Catholic San Francisco


(Photo by Christina M. Gray/Catholic San Francisco)

Honeymooner Margaret Logan of Paraguay finds a headstone for a person from Chile. Many of the dead buried in the mission cemetery are natives of Ireland, although people of Mexican, French, Italian and Scottish backgrounds also are represented.

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Faith, history draw visitors to Mission Dolores cemetery
October 23rd, 2013
By Christina M. Gray

City sightseeing buses have slowed their pace after a busy summer tourist season, but the Mission Dolores cemetery is still swarming with visitors in late fall. And it has nothing to do with Halloween.

The mission and its ancient graveyard seem to hold perpetual appeal to visitors seeking everything from an opportunity to sit quietly and pray for the dead to an historical connection to the city’s earliest Catholic decedents to a chance to stand in Jimmy Stewart’s shoes where an iconic movie was made.

According to staff, many of the mission’s 300,000 annual visitors taking self or guided tours come specifically to visit the storied cemetery. Here a reported 11,000 persons were laid to rest between 1776 when the mission was founded and 1890 when Catholic burials were moved to cemeteries outside the city limits.

That figure includes 6,000 Ohlone Indians buried anonymously in a common grave long ago.

“People are fascinated with the graveyard,” said Cathy Bogdan, a longtime gift shop volunteer. “We hear a lot of wild stories,” she said, detailing reports of ghostly sightings and other mysterious occurrences.

Not all have the same motivation for visiting the cemetery; faithful Catholics, history lovers, genealogy trackers, film buffs and even graveyard and ghost story aficionados each have a unique draw to the cemetery in the middle of which looms a statue of Franciscan Father Junipero Serra. Serra, the founding father of the California missions, was mentor to Frey Francisco Palou, who founded Mission Dolores.

Margaret Logan of Paraguay is a Catholic history buff and newlywed biking her way around the Bay Area on her honeymoon. During a recent visit to the cemetery, she gazed thoughtfully at the carvings on each gravestone and snapped photographs while her more reluctant husband peered over the gate.

“It is incredible to read about Father Palou,” she said after reading the plaque on the wall of the 237-year-old mission. She explained that there was an important Palou in the history of her country too. “I’m excited to find out if there is a connection.”

Making connections is a big part of the mission cemetery experience. The largest gravestones read like a San Francisco street map: de Haro, Guerrero, Estudillo, Noe and Sanchez (the surnames of five mayors or “alcaldes” of early San Francisco under Mexican rule); and Arguello, the first governor. Other prominent early San Francisco citizens at rest in the cemetery are John and Mary Tobin, who started Hibernia Bank, and the ranching Tanforan family.

William Alexander Leidesdorff, San Francisco’s first U.S. diplomat of African-American descent, president of the first public school in California and by all accounts the wealthiest man in the state during the 1840s, is one of only three people entombed in the floor of the Old Mission rather than in the graveyard.

The Barbary Coast era contributed a handful of colorful cemetery citizens to the population of the deceased, including gambler Charles Cora, a victim of the San Francisco Vigilance Committee. His wife Belle, a former prostitute, was buried next to him six years later.

Irish names dominate the cemetery landscape. A sad number of markers show babies and mothers with the same date of death. An average of life spans seen in the cemetery would probably not reach 35.

Perhaps the best-known inhabitant of the cemetery to modern day visitors is, ironically, the fictional Carlotta Valdes of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” The 1958 classic starred Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak. Carlotta’s prop department gravestone remained in the graveyard for years after filming until the church removed it out of respect for the actual dead in the mission cemetery.

Fifty-five years later Hitchcock fans are still asking mission staff: “Where’s Carlotta’s grave?”

“That’s one of the top three questions I’m asked,” laughs Bogdan, who says the pop culture curiosity is more blessing than curse.

No matter what their reason for visiting the mission, she says, “People are exposed to the enduring beauty of our faith.”

Self-guided mission tours are available Sunday through Friday, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. (winter hours). Enter through mission gift shop facing Dolores Street. Organized tours of groups of 10 or more, including school groups, are by appointment only. Email curator Andy Galvan at Suggested donation is $5 for adults, $3 for students and seniors.


From October 25, 2013 issue of Catholic San Francisco.



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