National Catholic Register

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California Churches Make Hollywood Cameos

Faith Spaces Made Famous by Movies and TV

BY Jim Graves

Aug. 11-24, 2013 Issue | Posted 8/10/13 at 7:15 AM

 

California is home to many beautiful Catholic churches as well as home to Hollywood.

Consequently, the state’s churches have frequently caught the eye of filmmakers and appeared in well-known movies and television shows. 

The following is a sampling of some Catholic churches that have made movie cameos that moviegoers will recognize.

The next time you’re in California, you might enjoy stopping by and seeing some of these famous and beautiful locations.

St. Paul Church, San Francisco: St. Paul’s is an attractive 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 took 14 years because it was built as funds were raised). It has magnificent architecture and art, as well as 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 San Francisco Archdiocese to keep it open after a seismic retrofit was performed. As is noted in the parish’s official history, it is one of the principal locations for the filming of the 1992 musical-comedy Sister Act. In the film, Whoopi Goldberg is a lounge singer who hides out from the mob as a nun in San Francisco. Whoopi uses her musical talents to tutor the nuns’ choir. Remember when she teaches them her upbeat version of the Salve Regina? That sequence was filmed inside St. Paul’s.

St. Monica’s, Santa Monica: St. Monica’s parish was established in 1886; the present church was built in 1925. A number of celebrities have attended Mass there through the years. 

St. Monica’s was also a principal filming location for the 1944 film Going My Way, in which Bing Crosby portrayed one of Hollywood’s most lovable priest-characters. Crosby’s character is sent to take over the parish from Barry Fitzgerald’s character, an old-school priest from Ireland, who was based on a former pastor of St. Monica’s: Msgr. Nicholas Conneally, a friend of the film’s director and writer, who attended the parish. Filming was done in the church’s rectory and a replica of its dining room.

Mission Dolores, San Francisco: Mission Dolores was founded in 1776, five days before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Established by Spanish Franciscans and built to serve the Ohlone Indians who inhabited the region, it is the city’s oldest building. Blessed Junipero Serra, leader of the Franciscans, celebrated Mass here. Today, it is located in the busy Mission District. Towering on one side of the church is the newer basilica-church; on the other side is a portion of the original cemetery. All three portions of the property have appeared in films and television shows. The most famous is the 1958 Alfred Hitchcock classic Vertigo. Jimmy Stewart follows Kim Novak to the Mission Dolores cemetery, where her character visits the grave of Carlotta Valdes. Ask a docent to show you the exact spot of the famous scene. (Further south, incidentally, Mission San Juan Bautista was also an important filming location for the Hitchcock film.) The interior of old Mission Dolores church is the backdrop for the Henry Fonda-Lucille Ball wedding scene in the 1968 Yours, Mine and Ours. The first seven minutes of The Streets of San Francisco’s "For the Love of God" episode was filmed in the basilica-church in 1972, where a murderer was after San Francisco clergy, and Karl Malden’s Lt. Mike Stone was on the case to catch him. Clear shots of both the inside and the outside of the basilica were seen in this episode.

St. Brendan’s, Los Angeles: St. Brendan’s is a magnificent old church, a few blocks off Wilshire Boulevard, west of downtown Los Angeles. The 1927 church is built in the Gothic-Revival style and has a majestic exterior and beautiful interior. 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’s to pray and await the end of the world. Both the inside and outside of the church are featured. 

Blessed Sacrament Church, Hollywood: Established in 1904, Blessed Sacrament was Hollywood’s first church. The current church was built in the Italian-Renaissance style and was dedicated in 1928. It is located on Hollywood’s famous Sunset Boulevard and is home to many impressive works of art. It is staffed by Jesuits. In its early years, Hollywood filmmakers had a close relationship with Blessed Sacrament. The first professional organization for screen writers and actors, the precursor to the Writers’ and Screen Actors’ Guilds, was formed at the church. Its pastor in the 1920s, Father Daniel Stack, served as a technical adviser for movies with religious and Catholic elements, and parishioners were used as movie extras. Hollywood studios provided actors and equipment free of charge for church-sponsored fundraisers, such as theatrical productions and festivals, proceeds from which the church used to build a rectory and school. A long line of celebrities once attended the church, and it was the location of the weddings and funerals of many prominent people. The church was also a convenient location for filming scenes in many movies and television shows. For example, a 2001 episode of ER featured actor James Cromwell playing Bishop Stewart officiating at an ordination. Jesuits were cast as extras.

St. Vincent de Paul, Los Angeles: St. Vincent de Paul is located near the University of Southern California and the Los Angeles Coliseum. It was established in 1886, and the current church was built 1923-25. (Its architect, Albert Martin, was a well-known church designer in his day; he also designed St. Monica’s in Santa Monica.) The current church was built in the Spanish-Baroque style, with a mix of California architecture. It has an ornate exterior, including a bell tower, entryway and dome over the altar area. The interior has a stunning traditional altar that is just as ornate, with high ceilings and arches. It has many beautiful statues and stained-glass windows. In 1971, the city designated it as a historic monument. It, too, has caught the eye of filmmakers. In the 1999 horror film End of Days, for example, its interior was used for a special-effects battle with the devil (although this reference in no way implies the Register’s endorsement of this or other films).

Sts. Peter and Paul, San Francisco: Sts. Peter and Paul is one of the Bay Area’s most magnificent churches, located in San Francisco’s North Beach. The current church was built in 1924 and is a feast for the eyes, with all of its Italian-Catholic art. At one time, it served a predominantly Italian community; today, it serves many in the Chinese community. Salesian priests of Don Bosco still serve the parish. Its majestic twin towers are a prominent feature in the city’s skyline. The church has been the backdrop for many films, including Dirty Harry movies and Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 classic The Ten Commandments.

Jim Graves writes from

Newport Beach, California.