On December 25, 1996, the Polish community in San Francisco and the Bay Area, together with the Croatian and Slovenian community, celebrated its first Christmas Mass in the newly restored Church of the Nativity in San Francisco.

On the origin and development of the migratory pastorate among Slavic ethnic groups in San Francisco, the late historian John Bernard McGloin, S.J. wrote as follows: "Since early days, some of the Jesuits of San Francisco were involved in work among the various national groups which have always characterized the population of the polyglot city. [I]n 1894, at the request of Archbishop Alemany, two Jesuit Fathers, Stanislaus Kusiaki and Joseph Guidi, attended to the spiritual needs of the Polish people. An important work destined to bear special fruit, was begun among the Slavs of San Francisco by Father Henry Bontempto of the Venetian Jesuit Province. Arriving in San Francisco in answer to a request from Archbishop Riordan, Bontempto set to work with earnest zeal and soon had a faithful Slavic congregation which attended Sunday Mass in the students chapel of St. Ignatius College. Soon there was an average attendance about 300 at this Mass."1

In a footnote to the above paragraph, McGloin elucidated that: "Out of Bontempto's zealous work with the Slavs came the present Church of the Nativity on Fell Street between Gough and Franklin, the cornerstone of which was laid in 1903. Father Bontempto at this time was no longer the pastor of the congregation for, some months previously, he had handed over the charge to Father Francis Turk, a secular priest."

A brochure published by the Council of the Church of the Nativity in 1983 for the 80th anniversary of the church states that the first Church of the Nativity was built by Croatian and Slovenian immigrants in 1903-4 and dedicated on June 5, 1904 by Slovenian Bishop Stariha, from South Dakota. Unfortunately, the church was destroyed by fire, among many other buildings, during the big earthquake of 1906 that devastated most of San Francisco.

Between 1906 and 1911 the parishioners used a temporary chapel at Vermont and 18th Streets. However, they still wanted to have their own church, and on May 6, 1906, they decided that they would begin building a new church on the foundation of the church that had been burned out. The new church was opened for Christmas in 1911, and through the next 83 years it became the center of religious activities of many of Slavic ethnic groups in San Francisco and the Bay Area.

The brochure mentioned above asserts also that during the 1980s the parish had nearly 6,000 parishioners; consisting of Croatians, Slovenians, Czechs, Slovaks and Poles. In 1994 the Church of the Nativity was closed, along with nine other city parishes, during the archdiocese's vexatious restructuring undertaken by the previous archbishop of San Francisco.

For a long time Polish immigrants in San Francisco and the Bay Area did not have their own church in this area. Although, the creation of the Polish Roman Catholic Pastoral Mission in San Francisco in February 1976 allowed them to have a Polish priest and attend masses in Polish, for some time they could not afford to have their own place to hold other religious services. The first masses of the Mission were held in the Polish Hall, and later in some other local churches.

It was the first ethnic parish in the United States that was created after Professor Andrew Woznicki's proposal during the National Episcopal Conference "A Call to Action," in Detroit of 1976, which considered that priests knowing the language and culture of the ethnic groups living in the United States should give immigrants religious and spiritual service and advice in specially erected ethnic parishes.

After its creation the Pastoral Mission hosted a number of visitors, among them: Bishop Wladyslaw Rubin, and Cardinal Karol Wojtyla from Cracow. Wojtyla came to San Francisco in 1978, shortly before he was elected as the first non-Italian pontiff in 450 years, and chose the name of John Paul II. The relatively large number of Polish newcomers to San Francisco and the Bay Area during the early 1980s strengthened the need for religious services in specially erected ethnic parishes. The influx of new immigrants encouraged the Polish religious community to unify and organize itself and soon they acquired a chapel in Martinez and obtained access to a church in Union City. The organizations that were created in both of those cities benefited the communities, and both of them held their 10th anniversary celebration lately.

The first mass in the newly restored and reopened church of the Nativity was held on December 25, 1996, and was attended by a about two hundred Polish and other Slavic worshipers. Many Poles wore the Polish traditional folkloric regional costumes. The Archbishop of San Francisco, William Levada, presided at this service. In his homily he emphasized that "It is a joy for me to gather for the reopening of this Nativity Church, on the feast of the Nativity with the Croatian and Slovenian communities, who for so many decades have worshipped here, coming to San Francisco, and other parts of the Bay Area, and also to welcome the Polish community, which has celebrated here many years in the past, and which is somewhat symbolic of Mary and Joseph seeking a place and a shelter in Bethlehem and also now we can welcome them to their new parish home."

Stressing the necessity for cooperation of the all new parishioners he also said: "I am very grateful to father Chester and to the Society of Christ , the Mission Society in Poland, for agreeing to provide a staff, a priest to staff the church, a pastor who will report to me, and I know will be ably assisted by the councils representing the Croatian and Slovenian communities and the Polish community, and the new coordinating council which will coordinate the work of the various apostolates and communities here at the Nativity church."

On the next day after the Mass, a local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, published an article titled "A Celebration to Remember," in which the author, Dan Levy, underscored the enjoyment of all of the Slavic parishioners who for more than two years worked to get the church reopened and who now have to "get along" in one modest-sized church in San Francisco. The author cited also a student of the University of San Francisco, Renata Kosinska, who said: "We've always wanted our own parish, so that is a great moment for the Polish community."

The pastor of the Nativity church is Father Czeslaw Rybacki, S.Ch., and the address of the parish is: Polish Roman Catholic Pastoral Mission of the Church of the Nativity, 245 Linden Street, San Francisco, CA 94102, tel. (415) 252-5799.

Andrzej M. Salski
1. John Bernard McGloin, S.J., Jesuits by the Golden Gate; The Society of Jesus in San Francisco 1849-1969, University of San Francisco, 1972, p. 181.

TST, Vol. 4, No. 14-15/1996

The Summit Times

© Copyright 1996 by Andrzej M. Salski