Vallombrosa 300x100 12.2017

Precious Blood Fathers answer call to shepherd Castro parish

July 24, 2015
Christina Gray

Every weekend for the first few months of 2014, Precious Blood Father Matthew Link removed his collar after Mass at St. Hilary Parish in Tiburon where he was serving as parochial vicar and slipped across the Golden Gate Bridge and into a back pew at Most Holy Redeemer Church in San Francisco for evening Mass.

What began as curiosity about the tightknit parish located in the heart of the Castro District turned into a profound calling to serve it, Father Link told Catholic San Francisco a week before his July 5 installation as pastor.

“I experienced warmth and welcome, a vibrant and beautiful liturgy and a faithful and loving community at prayer,” he said. “This wonderful little parish won my heart.”

Worshipping incognito with a parish that draws a diverse group of parishioners and visitors to Mass each week, a third of which come from outside San Francisco – some up to 50 miles away – was an act of private discovery and discernment for Father Link, who 10 years earlier left a longtime teaching career to join the Missionaries of the Precious Blood order.

The Missionaries is an apostolic society whose stated charism is to “bring the word of God where it is most needed,” according to its website. Members are held together by a bond of charity and live in community to offer reconciliation, love and hope for anyone who feels “left out of the circle of God’s love.”

The outsiders’ circle could be a big one on the residential streets of the Castro, where rainbow flags adorn porches and windows and the aged, hungry and homeless share the sidewalks with tech workers and baby carriages.

Father Link felt that the parish, pastor-less after the reassignment of Father Brian Costello to St. Anthony of Padua in Novato, and thriving but operating in relative isolation from other Catholic churches in the city, represented a wonderful opportunity for the Precious Blood order, the neighborhood and the archdiocese.

He requested permission from his provincial to be considered for the vacancy, then coaxed 70-year-old Precious Blood Father Jack McClure out of semi-retirement in Kansas City with the idea of joining him.

The priests won over Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone too. He appointed the Precious Blood fathers to the parish last July when they became the first non-archdiocesan priests to lead the parish in its 115-year history.

The older and more experienced Father McClure served as pastor for the first year, with Father Link as parochial vicar. But the priests insist they act as a team and don’t have any big plans or agendas.

“We didn’t come here to change anybody,” said Father McClure who sat with Father Link near the parish’s memorial fountain where the founders of 30-year-old AIDS Support Group ministry are honored, including ninth pastor Father Anthony McGuire. Behind them on a stone wall are the words of Corinthians 1: 13:13: “But now faith, hope, and love remain – of these three, the greatest of these is love.”

“God is here,” said Father McClure. “We didn’t bring anything special other than being instruments of God and calling people to Christ.”

The AIDS Support Group was initiated by the parish in 1985 at the height of the AIDS epidemic when it was burying two or three persons a week. It was the first Catholic community in the city to respond to the crisis, offering care and assistance to persons with HIV and those who care for them.

Signs heralding “God’s inclusive love proclaimed here” have been a beacon to LGBT Catholics and visitors who represent more than half of the parish community. But “inclusiveness” is also what brought Kate Deaton, 29, and Akaash Gupta, 31, both of San Francisco, to the parish.

“This is the kind of faith community I want to be a part of,” said Deaton, 29, a family therapist and member of the Young Adults Group. Relative newcomers to San Francisco from Long Beach, she and her fiance Akaash Gupta, a lawyer, began attending Most Holy Redeemer’s popular Sunday evening Mass about a year ago. Father Link is preparing the couple for Catholic marriage next March.

“I’m Catholic, and Akaash is not, but he has always been supportive of my faith and comes to church with me,” she said. She said she felt instantly welcomed by the parish community. “But more importantly to me, Akaash feels welcome and accepted, even though he isn’t Catholic.”

Fathers Link and McClure said the parish’s media reputation as the nation’s largest “gay parish” is short-sighted.

“We don’t see ourselves in just that way,” said Father Link. Members of the parish community don’t identify or organize themselves based on their sexual orientation and the parish does not have even a ministry defined or directed specifically to the LGBT community.

“We are a very Catholic parish, with the universal ‘c,’” he said. Differences here don’t necessarily mean division, he said. He called it a “moderate parish” where traditional and progressive, young and old, gay and straight  Catholics find peace and comfort sitting next to each other in Mass and working together in service and outreach.

Bill Ryan, 87, has been taking up the collection faithfully each Sunday at the 8 a.m. Mass for more than 30 years. He lives nearby with his wife, Wilma. “It’s a wonderful place,” he said. “There are so many people who go out of their way to do things for each other and people in the neighborhood.”

A long-running Wednesday night sit-down supper for homeless men and women in the parish’s Ellard Hall continues to flourish thanks to a ready roster of parish volunteers. The Castro Senior Center leases the same hall weekly to feed neighborhood seniors and the AIDS Support Group endures 30 years later.

The parish has so many ministries and programs including a centering prayer program, a reconnection ministry for “disconnected Catholics,” a children’s ministry and a social justice ministry that it recently brought Mercy Sister Erma Dillard on staff from St. Boniface as the director of ministries.

Jim Stockholm, a longtime parishioner and “minister of communications and public relations,” said the texture of the neighborhood is changing for the same reason the entire city’s is: the lack of affordable housing.

“We recognize that many people just can’t afford to live here anymore,” said Stockholm, who is helping lead a sophisticated social media campaign that has been effective in attracting younger visitors or parishioners, like Deaton and Gupta. The parish Facebook page promotes the parish’s many ministries and programs, including a Sunday evening “praise and worship” Mass featuring a popular new music ministry that has replaced the traditional performance choir.

Only two years ago the parish population of 900 registered parishioners was 70 percent male and 30 percent female, said Stockholm, and today the mix is closer to 60-40.

“We are even experiencing, and wonderfully so, a lot of children,” he said. The church installed a “crying room” in 2012.

Irish Help at Home flattened
McCoy's Flattened
Arch SF Development Alternate
Pontifical Mission Society - 230x100
St. Anthony's Foundation - 230x100

Catholic San Francisco
One Peter Yorke Way, San Francisco, CA 94109
Phone: 415-614-5639    Fax: 415-614-5641
E-Mail Us