Perhaps the most famous carpenter was St. Joseph, patron of the universal Church and of carpenters, whose feast day we celebrate March 19.

A poor man who made his living carving things out of wood, he was head of the Holy Family and cared for the Christ Child and the Blessed Mother. As Christ grew up, Joseph no doubt taught Jesus the woodworking trade.

Just over a century ago, another woodworker came from Romania to San Francisco and spent decades helping create art for many of the Bay Area’s most beautiful churches: Artist and wood-carver Samuel Berger (1886-1970) used his talent to create traditional religious art.

 

Catholic City

The Archdiocese of San Francisco was established by Pope Pius IX in 1853. The California Gold Rush, which began with the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill four years before, swelled the number of residents of the once-small town. The city’s first bishop was a Dominican priest, Father Joseph Alemany. The Pope told him, "Where others are drawn by gold, you must carry the cross."

Immigrants to the region included Irish, French, German, Italian and Portuguese Catholics. They were served by priests from a variety of religious communities, including priests of the Jesuit, Dominican, Salesian, Paulist and Franciscan religious orders, as well as many congregations of women religious.

Many churches were built in the Bay Area in the second half of the 19th century, but the Great Earthquake of 1906 devastated the city and its houses of worship. The decades following were a time of full employment for church architects, builders and artisans, who spent their days rebuilding and repairing Catholic churches, as well as building new ones.

 

Marvelous Mastery

Among the most recognized and celebrated artisans of the era was Berger, a Jewish immigrant from Bucharest. He learned his trade from his father, who was a wood-carver in the royal palace of King Carol I of Romania (1839-1914). The king had an eye for beauty and employed hundreds of wood-carvers, according to Sam Berger’s granddaughter Diane Marcus of San Mateo, Calif. She said her grandfather fled the country at age 18 due to anti-Jewish persecution. She remarked, "As a Jew, he had no chance in Romania to succeed, to educate his children or even stay alive."

Berger arrived in San Francisco in 1904, with little more than the clothes on his back. Like many residents of San Francisco, he found himself homeless after the 1906 earthquake and lived with others in a tent city in Golden Gate Park. His fortunes soon improved, however, as he met his beloved future wife in the tent city, and, as new buildings went up, he found work in his profession.

His work soon came to the attention of the Catholic clergy, and he began working on some beautiful churches: Cristo Rey Carmelite Monastery, Mission Dolores Basilica, St. Ignatius, Our Lady of the Angels, Sts. Peter and Paul, Santa Clara University, St. Ambrose, St. Anne, St. Brigid Church and School, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Cecilia, St. John, St. Leander, St. Monica, Star of the Sea and Old St. Mary’s Cathedral.

His work included crucifixes, statues, scenes from the lives of Our Lord and the saints, Stations of the Cross, cherubs, bishops’ coats of arms, ornate ceilings, pews, altars and altar pieces, columns, ambos, confessionals and entry doors.

Berger’s great-granddaughter, Lynn Goldfinger, has created a blog with extensive photographs of Berger’s work in the San Francisco Archdiocese (SamuelBerger.blogspot.com). She recently visited St. Cecilia’s, which was extensively decorated by Berger, including lavish ceilings. She said, "I’m amazed. It’s all so intricate. He had four kids to raise. How did he have time to do all this?"

It has been a challenge to catalogue his work, Goldfinger said, as Church records are limited, and Berger rarely signed his work. However, she does have clippings of Berger with prominent Church officials, such as Bishop Merlin Guilfoyle (1908-81). Bishop Guilfoyle was an auxiliary bishop in San Francisco, before becoming bishop of Stockton, Calif. Bishop Guilfoyle served as rector of Mission Dolores from 1950-69; Berger contributed art to that church. Founded by Spanish missionaries in 1776, Mission Dolores is the city’s oldest church.

In his heyday, Berger had a large workshop in the downtown area of San Francisco, near Union Square, and he employed several workmen. As granddaughter Marcus said, "He made quite a reputation for himself."

Although he never converted to Catholicism, Berger developed a vast knowledge of the Church, as he was required to do extensive research for his projects. He also had respect for the Catholics with whom he worked.

His projects began by meeting with the client, such as a pastor or bishop, and then involved his personal study of a style or particular Catholic devotion (e.g., Romanesque or the Seven Dolors of the Blessed Virgin Mary). He’d make sketches of the work, which he’d paste on the walls of his workshop throughout the duration of the project.

When it was time to carve, entire tree trunks were delivered to his studio, and he would start "sawing, carving and chiseling, always by hand, never with power tools," recalled Marcus. "His goal was to translate the vision of the client into a tangible reality."

His beautiful work made him well known in Catholic circles, said Marcus, although, since Berger was a shy, humble man, he could never understand the attention he received.

She recalled some work he did for the interior of a cloistered convent across from the University of San Francisco. When the work was complete, Church officials held a reception at the convent to honor Berger and show off his work.

Marcus was with Berger, who expressed to her privately his bewilderment at the notoriety. She said, "He couldn’t understand the impact his work had on people. He said to me, ‘It’s my job; it’s what I do.’"

Berger was also hired to do work for private residences, most notably Hearst Castle in San Simeon, Calif. (today, a state historic park open for public tours). Architect Julia Morgan hired Berger to create furnishings for the property as well as a grand staircase.

Since Berger’s death in 1970, his wife and four children have passed away as well. Marcus, the surviving family member who knew him best, plans to write a book about Berger’s life and his contributions to the Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

As she said, "Sam was a true artist. He created many beautiful things with wood that nourished people both spiritually and through their beauty. … He was also a wonderful, loving man who had great respect for the Catholic religion, even though it was not his own. And, in turn, Catholics who knew him and appreciated his work had a great respect for him."

Jim Graves writes from

Newport Beach, California.