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First San Francisco archbishop was a Dominican

November 5, 2015

The first archbishop of the newly created Archdiocese of San Francisco in the U.S. territory of California was a Spanish Dominican, Joseph Sadoc Alemany, whose “evangelical poverty” amid the excesses of the Gold Rush included living in a little two room metal shack behind St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco.

“He dressed in his Dominican habit all the years he lived in the archdiocese and young members of the flock used to count the patches on it, which were said to have been some 40 or more,” wrote pioneer historian, Jesuit Father Henry Walsh, according to “A History of the Archdiocese, Vol. 1, 1776-1884, From Mission to Golden Frontier,” by Jeffrey M. Burns.

Bishop Alemany at first refused the appointment – which was initially as bishop of Monterey- - but Pope Pius IX “would hear none of it,” Burns writes. “In an audience on June 16, Pope Pius told Alemany ‘You must go to California…Where others are drawn by gold, you must carry the cross.’” Bishop Alemany was consecrated June 30, 1850, in Rome. Before he left, he enlisted another Dominican, Father Francisco Vilarrasa, to accompany him and establish a province of the Order of Preachers in California. He also recruited two Dominican sisters in France, notably the Belgian novice Sister Mary Goemaere. They established the first community of women in the state, the Dominican Congregation of the Holy Name, later the Dominicans of San Rafael.

Within a short time Bishop Alemany moved the seat of the diocese from Monterey to San Francisco. On July 29, 1853, Rome confirmed his judgment by establishing the Archdiocese of San Francisco and appointing Alemany as its first archbishop. With barely 40 priests, the archdiocese stretched to the Oregon border and in the beginning included Baja California. Bishop Alemany, who spoke Spanish, English, French and Italian fluently, was bishop during the silver rush of 1859, the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, and saw his archdiocese grow to over 200,000 Catholics, 175 priests and more than 125 parishes before he retired Dec. 28, 1884, handing the reins of office to Archbishop Patrick W. Riordan. The following year, Archbishop Alemany returned to Spain, where he died in 1888.

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