Jim Graves is a Catholic writer and editor living in Newport Beach, California. He previously served as Managing Editor for the Diocese of Orange Bulletin, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Orange, California. His work has appeared in the National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, Cal Catholic Daily and Catholic World Report.
California is home to Hollywood and the movie industry, and for the past century or more filmmakers have been using iconic Catholic churches in the state as backdrops for their movies. Here are seven you might have seen.
1. Mission San Juan Bautista
Mission San Juan Bautista was prominently featured in the 1958 Alfred Hitchcock/Jimmy Stewart movie Vertigo, although the bell tower that is part of the plot was a Hollywood creation. It still has the carriage and mannequin horse where Jimmy Stewart talks with Kim Novak. (Mission Dolores, in downtown San Francisco, also features prominently in the film.)
Mission San Juan Bautista was founded by Fr. Fermin de Lasuen, successor to St. Junípero Serra, in 1797. It is the 15th of California’s 21 Spanish missions. Work began on its church began in 1803; it was dedicated in 1812. It has been in continuous use since then. It is the widest of the mission churches, and the largest of the California missions. Other buildings on the ground include a barracks, convent and the Jose Castro House, which are located around a large grassy plaza. There is also a historic cemetery containing the remains of 4,000 Indians and Europeans.
2. St. Paul Church, San Francisco
St. Paul’s was the principle location for the 1992 movie Sister Act. It is a beautiful, historic church in the Noe Valley region of San Francisco. The parish was founded in the late 1800s; its English Gothic church was built 1897-1911. It has great architecture and art; prominent twin towers, beautiful stained glass windows and impressive woodwork. The church was nearly closed in the 1990s due to concerns that it might collapse in an earthquake, but parishioners persuaded the Archdiocese to keep it open. Vast amounts of funds had to be raised, including through the sale of some parish property, to do an expensive seismic retrofit of the building.
3. St. Teresa of Avila, Bodega
In 1953, photographer Ansel Adams helped make St. Teresa famous by making it the subject of his black & white photograph “Church and Road.” Ten years later, in 1963, the school next door was a filming location for Alfred Hitchcock’s movie “The Birds,” from which terrified children run from attacking crows. According to local residents, Hitchcock attended Mass at the church.
St. Teresa is a pretty, historic church southwest of Santa Rosa. It is a small, white wooden church with a steeple sitting on a hilltop overlooking the rural community of Bodega. It was built in 1860, and dedicated by the Archbishop of San Francisco, Joseph Alemany, in 1862. It was expanded in 1872 to serve the growing numbers of Italian immigrants who came to the region to engage in dairy farming. It has undergone a series of modifications since, including major restorations 1954-55 and 1967-74. A historic cemetery, Calvary, is nearby. For the past 50 years, St. Teresa has been part of St. Philip the Apostle Church in Occidental (St. Philip is a pretty historic church as well, it’s about eight miles away and worth a visit).
The church is a historic landmark of the State of California. Also notable about the building is that unlike most churches, it has no center aisle, but two side aisles.
4. St. Brendan’s, Los Angeles
Perhaps due to its close proximity to Hollywood, St. Brendan’s has been the backdrop for many Hollywood productions. Among the most famous is the 1953 War of the Worlds. At the end of the film, as alien spacecraft destroy Los Angeles, terrified Angelinos flock to St. Brendan to pray and await the end. Both the inside and outside of the church are featured. Fortunately, Earth’s bacteria and viruses wipe out the alien invaders before the end comes.
St. Brendan’s is a magnificent old church, a few blocks off Wilshire Blvd., west of downtown Los Angeles. The 1927 church is built in the Gothic Revival-style and has a majestic exterior and beautiful interior.
5. St. Thomas Aquinas Church, Palo Alto
St. Thomas Aquinas Church is the place where Harold and Maude met in the 1971 Hal Ashby film Harold and Maude. St. Thomas is a historic church in the Diocese of San Jose. It was built in 1902, and is the oldest church in Palo Alto. It is a registered historic landmark. Its impressive features include its distinctive carpenter gothic architecture, ornate wood ceiling crossbeams and stained glass windows.
6. Ss. Peter and Paul, San Francisco
Ss. Peter and Paul has been the backdrop for many films. Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan staked it out in the first Dirty Harry movie, and it made an appearance in the 5th and final Dirty Harry film The Dead Pool. Cecil B. DeMille included it in his 1923 classic The Ten Commandments, even though construction was not yet complete on the structure.
The parish was established in 1884 in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood; the current church was completed in 1924. It is a beautiful church both inside and out, and is an iconic landmark in the city’s skyline. Baseball great Joe DiMaggio married his first wife (not Marilyn Monroe) and had his funeral in the church (he grew up in the neighborhood). It is located opposite Washington Square, and its loud bells can be heard ringing throughout the neighborhood. Little Italy is nearby, as is Chinatown.
7. St. Vincent de Paul, Los Angeles
St. Vincent de Paul’s interior was featured in the 1999 film End of Days, with Arnold Schwarzenegger engaging in a riveting special effects battle with the devil.
It is a beautiful historic parish in Los Angeles established as a parish in 1886. Its magnificent church was built 1923-25. Its architect was Albert Martin, well-known in his time, who also designed St. Alphonsus Church in Fresno and St. Monica Church in Santa Monica (Bing Crosby’s church in “Going My Way). St. Vincent’s was built in the Spanish baroque style with a mix of California architecture, and at a 45-degree angle at the intersection of Adams & Figueroa. It has an ornate exterior, including its bell tower, entryway and dome over the altar area. The interior has a stunning traditional altar which is just as ornate, and high ceilings and arches. It has many beautiful statues and stained glass windows. In an effort to preserve its surroundings during a changing time, as well as recognize its historical significance, the City designated a monument in 1971.