Catholic San Francisco


The oldest names on the ledger of people buried at the former Calvary Cemetery show the far-off origins of Catholics in post-Gold Rush San Francisco.

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Names of 39,000 from pioneer cemetery to be accessible
June 20th, 2012
By George Raine

Mount Calvary Cemetery was intended to be the last earthly home for some 55,000 San Francisco Catholics, among them some of the city’s pioneers, but development at the turn of the last century upended those plans – and the grave sites themselves.

Long-gone Calvary, 48 acres bounded by Geary Boulevard, Turk Street, St. Joseph’s Avenue and Masonic Avenue, opened in 1860 as the city’s Catholic cemetery – one of the “Big 4” cemeteries in San Francisco, along with the Odd Fellows, Masonic and Laurel Hill cemeteries.

Eighty years later, in 1940-41, many of the faithful buried there were transferred to Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, which had opened in 1887, in a mass removal and reburial that was done according to Hoyle except for one piece: While the records of the people transferred were never compromised, their names, 39,307 in all, were never entered into Holy Cross’ computer registry.

Now, the time-consuming work of entering names from old ledger books into the database has been contracted out to a private firm, SFgenealogy, and the cemetery’s electronic record will be complete, particularly to the delight of people doing genealogy research, said Monica Williams, archdiocesan cemeteries director.

“It means you get your name back,” she said. “Not that you have been forgotten, but there is no reason that their names would not be listed with everyone else here and now they will be.”

It’s an impressive roster of the departed. William S. O’Brien, who made a fortune in the Consolidated Virginia Mining Co., which discovered the “Big Bonanza” body of ore, was buried at Calvary. So was Philip A. Roach, a pioneer who was the first mayor of Monterey. Col. Thomas Hayes, after whom Hayes Valley is named, the first county clerk of San Francisco, was interred at Calvary.

Dennis F. Sullivan, the San Francisco fire chief who died April 22, 1906, as a result of injuries in the earthquake and fire, was buried there.

So were two Confederate officers – Brig. Gen. Edward Higgins, of the 1st Louisiana Artillery Regiment, who ventured west to work as an agent for the Pacific Mail Steamship Co., and Col. George Flournoy, commander of the 16th Texas Infantry Regiment, who as attorney general of Texas coauthored the declaration of causes for secession and who later practiced law in San Francisco. A bench in Section H at Holy Cross, where the Calvary departed were interred, honors the soldiers, and was dedicated by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

“I love history,” said Williams, “and I love the mission and purpose of the cemetery, and so when we find people and we find their story, it is a great triumph – to tell their story again, so they are not forgotten.”

The last burial at Calvary was Oct. 18, 1909. He was John McKenna, 56, who died of heart disease.

As early as 1880, developers and like-minded city officials began to campaign to remove cemeteries, largely so that homes could be built. Besides, the cemeteries were nearly full. In 1902, the Board of Supervisors prohibited burials and the sale of cemetery lots in the Big 4.

The archdiocese resisted the mandate to move bodies for some 35 years, not only on grounds that it was a confiscation of property but primarily because this was consecrated ground. The church opposed “disturbing the pioneers’ repose,” as William Proctor of the city’s Department of City Planning, put it in a 1950 history of the cemeteries.

From 1923-25, the Odd Fellows Cemetery moved to Greenlawn Memorial Park and the Masonic moved to Woodlawn Memorial Park, both in Colma. Calvary and Lauren Hill moved by 1941 – Calvary to Holy Cross and Lauren Hill to Cypress Lawn. After 1909 but before 1940, some 16,000 bodies at Calvary were moved, largely to Holy Cross, by their families, requiring the mass removal of the remaining 39,307 in 1940-41.

Truth be told, the Big 4 had seen better days by the time they were shut down. Some San Franciscans may recall, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported in 1939, that “Here, during (Calvary’s) abandoned years … ghouls held vandalish orgies, on moonless, foggy nights ….” For others it was a lovers’ lane.

Archbishop Patrick W. Riordan, although he decried the disturbance of consecrated land, had the foresight in the 1880s to anticipate Calvary would reach capacity. He purchased 300 acres of the Buri Buri rancho for Holy Cross, the first and largest cemetery in what would become Colma.

“The massive growth in the city around the turn of the century proved him right,” said Williams.


From June 22, 2012 issue of Catholic San Francisco.



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