Iconic San Francisco Church Has Dual Italian, Chinese History

“The Italians built that parish ... but it is now welcoming a new wave of Chinese immigrants.”

In this view of San Francisco, Alcatraz can be seen in San Francisco Bay on the left, Coit Tower occupies the hill on the right, and the twin spires of Sts. Peter and Paul are visible in the center of the photo.
In this view of San Francisco, Alcatraz can be seen in San Francisco Bay on the left, Coit Tower occupies the hill on the right, and the twin spires of Sts. Peter and Paul are visible in the center of the photo. (photo: Photo by Jim Graves)

Ss. Peter and Paul Church in the North Beach area of San Francisco is one of the Bay area’s most famous and iconic churches. Established in 1884, the church is known for its majestic twin towers, beautiful architecture and art; it has served as the backdrop for numerous Hollywood movies (including Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 classic The Ten Commandments, while the current church was still under construction) and is a favorite stop for tourists.

While it was originally a home to many Italian Catholics, in recent decades Chinese Catholics have become the dominant ethnic group.

Poverty and political turmoil in Italy brought waves of Italian immigrants to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century. North Beach became San Francisco’s Little Italy, as large numbers of Italians came and put down roots, established businesses, built homes and raised families. In the early 20th century, as much as 80% of North Beach was of Italian heritage, and walking down the streets Italian could be heard spoken as often as English.

In 1897, San Francisco Archbishop Patrick Riordan turned over care of the parish to the Salesians of Don Bosco, a religious institute founded in Italy by St. John Bosco a few decades before. The church became known as “La cattedrale d’Italia ovest,” the Italian Cathedral of the West. The Salesians still serve the parish and many of its parishioners still proudly celebrate its Italian heritage.  

One of the Salesians, Fr. Armand Oliveri, 97, grew up in the parish. Fr. Oliveri was born in Italy, and came to North Beach in 1929. He explained, “My father wanted to avoid both Benito Mussolini and the fascists and the communists that were active in Italy.”

Ss. Peter and Paul became a spiritual home and social center for Italians, he said.  Father remembers the early days of such groups as the Italian Catholic Federation and the Salesian Boys and Girls Clubs.  Most of the priests who served the parish were Italian.

Fr. Oliveri attended the parish school, which was taught by Presentation Sisters.  By the time he graduated the 8th grade, he knew he wanted to be a priest.

But Ss. Peter and Paul was not popular with all the members of the community, he recalled.  Several attempts were made to plant bombs to destroy the church; one would-be bomber was shot to death by police on the front steps of the church in 1927.  The bombers were not motivated by anti-Italian sentiments, Father noted, but by a revolutionary, anti-clerical and anti-Catholic spirit that some in the community held.

Fr. Oliveri was ordained a priest in Turin, Italy in 1950.  He celebrated one of his first Masses at Ss. Peter and Paul, and served as an associate pastor there on and off through the years.  He returned permanently 12 years ago.

Guido “Gig” Ghiglieri has lived in North Beach and been a Ss. Peter and Paul parishioner since he was an infant in the 1920s.  A retired laborer and driver, he has volunteered in the parish as a lector, Eucharistic minister and preparing food for the needy.  

As a boy, he took part in Ss. Peter and Paul’s Salesian Boys Club activities.  He remembers younger priests (most who serve the parish today are elderly) and churches packed for Mass.  Those who couldn’t fit inside would stand on the street and follow along with the aid of loudspeakers, he said.  After Mass, children would attendSunday school.

With the strong Catholic character of the Italian North Beach community, attending Sunday Mass was expected.  He said, “If you weren’t there, they’d come looking for you.”

Alessandro Baccari was born in North Beach in the 1920s and grew up there.  Like Fr. Oliveri, he attended the parish school.  He’s worked as a businessman, professor and writer; in 1984, he collaborated on the writing of “The Italian Cathedral of the West,” a book which helped celebrate the 100th anniversary of Ss. Peter & Paul.

He has fond memories of the tight-knit Italian community: “You really got to know your neighbor, and everyone looked out for each other.”

His memories of Catholic school were positive as well.  He said, “The nuns cared about me, and about all their students.”  He served as an altar boy, and remembers serving in the nuptial Mass of baseball legend Joe DiMaggio.  His memory of the Yankee slugger: “Joe was shy.”

Times were tough in the streets of San Francisco during the Great Depression, but, he said, “when there was poverty and despair, it was the church who offered hope.”

While Baccari loves his Italian heritage, he is quick to add that he’s pleased to welcome Catholics of different ethnicities to Ss. Peter and Paul.  He said, “The Italians built that parish.  But, I’m proud and celebrate the fact that it is now welcoming a new wave of Chinese immigrants.”



Chinese Immigrants

Fr. Oliveri also noted that the parish has become home to a significant number of Chinese Catholics since the 1970s.  Today, it is the parish’s largest ethnic group. 

The California Gold Rush first brought large numbers of Chinese to the Bay area in the 1850s, although many soon returned home due to anti-Chinese laws and the dearth of female Chinese in the area.  In 1972, only a handful of Chinese were attending the church when Fr. Joseph Cheng, a Salesian priest from Hong Kong, celebrated the first Chinese Mass for about 20 young adults in what was then an indoor basketball court.  Ss. Peter and Paul’s Chinese apostolate had begun.  

“It was very exciting for us,” recalled Estella Lum, who was part of that first group.  “It gave us a real sense of belonging to hear Mass in our native language, and helped make Ss. Peter and Paul our spiritual home.”

Lum is originally from Hong Kong, and was brought to the U.S. by her parents when she was a teenager.  She has had a special attachment to the parish for over 40 years, was married there and has had her children baptized there.  

Roland Kong was also a founding member of the Chinese apostolate.  He, too, was born and reared in Hong Kong, and attended a Salesian school there.  He said, “It was important to us.  It made the Mass a part of our culture.”

Kong is a convert, and was baptized in Ss. Peter and Paul, and like Lam, would go on to be married and see his children baptized there.  He has also attended the funerals of close family members there, including his own wife, who died more than a decade ago.  He said, “I’ve developed a close relationship with the Salesians and the parish.”

Kong recalls that when the number of Chinese coming to Ss. Peter and Paul grew to be more than 100, the pastor moved the Mass from the basketball gym to the church and made it one of the weekly Sunday Masses.  It’s today offered at 10:15 a.m. Sundays.  Kong believes its popularity is due to Ss. Peter and Paul’s proximity to Chinatown, and that other parishes in the area do not offer weekly Masses in Chinese.

The celebrant for the Mass is not a Chinese priest, however, but Salesian Father Mario Rosso.  The elderly priest is originally from northern Italy, and learned the Chinese language during his 43 years serving as a missionary in China.

He said, “While the overall the number of Chinese who are Catholic is relatively small, those who are Catholic are very fervent.”

Fr. Rosso was ordained a priest in 1949 and was sent to Shanghai.  The new Chinese communist government expelled him and his fellow missionaries, however, so he went to minister in Hong Kong and Macau, which at the time were ruled by the United Kingdom and Portugal.  He came to Ss. Peter and Paul in semi-retirement over a decade ago.  He has become beloved in the Chinese community, Kong said: “He’s been like a real father to us.”

Many Chinese who come to Ss. Peter and Paul are not from North Beach, however, but make a lengthy commute to worship there.  One such commuter has been Maryanne Kong, Roland Kong’s sister-in law, a former North Beach resident who makes a 45-minute drive to the parish every Sunday from Fremont.  She explained, “I have a sense of belonging at the parish, and it gives me the ideal setting in which to practice my Faith.”

She first came to Ss. Peter and Paul in 1980, less than a week after she arrived from Hong Kong.  She emigrated in search of better educational and work opportunities.  And, like many of her fellow immigrants, she was concerned about the upcoming change in Hong Kong’s leadership, from British hands to those of the People’s Republic of China, in 1997.  She said, “We were concerned about a loss in our rights to free speech and other freedoms under the new government.”

In addition to being able to worship in her native tongue, Kong enjoyed a fellowship in her new parish which helped her get acclimated to her new home.  Learning English was a challenge, she said, and getting used to cultural differences, like driving on the right side of the street vs. the left (Hong Kong is the same as England), took time, too.  The support of earlier immigrants whom she got to know at Ss. Peter and Paul proved invaluable.  She said, “They gave me the help I needed to establish roots in my new home.”