The Cathedral of St Mary of the Assumption sits atop a hill on the corner of Geary Blvd and Gough St now called Cathedral Hill. It is the city’s third Catholic cathedral. The first, now called Old St Mary’s, was rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake and is now a parish church at the entrance to Chinatown on California St and Grant Ave. The second cathedral, built in 1891 on the corner of Van Ness Ave and O’Farrell St, burnt down in 1962. The present cathedral, which everyone calls St. Mary’s, was completed in 1971 but it took another 25 years to complete the acquisition of the artwork, most of which comes from Italy.
St. Mary’s was one of the first major cathedrals in the world that was built after Vatican II (1962-1965), thus allowing the bold modern design with a simple altar at the center, and the priest facing the congregation when celebrating Mass. Vatican II also called for the baptismal font to be placed at the entrance to the church and suggested specific positions for the lectern, the celebrant’s seat, the tabernacle and decorations such as flowers and statues.
The Cathedral was designed by Pier Luigi Nervi and Pietro Belluschi. Neither architect realized that the sun’s shadows at certain times of the day would produce striking images of a woman’s breast (10am view from the west; 2pm from the east). Oops.