San Francisco’s St. Mary’s Cathedral

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.


It took Enrico Manfreni six years to produce the bronze overpane above the cathedral’s main entrance.


The roof of St. Mary’s Cathedral is a square at the bottom and a cross at the top. Famed newspaper columnist Herb Caen thought the roof resembled a washing machine agitator and so dubbed the cathedral “Our Lady of  Maytag.”

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.


View of altar from the main entrance.


There are many bronze sculptures, most of them by the Italian artist Enrico Manfreni (1917 – 2004) and his disciples.


Most of the sculptures have a Marian motif.


View of the organ.


Two of the Stations of the Cross.


You can see Manfreni’s bronze overpane through his stained glass window above the main entrance.


Southeast view from the cathedral’s northeast corner.  The dome in the background belongs to the City Hall.


Looking east from the cathedral’s plaza. The dark brown building was once the world headquarters of the Bank of America. If you squint you might see the tip of the Transamerica Pyramid between the two huge cranes.

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.

About crowcanyonjournal

I am a family man with interests in family history, photography, history and travel.
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9 Responses to San Francisco’s St. Mary’s Cathedral

  1. That’s a very interesting roof form!

  2. disperser says:

    Is it the same woman every day, or just whichever woman happens to be near there? I looked up on shadow’s imaging properties, and could not find any references, so I’d be curious about how that works.

    Either way, I bet the woman (or women) were just as surprised.

    Nice church, by the way.

  3. mvschulze says:

    Wow! A treat reading this and the images. Jeanne and I visited this very church 43 years ago, not long after we were married and on a California vacation. I particularly remember the enormous pipe organ, and striking architecture – and have a few “not so great” photos of the visit. Thanks for the post. M 🙂 PS, I may have to go back and check out that shadow…for the scientific explanation, of course!

  4. Pingback: Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church – Celebrated on Monday after Pentecost – Wonderful Churches, Shrines and Devotions

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