looking back

‘Looking Back’: St. Francis of Assisi

This Mother’s Day, why not visit a monument of our city’s namesake in Golden Gate Park made by a local mother?

Clara Leonora (Peggy) Huntington was born in New York in 1878 to the Huntington clan of railroad magnates. She moved from New York to San Francisco in the 1890s with her family. She married Gilbert B. Perkins in 1902, having three children with him. 

After she and Perkins divorced, she focused on art, attending San Francisco Art Institute (founded in 1871) and studying under other artists in New York and Rome. According to the Smithsonian Institution, she sculpted a full-length statue of Saint Francis in the mid-1920s; since 1966 this statue has been in the Huntington Gardens founded by her father, whose books and art collection also formed the Huntington Art Gallery and Library in San Marino, California, next to Pasadena. 

In Rome, she sculpted another statue of St. Francis titled “St. Francis Feeding the Birds” in 1931. It was exhibited in Rome, prior to being displayed at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island. An interesting feature of the work, the statue had water flowing out of the hands of St. Francis.

A statue dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi, the namesake of  San Francisco, stands in a bucolic setting in the Garden of Fragrance in Golden Gate Park’s Botanical Garden. Photo by Eloise Kelsey. 

Columnist Herb Caen claimed in the Feb. 17, 1950, SF Examiner that Bishop James Thomas O’Dowd had wanted the St. Francis statue from the 1939 Exposition to be at Mission Dolores before his death on Feb. 4, 1950, and Bishop O’Dowd’s friends wanted to fulfill his wish. The hitch was that Clara Huntington wanted $9,000 for the statue, according to Caen.

The SF Examiner quoted her on Jan. 31, 1958, before her 80th birthday party, as saying “Someday, I trust, I shall see my St. Francis statue placed in San Francisco.” The statue was still in storage at the time. Clara Huntington offered the statue to the San Francisco Arts Commission, which accepted it in November 1958.

After she visited the Golden Gate Park Botanical Garden (developed during the 1930s) with an engineer and architect, she approved of the statue being placed in its Garden of Fragrance, according to a 1959 San Francisco Recreation and Park resolution.

Attendees at the June 10, 1965, dedication of the St. Francis Feeding the Birds statue, according to The Times in San Mateo include John F. Shelley, mayor of San Francisco; Mrs. Elsa Uppman Knoll, president of the Styrbing Arboretum Society; and P. H. Brydon, director of the Strybing Arboretum and Botanical Garden. Matilda Wilbur (1900-2007), the matriarch of the Wilbur clan and active in many Catholic organizations and horticultural issues, cut the ribbon.

Huntington was traveling to England by ship when she fell ill and subsequently died on June 21, 1965, at the age of 87, according to her obituary in the San Francisco Examiner. She was interred in Southhampton, England. At the time of her death, she was a resident of San Francisco, which comes from the Spanish for “Saint Francis.”

When the Spanish were colonizing what they called “Alta California” in the 1700s, the chain of missions strung through the territory was run by Franciscan missionaries. They were part of an organization founded by Saint Francis, who was born in Assisi, Italy in the early 1180s, centuries before Christopher Columbus traveled to the Americas.

Francis received papal approval in 1209 for his religious order, whose members would have to swear a vow to follow the rules Francis laid out, emphasizing poverty. Francis was also known for being compassionate towards nature, considering all creatures his brothers and sisters. In 1212, a separate Franciscan order for women was founded.

To spread the Gospel beyond Italy, Francis, for instance, traveled occasionally from 1212 to 1219. While the Egyptian city of Damietta was being besieged in the Fifth Crusade in September 1219, Francis and another friar went to the Egyptian camp to meet Sultan al-Kamil before returning to the crusader camp days later, though it is not clear what was actually said in the meeting, according to historian John Tolan. Francis manifested “stigmata,” or wounds of a supernatural origin that parallel what Jesus suffered during his crucifixion.    

Francis died in 1226 and was canonized in 1228 by Pope Gregory IX.

The bronze statue (standing 6-feet, 6-inches tall, according to the San Francisco Arts Commission) is in the Garden of Fragrance within the San Francisco Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park. Admission is free with proof of San Francisco residency.

1 reply »

  1. Great! Give the ignorant throngs another symbol of Christianity to destroy! It is wonderful that this woman created this piece, and her reasons for it. However, there are way too many nut jobs out there who have no idea what St Francis stood for and who are bent on destroying everything that others of us value.

    Liked by 1 person

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