Vallombrosa 300x100 12.2017

Countercultural San Francisco parish attracts growing congregation

16 PAGE Star IMG_4350.Star revisedStar of the Sea parish began in 1887, with the first Masses celebrated in a dance hall on the sand dunes. The current church, located in the western San Francisco neighborhood of the Richmond, was built in 1914.  (Photos by Valerie Schmalz/Catholic San Francisco)

July 27, 2017
Valerie Schmalz

On the solemnity of the Annunciation this spring Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone dedicated Star of the Sea’s renovated St. Joseph Adoration Chapel, calling it “a pivotal moment in the history of the parish.”

“We want to base the renewal of our parish around the holy Eucharist,” said Father Joseph Illo. “Our mission statement is to evangelize God’s people beginning with the gift of the holy Eucharist. That means putting a lot of energy into our music, our preaching, our Sunday Mass.”

Three years after Father Illo was appointed parish administrator in August 2014, bringing his powerful commitment to traditional Catholic practices to the famously progressive city, Mass attendance and number of parishioners registered have increased about 10 percent each year.

“For the first time in my life I feel I belong to a parish, I mean really belong,” said Eva Muntean, Walk for Life West Coast co-chair, who organizes street evangelization twice a month at the Clement Street farmers’ market.

One of Father Illo’s first actions was to open the Romanesque-style church from 6:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily, improve the lighting and turn on the heat. “Now people can stop in, light a candle,” said Father Illo. When he arrived, the inner Richmond parish founded in 1887 was struggling. Despite fronting on busy Geary Boulevard at Eighth Avenue, its doors were closed except for Mass times most of the day.

The parish has been one of the first to meet its Archdiocesan Annual Appeal goal each year, and the offertory has more than doubled. There is a new Knights of Columbus chapter, revitalized homeless outreach, Gabriel Project for pregnant women in need, a young adults group, and a speaker and a film series as well as Filipino and Chinese parish groups. Masses in English and Latin feature Gregorian chant and polyphony.

The backbone of the parish remains “good, faithful, longtime parishioners,” Father Illo said.

“We have served under seven pastors, all very different. And we’ve seen the parish go through many transitions of growth and decline and rebirth again,” said Lorna Feria, an accountant who is also parish director of faith formation. She and her husband Bud, who have five children, joined the parish 26 years ago. “It’s a rebirth again.”

Confessions are available before every Mass. “That’s brought a lot of people in,” Father Illo said. There are coffee and donuts, Mexican, Chinese or Filipino treats after most Sunday Masses.

“We are offering a style of worship that is more traditional and more classical, but it is also revivifying the neighborhood,” said Father Illo, who was appointed to start an Oratory of St. Philip Neri, a project later put on hold. “We put money into professional musicians” and are building up the volunteer choir, Father Illo said.

The priests at Star distribute Communion at the Communion rail. In Lent, Father Illo began an experimental period of celebrating Mass “ad orientem,” or the priest facing the high altar and crucifix during the parts of the Mass where the priest and people address God. While extraordinary form Latin Mass was instituted earlier, there are now two Masses on Sunday in the pre-Vatican II Roman rite using the 1962 Missal of Pope St. John XXIII and one daily, in addition to English Masses.

Shortly after his appointment, Father Illo ignited controversy when he decided to train only boys and men for altar service going forward, coming at the time Archbishop Cordileone was receiving negative publicity associated with Catholic high school teachers’ contract talks. “Serving as an altar server is a feeder for the male-only priesthood, and helpful in forming boys in leadership, much as girls-only programs at many of our schools,” Father Illo said in an interview. Today the negative publicity has abated, and he said as many as 10 altar servers serve at extraordinary form Latin Masses.

Three men from Star of the Sea have applied to the archdiocesan seminary program and another is entering the Dominican novitiate Aug. 15. One young man who had been serving Mass from Star had just enrolled at St. Patrick’s Seminary & University the August that Father Illo arrived.

“I bought a house in the Richmond. One of the determining factors was I wanted to be in the same neighborhood so I would be easily accessible to Star of the Sea Parish,” said Marcus Quintanilla, an attorney who relocated from Southern California, teaches Rite of Christian Initiation and spends part of Wednesday evening in eucharistic adoration with his fiancé.

In a party that lasted to 2 a.m., the parish roasted a goat, served homemade sangria and had a mariachi band to welcome the 13 new Catholics, most young adults, who entered the church at Easter Vigil this year.

“I was fading from the faith and now I am back,” said Mariella Zevallos, an artist and teacher who was just hired as full-time stewardship coordinator for the parish. “I know so many people in the parish and it makes me so joyful,” Zevallos said.


16 PAGE ILLO.boy.2017-07-02 15.55.10Star of the Sea’s Father Joseph Illo greets a teenage boy after Mass, in the schoolyard next to the church where parishioners congregate for coffee and treats Sundays.


16 STAR.2017 WalkforLife HALFA large group of Star of the Sea parishioners attended the Walk for Life, and the parish hosted students from Wyoming Catholic College in their homes as well as putting on a post-Walk barbeque at the parish that fed several hundred.  (Photo courtesy Walk for Life West Coast)



16 PAGE Fr.ILLO.baby.2017-07-02 15.54.33Star of the Sea’s Father Joseph Illo shares a moment with a family who attended the Sunday extraordinary form Latin Mass.

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