Catholic San Francisco


(Photo by Christina Gray/Catholic San Francisco)

The St. Mary Magdalene Cemetery in Bolinas was originally a graveyard for the family of Gregorio Briones, a former colonial military officer whose father accompanied St. Junipero Serra to Yerba Buena where he helped establish Mission Dolores.

  Printer Friendly
Rural Catholic cemetery reflects California history
October 17th, 2016
By Christina Gray

St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church and its secluded graveyard perched on a coastal bluff in the West Marin enclave of Bolinas was deeded to the Archdiocese of San Francisco by the family of one of the town’s first settlers in 1878. Almost 138 years later, the cemetery has become one of the archdiocese’s seven Catholic cemeteries.

“St. Mary Magdalene Cemetery was a parish cemetery, as were most of our other cemeteries at one point,” said Monica Williams, director of cemeteries. She said the cemetery behind the remote West Marin church, a mission of Sacred Heart Parish in Olema 11 miles away, joined the archdiocese-administrated Catholic cemeteries family this year in part because its longtime volunteer superintendent Dr. Norman Straub, died in 2014.

The archdiocese’s other Catholic cemeteries include Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, Holy Cross Cemetery in Menlo Park, Our Lady of the Pillar Cemetery in Half Moon Bay, St. Anthony Cemetery in Pescadero, Mount Olivet Cemetery in San Rafael and Tomales Cemetery in the town of the same name.

Before St. Mary Magdalene Cemetery was a parish cemetery, however, it was simply a family graveyard to an influential “Californio” – a Spanish term for the original colonists of California and their descendants, according to Elia Haworth, curator of the Bolinas Museum.

Gregorio Briones was the son of Don Marcus Briones who accompanied St. Junipero Serra to Yerba Buena later known as San Francisco and helped establish Mission Dolores in 1776. His sister was Juana Briones, an enterprising businesswoman and healer some call “the founding mother of San Francisco.”

Briones, a soldier in the colonial army and former alcade, or mayor of the Presidio in San Francisco, retired in the 1840s and moved his family to Rancho Las Baulines or Bolinas after receiving a land grant from the governor. Here, he became a successful cattle rancher.

A history of the cemetery was written by Straub, a St. Mary Magdalene parishioner and San Anselmo resident who is buried in the idyllic cemetery. It is available on the Sacred Heart Parish website.

After a smallpox epidemic hit West Marin in 1853, Gregorio Briones donated a plot in a pasture overlooking Bolinas Lagoon for a burial ground. Prior to this, those who died were usually buried on the property where they lived.

Over the years, according to Straub, the burial ground became known as the Briones Graveyard, and from the beginning, it had two sections: Catholic and Protestant. When someone died, whichever clergyman was available presided.

When he died in 1863, Briones’s will included a request to make the burial ground into a permanent cemetery. It also asked that a chapel be built on the grounds so that people could pray for the repose of his soul, according to Straub, even though Briones himself is buried at Mission Dolores.

For unknown reasons, according to Straub, his requests were not carried out for more than 20 years, though people continued to be buried there.

In the late 1870s during a nationwide surge of temperance and religious fervor, three churches were built on Horseshoe Hill where St. Mary of Magdalene Church stands today – a Presbyterian, Methodist and Catholic church. Though the Catholic church is the only one that remains in that location today, the area was once christened, “Gospel Flat.”

Pablo Briones, the eldest son of Don Gregorio, organized the construction of the church with the aid of the local Catholic population, together with generous donations from the Protestant community.

The mission church and cemetery were served for decades by the Sacred Heart Fathers, a missionary group active in the Pacific Islands. When the order left in 1935, the parish became part of Sacred Heart Parish in Olema.

Williams said that anyone that wishes to have loved ones buried at the historic St. Mary Magdalene Cemetery may contact Sacred Heart Parish in Olema to make arrangements for burial and a funeral Mass.

For more information visit or

From October 20, 2016 issue of Catholic San Francisco.

Home | About Us | Site Map | Privacy Policy | Contact Us | 415.614.5647 | One Peter Yorke Way, San Francisco, CA 94109 | ©2017 Catholic San Francisco