You’d better watch your mouth as you approach the corner of 16th and Dolores Streets. Three churches, a Jewish synagogue and a day care center make it the holiest intersection in San Francisco.
“If the Home makes a few children happier and the influence of the Sisters moulds the lives of some into men and women of gentleness of heart, I shall feel content,” reads a plaque outside the Holy Family Day Home, a quote from Virginia Fair Vanderbilt, one of the Home’s funders and an heiress of the Comstock Lode fortune.
Back then few suspected that the Mission District would become the home of gang violence, prostitution, burglary and car theft. But in an ever-changing neighborhood where the homicide rate remains high, the holy corner of 16th and Dolores remains a place where families can go for a dose of spirituality.
Holy Family Day Home is a day care center that was founded by the Sisters of the Holy Family Catholic church during the gold rush. The Sisters taught children in the flower market until the earthquake of 1906 forced them out of their homes. They taught in tents in public parks until the Vanderbilt heiress built a school where the day care center now stands.
Today, the school has about 170 children ages three months to five or six years, said Donna Cahill, director. It remains true to the mission to serve those most in need: 85 percent of students are on scholarship and some students from homeless families.
One seat on the board of directors still belongs to the holy family. Cahill said they want to keep some level of oversight as long as the name stays with the school. Across Dolores Street is Temple Sha’ar Zahav, a Jewish synagogue. With about 350 families, the congregation moved into the former mortuary in 1998. Regina Wurst, an administrator at the synagogue, said they ended up in the Mission because of its proximity to the Castro.
Much of the community is gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender. Sha’ar Zahav has a friendly relationship with its neighbors, according to Wurst. There is no school in the building so they rent classrooms from Holy Family Day Home and a parking space for their rabbi from St. Matthews’ lot, diagonally across the street. Wurst said the priest from Mission Dolores church is good friends with the rabbi and sometimes attends services.
One of the Sha’ar Zahav members is married to a member of the First Mennonite Church of San Francisco, which rents the building on Sundays. “I feel like the Jewish community at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav is one of the most dynamic I’ve ever come across,” said Martin Rawlings-Fein, a member, in the temple’s informational flyer. Mision San Francisco de Asis, known as Mission Dolores, is the oldest of the buildings at the intersection and the oldest Roman Catholic church in California that is still in use.
In addition to the usual sanctuary and chapel it also has a basilica—an honorary church of the pope. Some 300,000 visitors a year take self guided tours of the property during the week to see the museum, gift shop and cemetery. Curator Andrew Galvan said the mission of the church is the same as it was in 1776: “To establish a community of faith and love.”
Despite rumors that the church might be moving because of lack of funding, Galvan said it would remain open. When asked what the intersection looks like around 1:00 pm on a Sunday he responded in an email: “Busy with human activity–at the same location that my ancestors, the Ohlone Indians, lived for 3,000 years before the first groups of foreigners arrived the last 18th century.”
Many of them settled right across the street at St. Matthews, the only Lutheran church in Northern California to have weekly services in both English and German. It opened during the Gold Rush when Lutherans and Reformed Protestants emigrated from Europe to San Francisco and were looking for services in their own languages. It too was destroyed in the great earthquake of 1906, but was rebuilt and dedicated on March 29, 1908.
The congregation was eager to remain across the street from Mission Dolores, the pioneer of churches in the neighborhood. The city’s holiest corner has attracted other churches as well. Grace Fellowship, a Presbyterian Church arrived 25 years ago from a congregation in the Sunset District. It’s located two doors down from St. Matthews and plans on staying.
“We’ve established a lot of ground here,” said Aly Wong, one of the secretaries and elders of the church, who explained that the move came when the congregation outgrew the Sunset site. Its 150 members use Holy Family Day Home for Sunday school classes, and some of the church’s members teach at nearby Mission High School.
It has established Grace Urban Ministries (GUM), a non-profit organization that works in the community and has partnered with Sanchez Elementary School on tutoring programs and programs for low-income families. Wong said the community at Grace Fellowship is constantly asking, “How do we serve the immigrant community that’s growing here in the Mission?”
Though the 16th and Dolores intersection is only blocks from what some would consider the debauchery on Mission Street, Cahill said it is a perfect place. “Saint Francis would have loved this intersection. He didn’t care what you believed, he was about bringing people together,” she said.