On January 7, 1917, Archbishop Edward J. Hanna established the new Parish of St. Cecilia in San Francisco and appointed Reverend John P. Tobin the first Pastor. Father Tobin, who was born in Ireland in 1876, ordained a priest in Baltimore, June 21, 1902, had served as assistant pastor of Mission Dolores for fourteen years before coming to the sand dunes of Parkside District. The boundaries of this newly-formed parish extended from the ocean on the west to Twin Peaks on the east and from Pacheco Street on the north to Balboa Terrace on the south, including what is now St. Francis Wood, Merritt Terrace, West Portal, Forest Hill, Sunset Terrace and Parkside District, a vast area of little more than sand dunes and vegetable gardens.
The first and most urgent problem for Father Tobin was to find a place to live and a place to serve as a temporary chapel. Through the kindness of Mr. and Mrs. N. Swift, a residence was procured at 1215 Taraval Street. This two-story house served as both church and rectory. On the upper floor of the building there was a bedroom; a study or reception room; one other room which was used as both kitchen and dining room. The lower floor of this building was Father Tobin's church. A small altar was fashioned in what had been a dining room, and the kitchen became a combination sacristy and baptistry. After a great deal of labor and not a little ingenuity the home which was to be called St. Cecilia's Parish House was made ready for celebration of the first Holy Mass.
This was indeed a memorable day for the Church in the district known as Parkside. For even the most enthusiastic prophet could hardly have visualized the tremendous growth in population that has taken place since then. For on January 7, 1917, by actual count, there were fifty-nine Catholic families living within the boundaries of St. Cecilia Parish. Even with such a modest beginning, regular parish societies were organized, such as the League of the Sacred Heart, the Holy Name Society, the Holy Rosary and the usual children's sodalities.
Such was the beginning of the Parish of Saint Cecilia, destined to change within a few years to a densely populated district. The little chapel in an ordinary home was the answer to the prayers of those few who had pioneered the land "beyond the Peaks".
Before very long, it became apparent that the little chapel in the residence at 1215 Taraval Street could not accommodate the number of Catholics in the Parish. On February 23, 1917, with the permission of the Archbishop, Father John P. Tobin borrowed $10,300.00 from the bank and purchased a sand lot on the northwest corner of Fifteenth Avenue and Taraval Street. The Honorable James Rolph, Jr., Mayor of the City of San Francisco, donated to this young parish an old two-room building that had once served as the Parkside School. On Holy Thursday, 1917, this old school stood on the site of the new property at Fifteenth Avenue and Taraval Street, and was soon transformed by the men of the parish under the direction of Father Tobin into a modest devotional edifice, crowning the hill and overlooking the parish. To this first temporary church was donated a bell by the Fire Department of the Parkside District. On June 15, 1917, one day after the completion of the Twin Peaks Tunnel, this temporary church was solemnly dedicated by Archbishop Edward J. Hanna. This first church was built without the aid of an architect and at the cost of $3,451.24.
Three years later, in 1920, a residence at 608 Taraval Street was purchased by Father Tobin for the sum of $8,500.00 and served as a rectory and a meeting place for the parish societies. Also in 1920, the little church at Fifteenth Avenue and Taraval Street was enlarged and remodeled.
In 1923, a Parish Hall was constructed on the northeast corner of Sixteenth Avenue and Taraval Street, at the cost of $9,898.49. Mr. Denis Mahoney was the Contractor.
By the year 1926, two sites for a new church were being considered; the one on the south side of Taraval Street, between Funston and Fourteenth Avenue, and the other on Vicente Street, between Seventeenth and Eighteenth Avenues. The property on Vicente Street between Seventeenth and Eighteenth Avenues (240 feet on Vicente Street by 450 feet on Seventeenth and Eighteenth Avenues) was selected eventually and purchased from Mr. Larsen on May 28, 1926 for the sum of 65,000.00. This purchase set the stage for the new location of St. Cecilia Church, School, Convent and Rectory.
In the following year, 1927, the Parish Hall was moved from the corner of Sixteenth Avenue and Taraval Street to the newly acquired property and placed on the west side of Seventeenth Avenue, between Ulloa and Vicente Streets, at the northern part of the property. To this old hall was added additional seating capacity and a sanctuary. Under this new temporary church was built a Parish hall with a stage. This new temporary church had a seating capacity of 732 persons. In the sanctuary was installed the old altar taken from the abandoned St. Rose's Church. Mr. Leo Devlin was the Architect for the enlarging and renovation of this old hall into a temporary church; and Mr. J. Frank Barrett was the Building Contractor. The cost of the moving and renovation of this hall was $50,117.40. On June 19, 1928, Archbishop Edward J. Hanna solemnly blessed this, the second temporary Church of Saint Cecilia. At this same time, Father John P. Tobin purchased a residence at 2562 Seventeenth Avenue, across the street from the Church, for $10,625.32. This residence served as the Parish Rectory until 1931, then as a temporary convent of the Sisters until 1942.
On Good Friday morning, March 29, 1929, Father John P. Tobin, the first Pastor of St. Cecilia, died and, according to his expressed wish was buried with the poor whom he served at Laguna Honda Home in Potter's Field in Holy Cross Cemetery. In the short space of twelve years, Father Tobin not only performed his priestly duties exceedingly well; not only provided two temporary churches for his people, but above all, he was a man of vision and purchased sufficient property (about three acres) for an entire parochial plant. Thanks to Father Tobin, a man of God and a man of vision, the parish of St. Cecilia was well organized and has sufficient property for all its parochial needs in the future.
In June, 1929, Father John Harnett, who was born in Ireland, July 2, 1873, ordained a priest in Ireland, June 17, 1897, was appointed by Archbishop Edward J. Hanna the second Pastor of St. Cecilia. Immediately, Father Harnett began to carry on the great work of his predecessor. In 1930, in the very depth of a Depression, and within a year of his arrival, Father Harnett built on the northeast corner of Eighteenth Avenue and Vicente Street, St. Cecilia Grammar School. This school building was a two-story and basement building with reinforced concrete walls, with reinforced concrete frame supporting the floors and roof, with reinforced concrete floors and with wood roof construction. The exposed portion of the roof has Terra Cotta tile. This building is on a sandy, clay foundation where shocks transmitted by earth movements along a fault line are of only moderate severity. This school had eight classrooms, a Principal's office and a large cafeteria. Mr. Henry A. Minton was the Architect and Mr. A. Rosari was the Building Contractor. The cost of the building was $80,000.00. Simultaneously, Father John Harnett built a Rectory on the west side of Seventeenth Avenue, between Ulloa and Vicente Streets, with accommodations for the Pastor, three Assistant Pastors and one guest room. Mr. Henry A. Minton was also Architect of this Rectory and Mr. A. Rosari was the Building Contractor. This Rectory cost $39,000.00.
Father John Harnett, with the permission of Archbishop Hanna, invited the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary to staff the new school. The Sisters lived in the residence at 2562 Seventeenth Avenue until their new convent was completed.
In 1941, Father Harnett built a beautiful, spacious convent for the Sisters on the east side of Eighteenth Avenue, between Ulloa and Vicente Streets, with accommodations for twenty Sisters. Mr. Henry A. Minton was the Architect of the Convent and Mr. Williams was the Building Contractor. This concrete, three-story convent cost $80,000.00. In January, 1942, Archbishop John J. Mitty blessed the new convent.
During the Pastorate of Father Harnett, two parishes were cut off of St. Cecilia: St. Brendan's in 1929 and St. Gabriel's in 1941.
On May 19, 1946, after a lingering illness, Father John Harnett died. During his seventeen years, Father Harnett not only cared well for the spiritual needs of his people but also built well. He left behind him a beautiful school, convent and rectory. He not only paid for all these buildings, but he left a considerable sum of money for his successor. If Father John Tobin, the first Pastor was called the pioneer and the person of vision, Father John Harnett, the second Pastor, may be called the builder.
On December 29, 1946, the Right Reverend Harold E. Collins, Ph.D., was appointed by Archbishop John J. Mitty as the third Pastor of St. Cecilia. Born in the city of San Francisco, August 17, 1899, ordained a priest by Archbishop Edward J. Hanna in St. Mary's Cathedral, June 20, 1925, made a member of the Papal Household and given the title of "Right Reverend Monsignor" in March, 1943, by Pope Pius XII, Monsignor Collins before coming to St. Cecilia, had served for eight years as Secretary to His Excellency, Most Reverend John J. Mitty, the fourth Archbishop of San Francisco. Monsignor Collins lost no time in carrying out the building program begun under his predecessor, Father Harnett. Under his guiding hand the existing church was improved. Things that had to be done for the needs and convenience of the parish were done with the funds available. He redecorated the altar entirely. In the process, seeking a fitting memorial to the boys of St. Cecilia who fought and died in World War 11, he obtained from one of our parishioners, Mr. Chris Mc Keon, the gift of a tabernacle of steel.
The choice was appropriate as well as characteristic of Monsignor. He saw in the old sand lot at Seventeenth Avenue and Vicente Street an opportunity to update the parish by providing a paved parking lot for autos, which were becoming more abundant especially at Sunday Masses. Immediately also, plans were prepared for the new addition to the school to take care of the ever-increasing number of children.
Within one year after his arrival at St. Cecilia, Monsignor Collins had completed the new addition, consisting of eight additional classrooms, a kindergarten, auditorium, library, clinic, and a completely renovated, modern cafeteria. With this addition, the school has two classrooms for each year, plus the kindergarten, and provides for a total of 600 children. In the schoolyard he installed four large electrical fixtures so that there would be light for the basketball courts at night. As he hoped, the schoolyard soon became a recreational center for the youth of the parish.
The Architect for the school addition was the same Henry A. Minton, to carry through the same theme for the entire parish plant, this time with an assist from Architect Wilton Smith. The Building Contractors were Barrett and Hilp. The cost of this new addition was $300,000. This cost figure is significant in view of what was said above about rising costs. For the same number of rooms that Father Harnett had built, Monsignor had to pay over four times as much. In the seventeen years that intervened, costs had risen that much. On February 1, 1948, Archbishop John J. Mitty solemnly blessed the new addition to the school.
In October of the same year, due to the ever-increasing number of people attending Mass at St. Cecilia, the hall under the church was converted into a lower church. Again the knowledgeable hand of Monsignor guided the work. He removed the old stage, converted the space into a sanctuary, and built a new altar to suit the space.
Although this step relieved the congestion on Sundays, it also emphasized the necessity for a permanent edifice. From the earliest days of the parish each successive church building was regarded as temporary, to be replaced when necessity dictated and convenience permitted. First things came first. As long as we had a decent altar at which to worship God, the children were paramount, even if it meant some slight sacrifice of convenience.
Soon, however, the growth of the parish demanded construction of a church which would properly express the devotion of our parishioners, and would round out the building program visualized so long ago. "Finish the job" became the watchword.
On January 1, 1952, Archbishop John J. Mitty granted permission to Monsignor Collins to build a new church. In preparation for this new church a drive for funds was held. $350,000 was pledged and $400,000 was collected. Four years later, a second drive for funds was held and $300,000 was collected. Mr. Martin Rist was named the Architect for the new church and Jacks and Irvine were chosen as the Contractors. The contract price for the new church was $750,000. Construction began on June 1, 1954. The cornerstone was laid May 13, 1956. Archbishop John J. Mitty solemnly dedicated the new church on Pentecost Sunday, May 20, 1956. With the permission of Archbishop Joseph T. McGucken, the Church of Saint Cecilia was consecrated by Bishop Merlin J. Guilfoyle on December 18, 1964.
The new St. Cecilia Church, Colonial Spanish in design, harmonizes with, and as is fitting, dominates its surroundings. Its construction is reinforced concrete and cast-stone trim, with a roof of variegated Spanish tile, random-laid. Rising above the main body of the church is the tower, capped with colored Spanish tile. Interior walls are travertine stucco and acoustical plaster. All interior wood trim is oak, with a paneled wainscot extending around the entire nave and sanctuary. Between its steel trusses, the ceiling is richly decorated with colored acoustical panels. Floors in the aisles are covered with carpet and under the pews are of terrazzo. Marble flagging covers the narthex floor. Radiant floor heating is used throughout. The church seats 900 in the nave. An additional 80 may be seated in the beautiful Our Lady's Chapel. Designed to provide amply for the convenience of St. Cecilia parishioners, the new church has no pretensions to cathedral or basilica proportions. It has been designed to serve all the functional liturgies of the Church and also to permit the convenient devotional attendance of the faithful at all divine services. In its graceful soaring lines, and yet with intimate contact between the liturgy and the congregation, it gives today's freshness and freedom of design to what is nevertheless recognized instinctively as the atmosphere of the House of God. Special consideration has been given to the comfort of the worshipers.
In 1976, after thirty years as Pastor, Monsignor Harold Collins retired. Archbishop Joseph T. McGucken appointed Monsignor James P. McKay as the fourth Pastor. Monsignor McKay had spent many years serving the parish as an Associate Pastor and Priest in residence so the new Pastor knew well the needs of his flock. He was installed by Archbishop McGucken on June 11, 1976. Monsignor Collins became Pastor Emeritus and continued to serve the people of our parish.
In the October 31st parish bulletin, Msgr. McKay announced the formation of a new organization. The title of the organization was "St. Cecilia's Knights". The purpose of this group is to stand watch in the church throughout the day so that it can stay open and afford the parishioners an opportunity to make a visit. Twenty-one years later, the Knights of St. Cecilia continue their dedicated ministry every weekday.
On September 17, 1979, Monsignor McKay opened "Collins Center" for the first time. This center was possible because of the renovation of the lower church. The first director of the Collins Center was Sister Mary Jeanne Cusick,SNJM. To this day, the center is opened during the week from 9:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. for all parishioners. Many of the activities are geared for the seniors of our parish family. In December, 1979, as a sign of the rich ethnic diversity of our parish family, the Filipino parishioners offered the first Santo Nino Novena.
On Tuesday, December 16, 1980, Monsignor Harold E. Collins died at Nazareth House in Terra Linda. Monsignor McKay wrote to his parishioners in the parish bulletin these memorable words: "Monsignor Harold E. Collins has left us and gone to the Lord, Whom he loved and served so faithfully and effectively for over fifty years. His gift of self; his priestliness; his dedicated service to our parish; his love for the children; his compassion for the sick and dying, all of these are his everlasting gifts to the thousands of people he touched during his life. Ours is a fervent prayer of profound gratitude to Almighty God for the innumerable blessings which he has poured out on us and on our community through this great, priestly, loving Pastor, Monsignor Collins. May his smile brighten heaven and his spirit remain forever in our parish."
On Friday, January 16, 1981, the parish gathered in the church for the "Month's Mind Mass" for Monsignor Harold E. Collins. In the Sunday Bulletin prior to the Mass, Msgr. McKay stated, "In memory of Msgr. Collins, the Monsignor Collins School Fund has been established. This fund will be used to assist with the education of the children of our parish school whom Monsignor loved so much". Monsignor McKay began this School Endowment Fund which has grown in the past sixteen years to over $1,000,000.00.
During the decade of the 1980's, Monsignor McKay developed a number of new ministries in response to the needs of the parishioners: Baptismal Catechesis, Adult Bible Study, Chinese Club, Parent and Toddler Get-togethers, RCIA, Youth Ministry, Finance Committee, Parish Council, and Legion of Mary. On July 1, 1990, Archbishop John R. Quinn appointed Monsignor McKay Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia for the Archdiocese. Monsignor McKay had served St. Cecilia Parish for fourteen years as Pastor.
On July 1, 1990, Monsignor Patrick O'Shea was appointed as the fifth Pastor of St. Cecilia. Msgr. O'Shea led the parish through a self-study in collaboration with all the parishes in the Archdiocese. Monsignor continued to improve the parish plant. He developed the present outdoor lighting system and planned the new terrazzo for the plaza at the main entrance to the church. Monsignor Patrick O'Shea resigned as pastor in the spring of 1994.
On July 1, 1994, Father Michael D. Harriman was appointed as the sixth Pastor of St. Cecilia. The new Archdiocesan Pastoral Plan was approved by Archbishop John R. Quinn and Archbishop William Levada in the spring of 1995. Father Harriman called special neighborhood listening sessions so that St. Cecilia might begin to implement this plan!