Liz Trotta, New York bureau chief for the Washington Times and maybe the first American woman to report the fighting from Vietnam, decided to apply her investigative skills to an unusual task for a modern-day journalist: to find out the truth about St. Jude. Retracing the apostle's steps in the Middle East and Rome, eventually she also came to a shrine near downtown San Francisco where thousands visit every year to turn to this saint when life has pushed them to the edge.
Trotta called St. Jude “the patron of last resorts, lost causes, the impossible, the man to summon as the ship goes down.” Attending the annual novena at the national shrine to the saint, in St. Dominic Church, she found those lost causes, especially people facing death from AIDS. She told their stories in a chapter titled “City at the Edge: San Francisco,” the last one in her book, Jude: a Pilgrimage to the Saint of Last Resort.
Why do so many people feel an affinity for St. Jude? First Trotta pointed to a wider trend: “In the last decade there has been a resurgence in devotionalism.” She described it as a “silent but profound change in spiritual climate” and quoted a priest who calls it “a yearning of the heart.” She believed that the renewed interest in St. Jude is part of that wider trend.
Dominican Father Thomas Hayes, former director of the shrine of St. Jude, said, “People feel lonely … Catholics and [non-Catholics], and want to be part of something. We always want heroes.”
Still there are many people who specifically seek out St. Jude instead of any other saint. Why? St. Jude was one of the Twelve Apostles, brother of St. James the Less and a blood relative of Jesus.
One of the New Testament letters bears his name. Tradition says that he was martyred in Persia with another apostle, St. Simon. However, more than all these facts, the focus of attention on St. Jude is a result of what he stands for: hope in the midst of hopelessness.
Father Hayes said, “The people want to hear about Jude, a role model and hero.—Some may feel that the Church is too alien, too big, too powerful, whatever, for them. Do they say, ‘I'll be satisfied just with Jude?’ Perhaps. But I don't think it's a substitution [for the Church].
In most cases, it's more of a humble thing—that they're not worthy or deserving, and that God doesn't want anything to do with them.” They find comfort in the saint's well-known concern for hopeless situations like theirs.
Early Days of the Shrine
The shrine of St. Jude is situated in the northwest corner of St. Dominic Church. Weekly devotions to the saint began here in 1935 and remained fairly local to the parish for some years—until the appointment of Dominican Father Patrick Kane. Father Kane's involvement with the saint came about literally by accident. At the Dominican novitiate in Marin County, Calif., he fell as the result of a spell and was almost killed. During his recovery it was suggested to him that he work with the list of people interested in the shrine, which at the time was nothing more than a shoe-box full of slips of paper, and see what he could do to help. Father Kane brought in volunteers and under his guidance the shrine began to grow.
Eventually Father Kane was able to go back to his work and do a limited amount of preaching, but he had another spell while preaching in Idaho. He fell, hit his head on the pulpit and died. His brother, Dominican Father John Kane, picked up where he left off and directed the shrine for about 10 years. In 1978 Father Hayes came to assist him, eventually becoming director of the shrine himself.
Father Hayes described the mission of the St. Jude Center. “It's a form of preaching—it's an apostolate—that is to say a work of religion dedicated to communicating with people who would otherwise not have a chance. Many people have trouble communicating in their parish church. They can't find their priest or their priest is too busy. Here they can get on the phone, they can always find somebody, they can write a letter. The letters, we hope, are always answered.”
Callers find a listening ear in one of the many volunteers or lay staff who have helped the priests make the shrine what it is today. There are four big novenas each year, and an extensive mailing list of people who join the novenas either in person or at home. During those periods of time there are special Masses, services, rosaries, and special preaching, all highlighting the power of prayer and the influence of St. Jude. A calendar is published each year identifying the dates of the special novenas, and people are encouraged to send in their Mass intentions, and any questions, difficulties or problems. The mailing list has at times numbered almost 80,000.
Although the population of St. Dominic parish is largely white and African-American, hundreds of Hispanics and Filipinos regularly attend the church because of their devotion to St. Jude. “This is not your ordinary kind of territorial parish,” Father Hayes explained. “It's a place that people come to for devotions. There are the hard-core parish people that live nearby, but that by itself wouldn't explain why this is a parish and what it does as a parish.”
St. Dominic Church, built in a valley in an out-of-the-way neighborhood, is an unnoticed church. Stately and Gothic, it is known in the city for its beautiful woodwork in the confessionals and side altars. Except for sunrise and sunset when the church is beautifully illuminated by the light pouring through the front and rear stained-glass windows, St. Dominic's is a very dark church, seemingly illuminated only by the hundreds of candles lit at the side altars. This allows pilgrims the opportunity of a quiet peaceful place to reflect and pray.
The 1989 Earthquake
The church almost became history after the 7.2 Loma Prieta earthquake, which shook San Francisco in 1989. At first no one was sure how much damage the church had sustained. It was a time of panic and some called for the church to be torn down. But after all the buildings were checked, it was determined that there was no structural damage except to the “crown” on the church tower, which had to be removed.
Concern then turned to the fact that this kind of Gothic style structure, with very high walls, and a very heavy roof, was liable to suffer severe damage in a future earthquake. The decision was made to reinforce the stability of the church by adding flying buttresses. There are seven of these massive concrete structures anchored into the ground in order to withstand the force of any ground disturbance. At the top they are secured to a ring of steel inside the roof of the church.
The cost of the restoration effort was more than $7 million. When money began to run short, Father Hayes, who at the time was the director of the shrine, received the OK to ask people if they wanted to contribute to the restoration. As a result of their $500,000 in donations, one of the buttresses is called the “St. Jude Buttress.”
Father Hayes recalled an incident that occurred during the restorations that illustrates what draws so many people to the shrine. A man “came to the door when the church was closed,” Father Hayes said. “He's standing at the front door; he's crying and so forth. So I thought I better say something to him.” When Father Hayes tried to engage him in conversation, the man said, “Oh, I'm sorry, but I just wanted to sit here and pray.”
Finding out that he was neither a member of the parish nor a Catholic, the surprised priest asked him why he would think of coming to the shrine. The stranger said he knew it was a place he was always welcome. “It's a place to pray,” he said.
He knew what so many others have also found—that even if his hopelessness seemed to be a good reason to avoid other places in the world, here it was the very reason why he could feel at home.
Lynn Smith writes from San Francisco.