Bay Area Treasure
Grace Cathedral – San Francisco
Visited: May 2019
During the April 2019 fire at Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, I learned that San Francisco and Paris are Sister Cities, and that Grace Cathedral was constructed in Notre-Dame’s same French-Gothic style. What I didn’t know was that a section of its interior is patterned after another famed and beloved Paris religious site, and there were also doors that would transport us back to Florence, Italy.
The history of the Episcopalian Grace Cathedral dates back to the Gold Rush Days, when in 1849 Grace Chapel was built on Powell near Jackson. In 1860, Grace Church was started at California and Stockton. It was consecrated in 1868 and destroyed by fire in 1906 during the San Francisco Earthquake.
The construction of the “new” cathedral commenced in 1927 on land donated by railroad baron and banker, Charles Crocker (their house had been located on this spot, but was destroyed in the fire after the earthquake), but it was not fully completed until 1964.
According to the Grace Cathedral website, “Grace Cathedral architect Lewis Hobart chose French Gothic. The cruciform plan, twin towers, central fleche and polygonal apse are all French in origin, with the cathedrals of Amiens, Paris (Notre Dame), Beauvais and Chartres being principal influences.” (Photo of Notre-Dame is from our 2006 Christmas visit to Paris.)
It was at Grace Cathedral where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a sermon in front of 5,000 people. Other notables who have preached here include the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and even Jane Goodall.
We had a little time before heading to dinner at the fabulous Roma Antica in the Marina District, so friends, Kim and Mary, along with Tracy and I decided to check out Grace Cathedral at the corner of California and Taylor Streets on Nob Hill. Since it is San Francisco, there was no street parking available, but we found a parking lot situated underneath the church where we parked and headed upstairs. We were greeted with a glimpse of its stunning interior.
We checked out Benjamin Bufano’s statue of Saint Francis, the patron saint of animals, who seemed to be giving us a welcoming grin.
If you come in October for the “Blessing of the Animals,” there’s a good chance you’ll see dogs hanging out in the aisles and kitties being held by their owners. Our corgis’ barking would surely drown out the sermon.
Fun Fact: Originally from Italy, Bufano was a pacifist. After the United States entered World War I, Bufano accidentally cut off a portion of his right index finger. Not wanting to let that accident go to waste, Bufano “decided to mail the ‘trigger finger’ to President Woodrow Wilson as a protest against the war.” Subsequently, the legend grew (but not his finger) that he had intentionally severed it for this purpose. Now that’s what I call, “Giving someone the finger!” There are numerous Bufano sculptures located throughout “The City.”
Nearby St. Francis stands a large baptismal font.
On the floor is a 35-foot-wide labyrinth patterned after the 13th-century one at Chartres Cathedral in France. It’s said that walking the labyrinth will “calm the mind.” There is an app you can download to your phone that gives directions on how to walk the labyrinth (and also highlights many areas of the church). There is also a labyrinth situated outside the church.
The walls of Grace Cathedral are lined with a number of murals, many depicting scenes from events in San Francisco history. They are primarily the work of Polish-born John Henryk De Rosen, and Bolivian-born Antonio Sotomayor. A World War II war refugee from Poland, De Rosen emigrated to the U.S. in 1939. He created the “Founding of United Nations 1945,” which portrays people from various countries. The United Nations Charter was signed in San Francisco in 1945.
Antonio Sotomayor created the murals depicting the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires.
Each mural in the cathedral is quite striking …
… and after a couple more …
… it was time to admire the stained glass windows.
There are “68 named windows by five artists,” some containing famous figures such as John Glenn (Photo courtesy of Grace Cathedral website.) …
… and Albert Einstein. Not being an Einstein myself, relativity speaking, I didn’t catch a photo of that one either.
The Rose Window is stunning, from inside and out. (photo on left courtesy of SFGate)
Thankfully, Kim (aka “Mr. Ceiling Photo”) was able to crane his neck upward for this fantastic shot. I tried the same, but nearly had to call a chiropractor afterward.
The pulpit on the right is where many notables have spoken. Dr. King’s speech was made before a standing room only crowd. The downloaded app contains a portion of that sermon.
There is a tribute to Winston Churchill, which was a donation from the British Commonwealth Association in 1974. On the right is a copy of a cross made in Kent, England in the 8th century. Cut in stone from the walls of Christ Church Cathedral in Canterbury, it was dedicated in 1962 by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The oldest section of the cathedral is the Chapel of Grace. To the left of the chapel you will see Mary Magdalene in her “brilliant red robe” holding an egg, which was dedicated in 1990 by Barbara Harris, the first female Episcopal bishop. The downloaded app tells you the story of Mary and the Roman emperor, and why that meeting is one of the reasons we dye eggs at Easter.
The Chapel of Grace was inspired by another iconic Paris attraction, Sainte-Chapelle.
Grace Cathedral contains three organs. The main organ was built in 1934. It’s one of the largest in the western United States. It contains 7,466 pipes, most of them hidden. Duke Ellington, Art Garfunkel and Al Stewart are among the many artists who have performed here.
If you get a chance, take in one their organ concerts. Fortunately for us, while we walked around, we were able to hear one of the organs in action. If the organs aren’t playing during your visit, you can hear them on the downloaded app.
You also get a long-distance view of the Rose Window from here.
Interesting pieces were interspersed throughout our self-guided tour.
The bust on the left is of William Ingraham Kip, the first Bishop of California, who was elected in 1856.
The Woman of Samaria was a 1963 gift.
This is simply called The Door. We would see a replica of another famous Door (not Jim Morrison) shortly. John De Rosen’s work could be seen again in the Chapel of the Nativity.
Many works of art can be found throughout the cathedral. This rather bizarre piece is entitled Unearthed, a large bronze-cast uprooted tree stump. They went out on a limb to branch out and showcase it here. I was stumped at the meaning.
We passed by the Aids Interfaith Memorial Chapel. According to the cathedral’s website, “The chapel was completed and dedicated in 2000. In 2017, a restoration of the chapel was undertaken and it was rededicated on World Aids Day, December 1, 2017.” The bronze and white altarpiece is the showcase of the chapel (Photo courtesy of Grace Cathedral). The artist who created the altarpiece, Keith Haring, died of Aids two weeks after its completion. He was 31.
I did take a photo of the fabric panels of the Aids Quilt from just outside the chapel.
The below work is called The Brotherhood of Man, although United We Stand was not playing. In reality, it was commissioned to commemorate the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco on June 26, 1945.
Walking outside we were in paradise, actually The Gates of Paradise, which we have seen in Florence, Italy. The bronze doors here are reproductions of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s 15th-century originals that were installed at the Baptistery of the Duomo. The panels depict Old Testament biblical tales, and each door weighs more than 2,500 pounds.
I walked down The Great Steps to get one last photo, and we were off to dinner.
There are also guided tours available, and on certain occasions the guided tour will take you up to the top where there is a great view of the City and a carillon with 44 bronze bells. (photo courtesy of SFGate). The bells have been rung during many important historical events (and sadly has “marked the number of Golden Gate Bridge suicides”).
Grace Cathedral is the third largest Episcopal Cathedral in the nation after its sister cathedrals located in New York and Washington D.C.
It’s definitely a worthwhile place to stop while visiting San Francisco.
1100 California Street
San Francisco, CA 94108
Hours: Most Days – 8 a.m. – 6 p.m. (check website for service times)
Tours: Download audio guide (free) • Guided Tours (check website for details – $25)