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How Don Bosco’s Salesians came to San Francisco

April 17, 2015

The Salesian story here started in 1870. “The orphanage is 20 miles north of San Francisco and cares for about 200 children ... The weather is always serene and healthy ... The property comprises fields and gardens, and cattle and horses graze freely on the grounds...” Thus did Archbishop Joseph Sadoc Alemany of San Francisco describe the Eden-like setting of St. Vincent’s Orphanage in the hills between San Rafael and Novato just off what is now Highway 101.

Archbishop Alemany had written to Don Bosco at his then-fledgling Salesian Society in Torino, Italy: He was seeking a religious group to staff the orphanage. Don Bosco had accepted the offer, with a promise to send several of his Salesians within the next six months. But for reasons which have never been documented and explained, the invitation died before coming to birth. No Salesian walked El Camino Real until 27 years later.

It was Jesuit Father Joseph Sasia, an enthusiastic admirer and friend of Don Bosco, who was the Piedmontese (from the Piedmont region of Italy) connection that induced Archbishop Patrick Riordan to secure the services of the first Salesians to minister to the Italian community in San Francisco. So in early March 1897, Father Raphael Piperni, with three Salesians in tow, arrived in New York harbor, California-bound, and on Sunday, March 13, two days after his arrival, Father Piperni celebrated a solemn high Mass in the wooded frame church of Sts. Peter and Paul, then located at the corner of Filbert and Dupont (now Grant Avenue). On the following day, in the presence of the pastor Father De Caroli and of Father Piperni, Archbishop Riordan transferred the parish to the Salesians. That historic meeting took place in the then-chancery office and rectory at 1100 Franklin St., which, by a serendipitous twist, was purchased 70 years later by the Salesians to become the present Salesian Provincial Office, yes, at 1100 Franklin St.

Father Piperni soon realized that, unless something was done, the Italian immigrants in his adopted city would continue to remain second-class citizens. He organized the very first Americanization School in California. This new venture, with its English and its American citizenship classes, enjoyed a remarkable success.

At the time of the 1906 earthquake Sts. Peter and Paul had become a haven for the Italian community. The Americanization School was in great demand; baptisms that year had reached 700; confirmation and first Communion were administered twice a year; Sunday school had an enrollment of 2,000 children.

The annual Madonna del Lume feast and procession, and the blessing of the fleet at Fisherman’s Wharf, soon became popular North Beach events.

For over a century Sts. Peter and Paul has been the “Italian National Catholic Church” in San Francisco. In practice, that meant that anyone with a connection to Italy – born there, married to an Italian, etc. – could have baptisms, weddings and funerals celebrated there without asking anybody else’s permission – a providential arrangement for the Italian immigrants, especially for those who could not speak English.

Because of the growing Chinese Catholic presence in North Beach, the “Italian Cathedral of the West” has added a very well attended Sunday Mass in Chinese since 1977, and today what was called “Little Italy” has become an ethnically diverse parish, still retaining much of its Italian culture and heritage.

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