California Churches Teach History and Invite Prayer

Golden State’s Religious Sites, Part 2

The following is part two of a profile of just a handful of the many beautiful churches California has to offer (Part 1).

Church of the Nativity
Nativity is a pretty, historic little church built in the New England style. It is part of the Archdiocese of San Francisco in Menlo Park. It began as a mission church in 1872 and became a parish in 1877. The first church was enlarged and modified and officially dedicated in 1888. Other elements were added through the years, including an impressive rose stained-glass window in 1900. Fortunately, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake did little damage to the church (while wrecking the rectory!).

The church is built in the cruciform style and made of redwood, all in white. Its many impressive features include beautiful stained-glass windows and hand-carved side altars; it is surrounded by attractive landscaping, including palm and oak trees. It was placed on the National Register of Historical Places in 1981. This place of prayer offers Eucharistic adoration 24-7.

Holy Rosary Chapel
Holy Rosary is located north of San Francisco, off the 101 freeway in San Raphael. The chapel is on the grounds of the St. Vincent’s School for Boys, which was founded by the Sisters of Charity in 1855. St. Vincent’s was a home for orphaned and neglected youth and operated under the auspices of Joseph Alemany, the first archbishop of San Francisco. The chapel was one of a group of Renaissance-style buildings built in the 1920s by the director of St. Vincent’s, Father Francis McElroy. 

Today, St. Vincent’s is part of Catholic Charities and serves at-risk boys from abusive and troubled backgrounds. The chapel — or church, because it is the size of a regular parish church — is beautiful inside and out. Special elements include 15 magnificent stained-glass windows, which feature Bible stories that appeal to youth (remember, it was built in the days when St. Vincent’s was an orphanage). The colors are bright and vibrant; make a point to go when the sun is shining brightly. There are some nice statues, including of St. Isabel, Mary and Joseph, the Little Flower and Jesus welcoming a little child. The altar and sanctuary are marble; the concrete ceiling appears to be made of wood and matches the floor below. The chapel is modeled after a Tuscany seminary and has an Italian feel.

Take a walk on the beautiful grounds afterward. They are green and lush, with horses and cows in pastures. Visit the old orphanage buildings and see the courtyards and ball fields as well. In decades past, the priests and nuns of St. Vincent’s set many orphaned boys on the path to become virtuous, productive citizens here.

Old Mission San Juan Bautista
Mission San Juan Bautista was founded by Father Fermin de Lasuen, successor to Blessed Junipero Serra, in 1797. It is the 15th of California’s 21 Spanish missions. Work began on the church 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 grounds 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. 

The mission was prominently featured in the 1958 Alfred Hitchcock/Jimmy Stewart movie Vertigo, although the bell tower that is part of the plot is a Hollywood creation. (But you can still see the carriage and mannequin horse featured when Jimmy Stewart talks with Kim Novak in the film.)

St. John’s Cathedral
St. John’s is a historic church, established in 1882, located in the historic district of Fresno. It is the city’s first parish, which started with a modest five Catholic families; the current church was completed in 1903. 

It’s a beautiful church, with twin spires on the outside and fabulous artwork inside. There are many beautiful paintings, frescoes and stained glass, as well as a traditional altar.

St. Andrew’s Church
St. Andrew’s just celebrated its 125th anniversary. The parish was founded in 1886, the same year of the first Tournament of Roses Parade and incorporation of Pasadena as a city. The church was completed in 1927. The

Pasadena area has many beautiful old churches, but this perhaps is the most impressive.

Located in old town Pasadena, it is a Byzantine-style structure modeled after the Basilica of St. Sabina in Rome. Its sanctuary contains magnificent murals created by Italian painter Carlo Wostry; there are also impressive marble columns, statues and stained-glass windows. The interior artwork took eight years to complete. It also has a Romanesque campanile bell tower visible for miles around, and its bells can be heard tolling regularly. It truly is a Pasadena landmark.

Shrine of St. Joseph
The shrine just celebrated the 60th anniversary of its 1951 groundbreaking; the first Mass was celebrated in the chapel in 1952. The chapel is a place of devotion for the Oblate community and visitors. It features many fine pieces of religious art, the highlight of which is a six-by-eight-foot carving of St. Joseph with Mary and Jesus. There is also an art exhibit dedicated to St. Joseph, featuring scenes from his life, and a bookstore featuring a variety of religious literature. 

Take a walk down to the beach afterward, as you’ll be looking out onto beautiful Monterey Bay. 

Sacred Heart Chapel
The Sacred Heart Retreat House is located in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, alongside the upscale neighborhood of San Marino. It is operated by the Carmelite sisters, who wear the traditional habit. They are orthodox, cheerful and welcoming. 

The retreat house offers overnight and weekend retreats as well as days and evenings of recollection. Most retreats are for women. The grounds are beautifully maintained, with many statues and places for outdoor prayer and reflection. The chapel has a beautiful interior. Visitors can purchase religious items at the gift shop. Visitors are welcome to make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament at any time during the week. 

Jim Graves writes from
Newport Beach, California.


Planning Your Visit

Church of the Nativity
210 Oak Grove Ave.
Menlo Park, CA 94025

Holy Rosary Chapel
One St. Vincent Dr.
San Rafael, CA 94913

Old Mission San Juan Bautista
406 Second St.
San Juan Bautista, CA 95045
Visit the gift shop to purchase mission-related and religious items or for tourist information. The historic grounds are open daily 9:30am-4:30pm; cost is $4 adults, $3 seniors and $2 children. Gift shop and tour information: (831) 623-4528.

St. John’s Cathedral
2814 Mariposa St.
Fresno, CA 93721

St. Andrew’s Church
311 N. Raymond Ave.
Pasadena, CA 91103

Shrine of St. Joseph, Santa Cruz
544 West Cliff Dr.
Santa Cruz, CA 95060
The bookstore is open 11:30am-2pm; the chapel is open 7am to sunset. The facilities can be rented by religious groups, so there might be a retreat or conference going on during your visit. Mass is at 11am daily; confessions are 30 minutes before Mass.

Sacred Heart Chapel, Sacred Heart Retreat House
920 E. Alhambra Rd.
Alhambra, CA 91801
Visitors are requested to stop by the front office for a visitor’s badge. Sunday Mass is usually at 11:30am, and the public is welcome to attend.

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy