The Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption was the first cathedral built with the Second Vatican Council in mind.
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San Francisco’s Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2021. While St. Mary’s parish has been around since the 19th century, there have been several iterations of the cathedral. St. Mary’s was the first cathedral built with the Second Vatican Council’s guidelines in mind.
The history of St. Mary’s is outlined in brilliant detail by Nikolaus Hohmann of the Benedict XVI Institute. It was first opened on Christmas Eve, 1854, as the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception. At the time, it was the first church to hold such a distinction. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was only officially instituted three weeks prior, in the papal bull Ineffabilis Deus.
The first cathedral became an invaluable place of worship, education, and cultural exchange. With the California gold rush in full swing, however, the Catholic population of California erupted. This led the diocese to construct another, larger version of the cathedral. The new building, St. Mary of the Assumption, was completed and opened in 1891.
This second iteration of the cathedral served the community for over 50 years, until it was gutted by a fire in 1962. While much of the structure survived, the damage was so severe that the diocese decided to rebuild. This, however, became difficult when arguments over architectural style arose.
The debates over design were compounded by innovations suggested by the Second Vatican Council. The council made many proposals for reform, but among them was a call to bring a “noble simplicity” to church design. Taking inspiration from the council, St. Mary’s architects heeded the call of Pope Paul VI. Hohmann explains on the Benedict XVI Institute website:
The second President of the Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI, described his vision of a new cathedral: “in the majesty of the building, it is a symbol of the spiritual temple that is built up in souls and is resplendent in the glory of divine grace … the cathedral, furthermore, should be regarded as the express image of Christ’s visible Church, praying, singing, and worshiping on earth.”
The cornerstone of the new cathedral was blessed in December 1967, and it formally opened in October 1970. The building cost $9 million to complete, a price that would reach over $61 million by today’s standards.
Named the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption, the new church building quickly became an iconic landmark of San Francisco. Its unique architecture is thrilling from the outside and dizzying from within. It is notable for its many side altars, which feature six large patronal shrines to the Blessed Mother. In these, Mary is presented as the first disciple of Christ.
In his report, Hohmann writes terrific descriptions of the many sights of St. Mary’s, as well as the many symbols incorporated into its design. Click here to learn more about this fantastic, historic cathedral.