Star of the Sea Church Celebrates Its Quasquicentennial

By Fr. J. Illo

In 1866, what we now call the Richmond District was incorporated into the City of San Francisco. Known as the “outside lands,” it was a lonely area of drifting sand dunes and sagebrush, a blank area on county maps with Mountain Lake as the sole identifiable feature. Only the dirt track called Point Lobos Toll Road – now Geary Boulevard – pierced the billows of salty fog rolling over the hills from the Pacific Ocean. 

Star of the Sea church

The Star of the Sea Church, located on Geary Boulevard between Eighth and Ninth avenues, is marking its 125th anniversary as a Richmond District parish. The photo above was taken in 1920. Courtesy Photo.

This unincorporated area of San Francisco County, also called simply the “extended area” or “beyond the graves” lay west of the cemeteries known as the Silent City (what is now the Western Addition). Locals called it “pneumonia gulch” because of the frigid fogbound summers. In 1890, the SF Board of Supervisors named it “The Richmond District” after a mansion on 12th Avenue and Clement Street known as the Richmond House (after the owner’s hometown of Richmond, Australia). 


By 1870, sports fans had built the Bay District Track for horse racing near Arguello and Geary boulevards, and a few enterprising Irishmen established horse ranches, farms and public houses among the rolling dunes. At one point there were more horses than people – and more cows than horses and people – but many of the Irish residents began  having large families. These families needed a Catholic Church. 

Worshipers had been making the trip from the west side to Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral, east of Nob Hill, and then to the much closer cemetery chapel of the Holy Cross on Eddy at Divisadero streets (now a Buddhist Monastery, but still bearing the façade inscription Sanctae Crucis, or “of the Holy Cross”). 

In 1886, 41 Catholic families felt ready to maintain a church of their own. The first Mass was celebrated at Farrell’s Dance Hall at Ninth and Geary on Easter Sunday, 1887. Within a year, the Irish families had built their own 500-seat framework building at a cost of $10,000. It would be six years before the church was promoted from mission outpost to fully independent parish. Father John P. Coyle, the first native San Franciscan to be ordained a Catholic priest, became the first pastor of Star of the Sea Parish in 1894. 

A photograph taken from Strawberry Hill in that year shows some houses around the race track with the Star of the Sea church west of them. Behind it was an almost unbroken undulation of sand dunes stretching to the Pacific Ocean. Father Coyle worked hard to build up the new parish and pastored the community through the 1906 earthquake, which led to a westward expansion of the city and rapid growth of the church. He survived the earthquake by only two years, and in 1908 Archbishop Patrick William Riordan realized he needed a man of vision and energy for the growing community.

A gifted young priest from County Tipperary, Ireland, Father Philip O’Ryan, became the second pastor of Star of the Sea parish. He set about bringing a measure of discipline and gentility to the men and women of the “Outside Lands.” They described their pastor as a man of tireless effort, a marvelous teacher who was a gentle, loving guide to children and adults alike. In the first year of his pastorate, he built a school with the Sisters of St. Joseph, opening Star of the Sea Grammar School in 1909 with 137 parish children. 

Star of the Sea Parish has since seen eight more pastors, all of whom have had to respond to the ebbs and flows of demographic shifts and changing attitudes toward organized religion. In recent years, the church has grown as it has offered more traditionally Catholic liturgies and devotions, and we look forward to a bright future.

The community will celebrate its 125th anniversary with a Festival Mass at 4:30 p.m. on Nov. 9, followed by a gala banquet with guest speaker Patrick Coffin, a radio and television personality. Tickets, which will benefit the renovation of the church interior, can be purchased at Eventbright, https://star-125.eventbrite.com. For more information, visit the parish website at  http://www.starparish.com.

Fr. J. Illo is the pastor at Star of the Sea parish.

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