Sunday Steeplechase: St. Leo the Great Church and School (Oakland, California)
Founded in 1911 by Archbishop Patrick William Riordan (1841-1914), California’s Church of St. Leo the Great* initially ministered to the Italian, Irish, and German Catholics who had made the Piedmont district of north Oakland their home due to their neighborhood’s convenient location to the trolleys, trains and ferryboats which transported them to their jobs in and around San Francisco.
Often kneeling in prayer on the sidewalk outside of the Standard Grocery Store on Piedmont Avenue because the parish was so new that it did not yet have even the land on which a church could be built, these first of the faithful were pastored by Father Owen Lacey, a native of County Galway, Ireland who had previously helmed St. Anne’s Church in Lodi, California.
Soon after his arrival in Oakland, Father Lacey arranged for his fledgling flock to celebrate Mass at Piedmont’s Mowbray Hall until he could find property where his church could begin its work in earnest. With the help of his superiors and parishioners, he was able to purchase the home of the Hill family for $16,000 – a substantial sum of money at that time.
As a result, both he and his ministry had a new home. His congregants, grateful that they were able to kneel on the front porch of his home at the corner of Piedmont and Ridgeway rather than on a grocery store sidewalk, subsequently raised the funds necessary ($15,500) to build and furnish a formal church. The new wood structure was designed in the California mission style by architects Shea and Loftquist, and was dedicated by Archbishop Riordan before 500 worshippers in a ceremony on January 29, 1912 in which he also delivered the Sacrament of Confirmation to fifty boys and girls.
The Church of St. Leo the Great quickly became not just a space for worship, but a true place of community fellowship, hosting dances and other popular events. According to church historian Ted Wurm, “One of the early outside activities that became an annual tradition was the famed St. Leo’s gala whist party and turkey raffle at huge Hotel Oakland,” and there “were the popular ‘St. Patrick’s Day Entertainments’ presented by the parish at various downtown halls.” In 1919, newspapers reported than “an evening of Irish music and song” was held at Ebell Hall on Harrison Street.
As his parish grew, Father Lacey also became increasingly beloved – not just to the majority of his parishioners, but with many non-parishioners as well. A generous man, he was nicknamed the “Good Spirit of Piedmont Avenue.”
A rectory built for parish priests – still used by church leaders today – opened in 1920.
The main building of today’s parish complex – a marvelous example of Italian Romanesque architecture which incorporates the “feel” of California’s most historic mission structures – has dominated the street corner where parishioners have worshipped since its dedication in 1926.
Designed in a cruciform configuration, built from reinforced concrete with a seating capacity of 700 and rooved with burnt clay tile, the massive bell tower of this historic church soars from its base at the juncture of the building’s transepts and nave.
It is, quite simply, one of those buildings that inspires visitors to look upward. The effect is further amplified on a clear spring day when the California sky is clear blue and flawless.
“The church was designed to be the dominating feature in a proposed parish group of buildings,” according to Wurm, with its stations of the cross and three altars featured as “an integral part of the interior design.”
Dedicated by Archbishop Edward Joseph Hanna (1915-1935) in September 1926, its final construction cost was reportedly $125,000.
Unfortunately the timing for incurring construction debt could not have been worse for church members. Subject to the deprivations wrought by America’s Great Depression and World War II, church leaders and their flock suffered greatly, as did many of the Catholic faithful across America. But they persevered and endured, regaining a stable enough footing financially to eradicate the parish’s construction debt. By 1946, they had also raised an additional $200,000 to establish a new church school.
This school, which bears the same name of the parish, was staffed by Dominican Sisters when it opened its doors in the fall of 1948. Today, its pre-kindergarten to eighth grade student body is no longer made up of parish members (nor are students primarily Catholic), but its teachers still do instill the values of hard work and service to the community.
As a result, Bay Area residents continue to benefit from the presence of the historic complex as students and church members engage in an array of community service projects, including supporting the St. Vincent de Paul Society in its efforts to improve the quality of life for needy San Francisco Bay Area residents. The church also continues to be a hub of social activity for its members and neighbors.
But for mindful travelers visiting St. Leo the Great’s neighborhood, it is undoubtedly the church’s natural beauty which leaves the most indelible mark. Whether praying while seated on a bench under the sheltering branches of a massive old growth tree in the church’s meditation garden or simply sitting quietly on the grass nearby, it is easy to be slip into a contemplative state in the serene ambience of the well-tended grounds, roused only by bells bonging gently but resolutely from the tower above as they mark the inevitable march of time.
* Note: The Church of St. Leo the Great was dedicated in the name of Pope Saint Leo I, a Tuscan aristocrat who lived roughly from 400 to 461 A.D and became head of the Roman Catholic Church in the year 440. Canonized after his death, he was the first of just two Popes to be named by the Holy See as “Great.” In addition to convincing Attila the Hun not to attack Italy, he is best remembered, according to the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, for his devotion “to safeguarding orthodoxy and to securing the unity of the Western church under papal supremacy.”