta California journalist Albert S. Evans described this neighborhood between Broadway and the Embarcadero as a den of iniquity:
“Women dressed in flaunting colors stand at the doors…urging (men) to come back and take just one more drink.… The already half-drunken fool complies, and finds himself in the calaboose (jail) the next morning, with a broken head, utterly empty pockets, and a dim recollection of having been taken somewhere by some woman he cannot identify.…”
Sufficiently horrified by this possibility, the archbishop shied away from downtown and obtained a tract of land along San Francisco’s Mission Road at what was then the city’s southwestern edge. (The location is now in Bernal Heights near the Alemany Blvd./Mission St. exit off Highway 280.)
Sequestered from the hurly-burly of swinging 1860s San Francisco, Saint Mary’s opened its doors to pupils on July 6, 1863. Alemany placed Father John Harrington, the head of Saint Mary’s Cathedral primary school, in control for the time being.
Still wanting the Brothers to run the College, Alemany asked other Catholic leaders to persuade the Brothers to make the trek to California. He even wrote Archbishop Paul Cullen in Ireland, warning that “large numbers of Catholic families, principally Irish, are settling throughout the diocese, chiefly in San Francisco, and the boys are most exposed to grow up in indifference and infidelity unless we take immediate measures for their Christian education.”
When these queries failed, and as Saint Mary’s struggled to attract students, Alemany went straight to the top, visiting Pope Pius IX in 1867. The Holy Father ordered the Vatican to take action.
By April 1868, the orders reached the Brothers in North America. Confronted with this exhortation from on high, Brother Facile directed Brother Justin McMahon, then president of Calvert College in Baltimore, to recruit a delegation of Brothers and lead them to San Francisco. Brother Justin — who received $800 from Alemany for the passage — bought steamship tickets, persuaded eight colleagues to accompany him and ultimately became the first Brother President of Saint Mary’s.
“I have made a journey of twenty thousand miles to get the Brothers,” Alemany wrote in his diary in August 1868, nearly 12 years after his initial letter. “I have at last succeeded. Let us give thanks to God.”
Old World, New World
The “pioneer” Christian Brothers who responded to the church’s call to California included Brothers Cianan, Pirmian, Sabinian, Emilian, Gustavus, Genebern, Dimidrian, Adrian and their leader Justin.
Within one year, Dimidrian died from an illness he contracted while en route to California. Adrian, the youngest, had second thoughts about his vocation and left immediately after arriving on the West Coast. He resurfaced as a Tammany Hall politician in New York City under his given name, William Jay Gaynor, and was elected mayor in 1909.
The other seven Brothers, who served the College as presidents, administrators and professors throughout the late 19th century, laid the foundation for the Saint Mary’s of today.
While the Brothers were known in Europe since the 17th century, they were still relatively new to the United States. The majority of the Brothers in America during the 1860s were European immigrants; of the nine Brothers who went to California, five were born in Ireland, two in Germany, one in Switzerland and one in the United States.
When they departed for San Francisco, most had been in North America for less than a decade. They were all in their 20s and 30s, and the trip to California — a six-week, nearly 6,000-mile sea journey with an overland crossing at Panama — was in many ways as dramatic as their journeys from Europe to America.
Going to San Francisco
On July 16, 1868, the Brothers boarded the Ocean Queen in New York Harbor. Brother Jasper Brennan from Manhattan College surprised them by arranging for the school band to serenade them from a yacht on the Hudson. They played “Home, Sweet Home,” the 19th-century ballad that was the most popular tune among both Union and Confederate soldiers during the Civil War.
The July 19, 1868 edition of the New York Tablet ran the following description of the emotional farewell: “The cheers and waving of hats and handkerchiefs on board the college boats fully attested to the cordial love the escorting party entertained for their departing Brothers, and this enthusiasm for their friends affected them so deeply that not a few had to withdraw from the public gaze to give vent to their feelings in secret.”
Over the next 10 days, the Ocean Queen carried the Brothers 2,300 miles to the port of Aspinwall (present-day Colón) on the northern Isthmus of Panama. They then traveled via train and wagon across the 49-mile isthmus in the sweltering heat of the Central American summer.
Bayard Taylor’s El Dorado, one of the most popular travel narratives about the post–Gold Rush voyage from the east to California, marveled at Panama’s verdant landscape: “There is nothing in the world comparable to these forests. No description that I have ever read conveys an idea of the splendid overplus of life in the tropics.”
He also warned that cholera “has carried off a quarter of the native population” and was beginning to carry off members of his traveling party as well. The Brothers would learn about this hazard all too well, as Brother Dimidrian fell ill in Panama and never recovered.
Once the Brothers completed the two-day isthmus crossing, they boarded the Montana, a 2,600-ton steamer that brought them and more than 600 other passengers up the Pacific to California. They departed on July 28 and sailed into San Francisco Bay on August 10.
Miners of Souls
Within days of their arrival, the Brothers followed Alemany to the Saint Mary’s campus and formed the core of the College’s faculty and administration. During the 1868–69 school year, Justin served as College president and senior class professor and Cianan was vice president and taught the junior class. The other five pitched in wherever they could — Emilian taught Latin and Greek; Genebern was dean of discipline and a sophomore class professor; Gustavus headed up the business department; Sabinian was school treasurer and Pirmian took charge of the school infirmary.
Their first year saw challenges of almost Biblical proportions. San Francisco suffered the worst of four 19th-century smallpox outbreaks, killing at least 760 of San Francisco’s 150,000 residents. On Oct. 21, 1868, a 6.8 earthquake erupted along the Hayward Fault in Berkeley, rocking San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose.
The Brothers survived those calamities, but there were still daunting obstacles to overcome. Before their arrival, the school had amassed a $75,000 debt and was enrolling fewer than 30 students per year.
Brother Justin went on the offensive, publishing ads in San Francisco newspapers and inviting families of prospective students to campus for speech exhibitions and concerts.
These open houses garnered free publicity, and the student body grew to 240 students by 1875. After its early troubles, Saint Mary’s had more students than either of the Jesuit colleges in Northern California. It even had more students than the first University of California campus in Berkeley, founded the same year the Brothers took the reins at Saint Mary’s.
In 1872, Brother Justin succeeded in obtaining articles of incorporation for the College from the state, which allowed Saint Mary’s to grant degrees and established it as one of the state’s premier institutions of higher learning. To Alemany’s delight, 26 of the College’s first 270 graduates took Holy Orders, and the Catholic Church in San Francisco counted many Saint Mary’s alumni among its founding Fathers. In fact, Alemany became so attached to the Brothers that when Brother Justin was transferred back to New York in 1879, the archbishop was crestfallen.
“I know what obedience means, so I can make no difficulty in regard to this change,” Alemany wrote to Brother Justin’s superiors. “But I will say in taking Brother Justin from me, you are almost cutting off my right hand.”