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Saving St. Brigid Church (Very Long)
THE LOST PARISH
An unlikely band of believers launches a crusade that will change their lives.
Julian Guthrie, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, March 25, 2007
( FIRST OF THREE PARTS )
It wasn't Father Cyril O'Sullivan's turn to deliver the Sunday sermon, so he found his way to the back of St. Brigid Church. Dressed in baggy pants, a bulky sweater and tennis shoes, the priest from Ireland enjoyed observing Mass. He saw beauty in routine.
This day, however, would be anything but beautiful, anything but routine.
[Podcast: Father Cyril O'Sullivan on why St. Brigid Church is worth saving]
At the pulpit, the Rev. Kirby Hanson paused. Then he said it. St. Brigid would be "suppressed." Closed.
O'Sullivan's smile vanished. Parishioners recoiled. Silence filled the historic sanctuary.
The church at the corner of Van Ness and Broadway had served San Francisco Catholics since the Civil War, when it was a one-room building and congregants arrived in horse-drawn carriages. It had survived the earthquakes of 1906 and 1989 and been a beacon for generations of the city's founding families and newest immigrants.
Now, in seven months, the castle-like church would be shut down forever.
O'Sullivan stood frozen, like the statues of the Virgin Mother and St. Anthony behind him. Hanson urged the assembled to accept the cost-cutting move as "God's will."
O'Sullivan contemplated the words "God's will." He thought, Like hell it is.
It was Nov. 14, 1993. The next Sunday, O'Sullivan would deliver his own sermon, one that would inspire followers to defy their archbishop and take on the Roman Catholic Church.
The quest to save St. Brigid would be led by O'Sullivan, a young priest who would put his collar at risk; by a death-penalty attorney who would endure the trial of his life; and by a lapsed Catholic who would be forced to confront his past.
Before it was over, these parishioners without a parish would help expose sex-abuse charges, uncover Vatican intrigue, and save the old stone church from the wrecking ball. Throughout the crusade, St. Brigid would stand virtually empty -- except for one day, 13 years later, when a tragedy would open its doors again.
Father O'Sullivan entered the sanctuary of St. Brigid for the first time in September 1990. He removed his fisherman's cap and held it to his chest.
O'Sullivan admired the intricately carved solid oak pews, the marble columns the color of twisting caramel, the terra-cotta Stations of the Cross, and the thickly woven carpets from his native Ireland.
The walls of the church, rebuilt over the years, were made of stones culled from San Francisco streets at the turn of the century. The stones, in hues of silver and sand, reminded the priest of heavy fog and dwindling daylight.
He closed his eyes. St. Brigid had the scent of a church. It had the silence of a church.
With his unruly brown hair, blue eyes and gift for gab, O'Sullivan was an immediate hit in the parish -- especially with the schoolchildren, who swarmed around him at church and on the playground. They delighted in his colorful stories and his thick brogue, which ignored syllables and transformed words like "ideas" into "idees."
He was refreshed by the children's innocence. They came to confession with serious faces, telling him, "I fought with my brother," or "I made my mom mad."
It was the children who gave him the nickname "Father O." Before long, everyone was calling him that.
The 36-year-old priest had found a home in America. He led the church's young-adult group, one of the largest in the city, and coached the men's soccer team. He baptized babies, delivered last rites and listened to parishioners' darkest confessions. He was touched by their devotion to St. Brigid.
There were Tillie and Helen Piscevich, sisters who had attended St. Brigid for 43 years, venturing after Mass to the statues of St. Anthony and the Virgin Mother to offer their most urgent prayers.
There was Lily Wong, who had lost her sight as a teenager in a small village in Burma, but knew the number of steps it took her to get from her home -- four blocks away -- to the pews of the church for daily Mass.
There was Cleo Donovan, who returned to the same pew every Sunday to be close to her daughter, Leslie, who had died unexpectedly at age 26. Only in that pew could Donovan feel the soft brush of her daughter's ponytail and see her kneeling for Communion. Only there could Donovan feel her daughter's comforting presence.
By the summer of 1993, O'Sullivan had heard rumors that the San Francisco Archdiocese was considering a reconfiguration of churches or programs. He knew that St. Brigid, like many churches in the archdiocese, had suffered a steady drop in attendance over the years. Now it faced retrofitting costs in the wake of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
Still, St. Brigid had about 1,000 people attending weekend Mass. It never crossed O'Sullivan's mind that his beloved church would be shuttered. St. Brigid felt too alive to die.
O'Sullivan sat quietly in his spare room in the rectory. In the days after the closure announcement, he had said little about St. Brigid, but had thought of little else.
With his Sunday sermon rapidly approaching, O'Sullivan knew he had to decide: Would he support the decree of Archbishop John Quinn to shut down 11 churches across the city, including St. Brigid? Or would he side with his flock, which was already talking about challenging the closure?
O'Sullivan's Irish roots had trained him to fight. But his priestly calling had trained him to obey.
He grabbed his coat and cap and headed out for a walk down Union Street. Maybe the fresh air would help.
He'd had his share of disagreements with superiors before, but always over minor issues, like the time he emptied out the rectory refrigerator to give the food to the homeless.
Over time, O'Sullivan had come to see how some of the purest of men -- like those of his hometown of Cork who fought for an independent Ireland -- were branded rebels, while there were so-called men of God who were anything but.
O'Sullivan had wanted to be a man of God since childhood. When he was 5, his father lifted him onto a stool at the neighborhood pub and announced that the young fellow was thinking about the priesthood. Pints of ale were raised to the future Father O'Sullivan.
As he strolled along Union Street, O'Sullivan remembered something his father had told him before he entered seminary: "You always respect the church, but not always the collar."
Wearing green silk vestments, O'Sullivan concealed a prop behind his back as he left the altar and drew closer to the crowded pews of St. Brigid.
He understood that the message he was about to deliver would stun his congregation, but he knew no other way. His youth was shaped by the fighters of Ireland, "men of spine" like his father. During a short-lived stint as a boxer, when O'Sullivan's arms felt like they would give out, he drew courage from the rallying cry to keep fighting, to never throw in the towel.
Standing before the faithful, O'Sullivan revealed his prop, unfurling a white towel and holding it high. Then he cried out, "Are you going to throw in the towel? Or are you going to fight?"
For a moment, the church was still.
Then, to O'Sullivan's surprise, the normally reserved churchgoers let out a stadium-style cheer.
It was clear that they did not accept the reasons given for St. Brigid's closure. They did not believe it was as simple as moving to another church. It was like asking someone to go and join another family.
The next Sunday, Nov. 28, 1993, scores of people, young and old, streamed into St. Brigid with white towels draped over their shoulders.
At 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 1994, the library of St. Brigid School was filled. It was the first official meeting of the Committee to Save St. Brigid.
Father O'Sullivan was not there. He had decided that it would be better if he didn't attend. He was sure it was only a matter of time before he heard from his superiors at the archdiocese.
Within days of O'Sullivan's speech, parishioners were meeting on the church steps to circle St. Brigid, clutching candles or flashlights, saying the rosary. They held bake sales and car washes to raise money for retrofitting the church. Others created ads to place in local newspapers, or stood on street corners asking the public to support their cause.
At 7 a.m. every day, Mary Baynes, who had emigrated from Ireland, and her 1-year-old daughter were stationed outside the church, waving "Save St. Brigid" signs at passing drivers.
Nelly Echevarria, a seamstress who was as tightly wound as one of her spools of thread, called the Vatican repeatedly, telling anyone who answered the phone about the plight of St. Brigid.
"I want you to listen very carefully," she would tell the person on the other end of the line. "I want you to deliver my message to the Holy Father."
Dunn Silvey kept his import-export business open around the clock so committee members could assemble materials and fax letters to local politicians and officials at the Vatican.
Siu-Mei Wong began placing a small white candle on the top step of St. Brigid, and others took turns making sure it remained lit, night after night, week after week.
Even children got into the act, drawing pictures of their church and sending the artwork to Rome.
Though O'Sullivan wasn't sure whether the campaign to save St. Brigid would succeed, he was certain of one thing: These parishioners might be naive, but they were not to be underestimated.
O'Sullivan held aloft St. Brigid's gold monstrance and set it down in the middle of the altar. The small shrine displayed the consecrated host, the body of Christ, and was the focal point of a novena that would bring the faithful together nine nights in a row to pray for the salvation of St. Brigid.
O'Sullivan knew that the novena, a ritual of public prayer and devotion as old as the Catholic Church, would not be viewed favorably by the archbishop. But in becoming a priest, he had pledged to respect his superiors -- not to sell his soul.
It was Jan. 25, 1994. O'Sullivan was joined by about 80 people in the sanctuary of St. Brigid. The mood was solemn and purposeful. O'Sullivan gave a short talk, and a rosary followed. Unlike the rallies and marches, there was no need for instruction. These parishioners were seasoned in prayer. After receiving the Eucharist, they prayed that St. Brigid would remain open long after its scheduled closure in June.
They sang a hymn, "Immaculate Mary":
We pray for the church,
Our true mother on Earth,
And beg you to watch
Over the land of our birth.
The next night, the novena drew as many people. But the gold monstrance wasn't in the safe. Or the Tabernacle. Holding a novena without a monstrance was like serving Communion without wafers.
Father O'Sullivan could not conduct the prayers. The monstrance was missing -- and no one had an explanation.
O'Sullivan was called to the phone at the rectory. Archbishop Quinn wanted to see him -- that afternoon.
O'Sullivan's first thought on that day in February 1994 was, "Oh, God, here goes." He told Quinn's secretary that he had an important appointment with a parishioner that he wouldn't change.
There was a long pause. The secretary finally said, "You've got to come."
O'Sullivan replied, "I have an appointment. Give me another time."
O'Sullivan was put on hold. When the secretary returned, it was agreed that O'Sullivan would meet with the archbishop the next morning.
That night, in his rectory room, O'Sullivan stayed up late, thinking about his love of the church and his calling to the priesthood.
The church of his youth, St. Augustine, made him understand the spirit of a sanctuary. The church in Cork was as spare as the town, poor in everything but spirit. On Sundays, the austere stone building was warmed with bodies and joy.
He had questioned his calling to the priesthood only once. It was during his third year of seminary in Ireland. He awoke one morning consumed with doubts about why he wanted to be a priest. He skipped classes and sought an answer in nature, in the library, and in the wisdom of an elder priest. Finally, he went to the campus chapel. He told God he was uncertain about his future and asked for an answer in 30 minutes. Soon, his concerns began to fade. He believed that God was telling him to stop worrying.
As the meeting with Archbishop Quinn fast approached, O'Sullivan was calm, knowing that his commitment to his calling was stronger than ever.
O'Sullivan stepped into the archbishop's office and sat down in front of Quinn, who was flanked on each side by a bishop. There was no small talk.
The archdiocese was facing the high costs of retrofitting old buildings and a decline in Mass attendance. Priests at most churches on the closure list were being obedient.
To O'Sullivan, retrofitting costs and attendance problems didn't justify closing sanctuaries. He considered St. Brigid sacred because of its history -- and its beauty. It was where the everyday met the eternal, where the busy took time to stand still.
In the archbishop's office, O'Sullivan was handed a letter. He folded it carefully and placed it in his coat pocket. One of the bishops suggested that the letter be read immediately. O'Sullivan said he would read it and respond accordingly, but not under duress.
He thanked the men and stood up. Before he reached the door, O'Sullivan was informed that if he did not support the closure of St. Brigid, there would be ramifications.
Father O'Sullivan nodded and left.
Back at his room in the rectory, O'Sullivan poured himself a glass of scotch and pulled the letter out of his pocket.
It restated the reasons given by the archbishop in closing St. Brigid: the seismic upgrade expenses, the declining number of parishioners. The closures were in the best interest of the Catholic Church.
The letter urged O'Sullivan once again to back the archbishop's decision.
O'Sullivan went through the letter several times. One word kept playing through his mind: Ridiculous.
O'Sullivan did not respond to the letter. Days later, he was ordered to leave St. Brigid. He had 24 hours.
The archdiocese issued a statement: "Father O'Sullivan has had some personal difficulties accepting Archbishop Quinn's decision to close St. Brigid. One of the responsibilities of a pastor is to gently guide people to their new place of worship."
It was dinner hour in the rectory when Father O'Sullivan heard knocking at the door. He had been busy packing his books, his pullovers and wool caps, and the musical instruments he'd brought from home, including his Irish flute.
He opened the door and looked out toward Broadway. O'Sullivan was taken aback: Before him were dozens of parishioners lining the steps and sidewalk below.
Everyone talked at once. Some held signs reading, "Don't send our beloved Fr. O'Sullivan away" and "Fr. O'Sullivan -- banished on Feb. 17, 1994."
Mary Baynes called out: "You are the only one who has been on our side. You have been our strength."
Maureen Frix asked what she was supposed to tell her son, an eighth-grader at St. Brigid School who idolized Father O'Sullivan. She wondered what message it would send when a priest was sent away for disagreeing with his bishop.
Siu-Mei Wong was in tears.
"What are we supposed to do now, Father O?" she asked. "What can we do for you?"
Father O'Sullivan had been instructed not to talk to the people of St. Brigid. He tried to calm them, to get them to turn around and go home.
But they were not going anywhere.
Finally, he made his way down the rectory steps. He felt their anxiety, felt his own heavy heart. He reassured them that everything would be fine.
"The committee has a motion of its own," O'Sullivan said. "It does not depend on one person. I know you will continue for St. Brigid."
O'Sullivan then walked back up the steps. He gazed down at all the faces, waved goodbye and headed inside.
The next day, Father O'Sullivan left St. Brigid for a parish in South San Francisco.
The priest from Ireland took one last look at the church he called his home in America. He had no regrets. He had kept hope alive for St. Brigid.
O'Sullivan marveled at these believers from St. Brigid. They reminded him of the men of Cork, who stood their position and refused to compromise.
In his flock, Father O'Sullivan saw the spirit of fighters, the grace of saints. In his heart, he knew that the battle for St. Brigid was only just beginning.
Monday: The crusade to save St. Brigid takes unexpected turns.
Behind the series: How 'The lost parish' was reported
Chronicle staff writer Julian Guthrie began working on the three-day series "The lost parish" in January 2005.
Over nearly two years, Guthrie interviewed about 75 parishioners who had attended St. Brigid. Father Cyril O'Sullivan, Robert Bryan and Joe Dignan were interviewed extensively during this period.
Guthrie attended dozens of meetings of the Committee to Save St. Brigid and reviewed hundreds of pages of notes from committee meetings and agendas dating from early 1994. In addition, she reviewed news stories from the time, and read legal documents and letters pertaining to St. Brigid. Parishioners shared their journals, photos, letters, e-mails and home movies from the period.
She and photographer Lance Iversen went with the committee to hearings at San Francisco's City Hall and in Sacramento. They attended outdoor vigils, Masses, picnics and demonstrations held by the committee.
Most of the scenes in the story were either witnessed by Guthrie or reconstructed through her extensive interviews and gathering of documents.
Former Archbishop John Quinn declined repeated requests for interviews. Scenes in the story that involve quotations by Quinn were based on letters that he wrote to the Congregation for the Clergy and to St. Brigid parishioners. Former Archbishop William Levada declined a recent request for an interview. Scenes in the story that involve quotations from Levada came from correspondence between him and the committee.
Guthrie also interviewed George Wesolek, the public policy director of the San Francisco Archdiocese; Monsignor Harry Schlitt, head of administration; and Les McDonald, head of real estate. In addition, she spoke with the Rev. Daniel Keohane, who arrived at St. Brigid in early 1994 to oversee its closure, and with archdiocese spokesman Maurice Healy.
E-mail Julian Guthrie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE LOST PARISH
An agonizing battle to save a church reaches the Vatican and puts the faith of believers to the ultimate test.
Julian Guthrie, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, March 26, 2007
(SECOND OF THREE PARTS)
On the steps of St. Brigid Church, attorney Robert Bryan grabbed his bullhorn, carefully positioning himself before the television cameras and sign-wielding parishioners.
"Send someone from Rome," Bryan yelled, his Southern drawl heavy with anger. He was reading from his letter -- faxed to the pope -- urging the Vatican to investigate what he saw as the moral and financial sins of the San Francisco Archdiocese.
[Podcast: SF attorney Robert Bryan]
The crowd cheered. Rush-hour drivers on Van Ness Avenue honked in support.
It was February 1994, only months before church officials planned to shut down the century-old St. Brigid. The archdiocese had just banished Father Cyril O'Sullivan, the Irish priest who had inspired St. Brigid followers to challenge the closure.
As the new leader of the resistance, and a recent convert to Catholicism, Bryan was about to turn a parish protest into a decadelong crusade that would reach the corridors of the Vatican. Putting his deepest beliefs on the line, Bryan would battle to save St. Brigid as if he were fighting for the life of one of his death row clients.
Nothing -- and no one -- was off-limits.
Standing on the small stage in the auditorium of St. Brigid School, Bryan asked members of the Committee to Save St. Brigid in late February 1994 to hire a private investigator. To track priests.
Bryan had heard rumblings from law enforcement sources that the San Francisco Archdiocese was quietly making payments to congregants who said they had been sexually abused by clergymen.
He had a hunch that the archdiocese was going to sell St. Brigid to help pay for the abuse settlements.
Bryan told committee members that he wanted to get at the truth, even if it hurt. Bryan subscribed to the adage "The Lord helps those who help themselves."
Committee members fidgeted. Many were lifelong Catholics and were uncomfortable with some of Bryan's aggressive tactics.
Richard Figone, a longtime St. Brigid parishioner and San Francisco Superior Court judge, believed that the committee should be conciliatory to the archdiocese.
Bryan shook his head.
"We will not go hat in hand," he said. "You can be polite, diplomatic and respectful. But we need to be firm."
Bryan, 51, was not easily intimidated. From his earliest days practicing law in Birmingham, Ala., he had taken criminal cases that others would not touch. One of his first death penalty cases was in 1971, when he represented a black man convicted of murdering a wealthy white woman. He won the retrial -- in front of an all-white jury.
Like his career, his faith was about fighting injustice. It was about trying to right wrongs.
Despite misgivings, the committee approved his request to hire an investigator. Bryan planned to share the findings with the news media.
He also intended to "cc" the pope.
On an evening in early March 1994, Bryan and committee members arrived at St. Mary's Cathedral, near the residence of Archbishop John Quinn. They held candles, signs and rosaries.
For the St. Brigid flock, it was a chance to pray. For Bryan, it was a chance to publicize his belief that good churches like St. Brigid were being shuttered because of abusive priests.
"Parishioners should not be paying for the mistakes of our leaders," he yelled out. "Especially with the closing of their churches."
Bryan staged similar rallies throughout the month, holding news conferences in front of his downtown law office on California Street, on the steps of St. Brigid, and near the archbishop's home. He had recently filed a legal challenge over the closure with the Vatican.
The St. Brigid crew, meanwhile, was spreading out across the city to collect signatures for a petition to recall Quinn. They went to Fisherman's Wharf, the Financial District, Moscone Center and City Hall.
In response, Quinn wrote a letter to the papal courts, saying the committee was leading a "duplicitous and vicious" public relations crusade. The archdiocese saw the committee as a small but vocal group fostering division in the parish.
"Mr. Bryan has chosen to argue his case publicly by means of ... appealing to the news media to sensationalize the situation at St. Brigid," Quinn wrote in his letter.
Stories like the one in the liberal National Catholic Reporter newspaper -- "St. Brigid is on the verge of open rebellion" -- didn't defuse the situation.
To quell Bryan's allegations of sex abuse, Quinn sent another letter to the Vatican saying that Bryan's charges were unfounded and had been fabricated by "disgruntled Catholics."
"Mr. Bryan has been employing a private investigator who has been examining the personal life and history of at least one priest of the archdiocese," Quinn wrote. "Needless to say, this action on Mr. Bryan's part has exemplified total disregard for the basic rights of the priest; it is a violation of his privacy and good reputation."
But within weeks, San Francisco police announced that one of the archdiocese's highest-ranking priests was under investigation for molesting young boys and teenagers over a span of nearly 20 years.
The priest, Monsignor Patrick O'Shea, was pastor at St. Cecilia's, the powerful Sunset District parish that includes a large elementary school. He was also one of the priests tracked by Bryan's investigator.
On April 2, 1994, standing inside St. Brigid, Bryan was about to make it official -- become a Catholic.
His faith had taken some winding turns since his baptism at age 9 in Ensley Baptist Church in Birmingham on April 13, 1952. As a youth, Bryan had tolerated church. It was something the family did, like saying grace before meals. Sitting in the segregated church, Bryan often found himself wondering what would happen if a black person walked in and sat down.
As a student at George Washington University, Bryan watched as activist Catholic priests led civil rights rallies around the U.S. Capitol. While other church leaders remained unforgivably silent, these priests stood up for what was right, regardless of politics or pressure.
After settling in San Francisco, he decided to give organized religion another try when his daughter, Auda Mai, was born. St. Brigid was blocks from his home.
At his confirmation classes, Bryan's first teacher was Father O'Sullivan. He reminded Bryan of the activist priests of Washington.
Though Bryan felt the Catholic Church was out of touch with much of what was happening in the world, he decided he could do more by working from within the church than from the outside.
As he approached the St. Brigid altar, Bryan faced the Rev. Daniel Keohane, brought in by Quinn to oversee the closure of the church. Bryan and Keohane had clashed before, mostly over Bryan's use of the church to deliver committee news. As part of the ceremony, Keohane extended his hand over Bryan, anointing his forehead with oil in the form of a cross and saying, "Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit."
Bryan was confirmed, but he felt no joy.
Waiting in the St. Brigid parking lot before the first Easter Sunday Mass in 1994, a sleepy Bryan was jolted into alertness. A few feet away stood Archbishop Quinn, making a surprise visit to the church.
It was the morning after Bryan's confirmation. Bryan was scheduled to speak after all five Masses.
It appeared to Bryan that Quinn was looking up at the massive granite walls of the church, so he ventured over and said, "It's sad that this church is going to be closed."
The archbishop responded that it was for the good of the Catholic Church.
Bryan replied, "No, it's for the good of your bank account. You want the money."
Bryan then said, "Incidentally, I need to introduce myself. I'm Robert Bryan, head of the Committee to Save St. Brigid."
The archbishop headed into the church.
A few days later, Bryan was delivering a weekly committee update at the altar of St. Brigid when he spotted Quinn's aide barreling toward him.
Without pause, Monsignor Thomas Merson turned off the microphone -- with Bryan in midsentence.
The week before, Quinn had written to 1,500 St. Brigid parishioners, ordering them to stop using the altar for committee business. Urging churchgoers to accept the closure decision, Quinn said, "As at the death of a loved one, something very dear is being taken away. But life must go on."
Bryan had written back, "With all respect for you, we have decided to continue with the announcements and meetings."
At the St. Brigid altar that Sunday, Bryan was left uncharacteristically speechless when the microphone was switched off. In the pews, retired surgeon Renato Gallina stood up and shook his fist: "Let him speak! For the love of God, let him speak!"
Others began to chant, "Let him speak! Let him speak!"
When word of the imbroglio got back to the archdiocese, Quinn issued a final warning: Stop the altar announcements, or St. Brigid will close months early.
Bryan moved the announcements to the church steps.
Bryan traveled to Rome on May 2, 1994, intent on meeting with the Vatican officials who would decide the fate of St. Brigid. The committee's legal appeal rested before the Congregation for the Clergy, the court that handles petitions opposing church closures.
Bryan was taking a chance. He didn't even have an appointment at the Vatican.
He waited for two days before finally receiving a phone call. It was a clerk from the Congregation. Bryan was told that no one would be able to meet with him.
Bryan said, "I've come all the way from San Francisco."
The answer was still no.
Bryan informed the clerk that Archbishop Quinn had been in Rome less than three weeks earlier, and he had been granted a meeting with members of the Congregation to discuss St. Brigid.
"The situation is very delicate," the clerk told Bryan. The clerk then suggested that Bryan return home and not "endanger the case."
Bryan was dumbfounded. There he was, a few miles from the Congregation's office on Piazza Pio, only to be told that he couldn't meet with anyone to discuss St. Brigid. Nor would he be allowed to see any of the pleadings from the counsel for the opposing side -- the San Francisco Archdiocese.
In all his years of legal experience, he had never known anything like the Vatican courts, where pleadings had to be submitted in Latin and a Vatican attorney had to be hired to represent the St. Brigid committee. Dealing with the Congregation for the Clergy, instituted in 1564, felt byzantine and mysterious.
Bryan left Rome angry -- and empty-handed.
In mid-June 1994, just two weeks before St. Brigid was to be shuttered, Bryan faced an anxious crowd in the packed auditorium of St. Brigid School.
To Bryan, these believers were as rare as miracles, their actions devoid of ego. Elderly ladies were gathering nightly on the steps of St. Brigid, candles and rosaries in hand, walking slowly around the church they cherished. They didn't want recognition. They wanted their church.
Bryan took off his jacket, loos-ened his tie and rolled up his sleeves. He still hadn't heard anything from the Vatican about the committee's appeal. He had collected 1,068 signed affidavits attesting to the importance of St. Brigid, plus a petition from 41 priests of the San Francisco Archdiocese objecting to Quinn's decision to close city churches. Committee members had gathered nearly 20,000 signatures in support of St. Brigid.
Students from the adjacent St. Brigid School -- which was not part of the closure plan -- were deluging the Vatican with hundreds of letters and hand-drawn pictures, asking for their church to remain open, too. As part of their routine, they attended Mass in the sanctuary, and their gymnasium was in St. Brigid's basement. One card read, "Save Our Church and Gym!"
Bryan told those assembled that he would file a motion asking the Vatican to keep St. Brigid open while the appeal was being decided. He likened it to the last-minute maneuver for a death row client.
"This is a civil rights issue," he intoned. "A human rights issue."
Bryan never doubted that he would prevail. All he needed was time.
Parishioners slowly took their seats. Some held handkerchiefs. Some took pictures. Some shook their heads at the uniformed police officers positioned in the back of St. Brigid -- a precautionary move by the archdiocese, which feared that the committee would refuse to leave the church.
Bryan sat in his customary pew on the left side of the church, about halfway to the altar.
Despite a barrage of motions, letters and vigils, there had been no word from the Vatican on the appeal or on Bryan's request for a stay.
St. Brigid Church would close in a matter of hours -- at midnight on June 30, 1994 -- after 131 years of service. It was a Thursday, not a Sunday. The more than 1,000 in attendance were dressed for Mass, many with white towels draped over their shoulders.
Father Keohane addressed them from the pulpit.
His face drawn, his tone somber, Keohane said, "Though this may be a time for us to say goodbye, and we may not meet here again in this place, it may also be a time to carry forth the good faith and courage that is the people of St. Brigid."
After the Eucharist, Keohane left the sanctuary through a door behind the marble altar.
In the pews, parishioners remained seated. They were sorrowful, and not ready to leave. They had until midnight.
Bryan approached the altar. He gestured toward Louisa Stanton, who wore a robin's-egg-blue hat and matching jacket.
"She is 88 years old and first came to St. Brigid 70 years ago," Bryan said, speaking with the intimate intensity of a lawyer addressing his jurors. "She lives across the street. She coined a phrase, one I'd never heard, that we are treated by the archdiocese as 'throwaway Catholics.' "
His voice rising, he thundered, "You are not a throwaway Catholic. No one here is a throwaway Catholic."
He removed the white towel draped over his shoulder and held it high, as Father O'Sullivan had done in the same place seven months earlier.
"They may shut the doors," Bryan said, "but they will not so easily shut down our spirits."
Bryan joined the crowd walking out of St. Brigid. Some paused in the doorway to look back one more time, to inhale the memories. They lined the church steps, lighting dozens of small white candles.
Using white chalk, they scrawled messages on the sidewalk: "Archbishop Quinn, we are your people. Why have you abandoned us?" "Save this part of San Francisco history." "Is this what Catholicism is all about?"
Robert Head, a pipe fitter and welder, rhapsodized about the artistry of the church, particularly the woodworking of the pews and the pulpit.
Lorraine Dietz, a lifelong Catholic, had decided that she would begin attending Grace Cathedral, an Episcopal church. She wondered whether she would call herself a Catholic again.
Glenn Corino, athletic director at St. Brigid School, said he had stopped putting money into the collection basket, but promised that if St. Brigid reopened, he would compute the number of Masses missed and make a large contribution.
The faithful sang a dozen songs, concluding with the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome":
We shall overcome,
We'll walk hand in hand,
We shall all be free,
We are not alone,
We shall overcome some day.
Suddenly, St. Brigid's bell began to ring -- after decades of silence. It sounded part death knell, part call to arms.
Astonished parishioners held candles to the midnight sky. They couldn't make out the tall figure in the dark tower.
Then the ringing stopped.
The doors of St. Brigid were closed by Keohane, one after the other. The sound -- jarring and final -- reminded Bryan of the slamming of cell doors on death row.
One year later, on June 30, 1995, Bryan and the devoted gathered in the parking lot of St. Brigid for an anniversary vigil. It was as close as they could get to the altar of their church.
Father O'Sullivan presided -- despite having been warned not to associate with his former flock. His altar was a folding card table. The pews were benches borrowed from the cafeteria of St. Brigid School.
The committee had continued to meet once a week, at first on the steps of St. Brigid, and then in the basement of nearby Holy Trinity Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox church. A Russian priest offered the room after taking pity on these homeless Catholics. They hosted luncheons and dinners, participated in the St. Patrick's Day parade, and held food and clothing drives for the poor.
Even though he had lost his first-round appeal before the Vatican's lower court, the Congregation for the Clergy, Bryan remained relentless in his campaign against Quinn.
In early August, he wrote to the archbishop, "Many Roman Catholics have contacted me regarding the enormous problems plaguing our Archdiocese due to your morally corrupt leadership. We ask that you and your staff resign before the Catholic Church here is damaged beyond repair."
Quinn, who had been San Francisco's archbishop for 18 years, had more to worry about than St. Brigid. Another of his trusted priests, the Rev. Martin Greenlaw, was at the center of a criminal probe for allegedly stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from church coffers.
On Aug. 16, 1995, Quinn announced his resignation.
Bryan felt like celebrating. He had outlasted his nemesis. Perhaps that would improve St. Brigid's chances with the Vatican.
Bryan returned to Rome on March 5, 1996. He had two weeks to file his last brief for a final appeal, which was pending before the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the Roman Catholic Church's highest appellate avenue.
Two days later, Bryan went to the home office of the Vatican attorney whom the committee had hired. While the attorney worked in the next room, Bryan sat on a sofa in the tidy, book-filled den and went through files.
Seeing some of the documents for the first time, Bryan couldn't believe any court of law could operate this way. Flipping through files, he came across a manila folder. When he opened it, his eyes widened. There was a letter on Vatican stationery.
Two years earlier, the letter revealed, the Vatican had granted a last-minute appeal to keep St. Brigid open. Bryan was stunned. The committee's motion for a stay had been approved -- St. Brigid had been thrown a possible lifeline -- but word never got back to San Francisco.
The 15-day stay, according to the letter from a prefect at the Congregation for the Clergy, was granted just two days before the doors of St. Brigid were shut.
Bryan wondered why no one was told.
He soon found his answer. In the folder was a letter from Archbishop Quinn, written June 28, 1994, the same day that the Congregation told the archbishop of the reprieve.
In his letter, Quinn asked the Congregation to withdraw its stay immediately. "Once your decision becomes public that I am to delay the closing of St. Brigid's," the archbishop wrote, "Bryan will assume a new importance. The decision will appear to legitimize him and his tactics."
Quinn wrote that a stay would also give the impression that "Rome favors the wealthy parish and has been intimidated by Robert Bryan and by the volume of protests received in Rome."
The archbishop's letter referred to Bryan as a "demagogue who deals in falsehoods and half-truths" and said "he has been a Catholic only since April."
Bryan surreptitiously made copies of the letter before returning to his hotel. He went ahead and filed the final appeal. Though he had sparred with powerful opponents before, Bryan felt that he had never met more formidable foes than Quinn and the Catholic Church.
On the flight home, Bryan went over the letter. He was appalled at Quinn, but felt oddly validated: The stay proved that the St. Brigid churchgoers had a viable claim.
If only they had known.
Two days after returning from Rome, Bryan and the Committee to Save St. Brigid met for the first time with William Levada, the city's new archbishop, at the archdiocese headquarters on Church Street.
It was March 14, 1996 -- Bryan's 53rd birthday. Bryan had decided not to bring up the Vatican letters, as it would surely make the archbishop uncomfortable. Besides, Levada had nothing to do with them.
What's more, the revelations in Rome had made it increasingly clear to Bryan that the battle to save St. Brigid was going to have to be won in San Francisco, not at the Vatican.
Where Quinn had come across to the committee as formal and cold, Levada seemed warm and engaging. Levada asked questions, made eye contact, and took copious notes on a yellow legal pad.
Bryan presented Levada with an engineering study paid for by the committee. It concluded that St. Brigid would require minimal seismic work, at an estimated cost of $700,000. Bryan noted that this was nearly 80 percent less than the figure cited by Quinn in closing St. Brigid. He offered to raise the money needed.
Levada appeared interested. He said he would consider the group's plea.
Afterward, Bryan and the committee members expressed hope. They met again Sept. 17, 1997, to discuss fundraising for St. Brigid. They looked forward to the next meeting with Levada.
No one knew they would have to wait eight years.
It was January 2004, and the committee still hadn't been granted another audience with Levada.
Bryan and the committee members were gathered in the basement of Holy Trinity Cathedral. Bryan's strawberry-blond hair was now a milky gray. His little girl was now as tall as he and asking when she could drive.
The committee's final appeal to the Vatican's Signatura had been denied June 21, 1997 -- on a technicality. The Supreme Tribunal determined that Bryan had sought recourse as an attorney, not as an individual parishioner, as required. The Vatican left the future of St. Brigid to the San Francisco archbishop.
Since then, Bryan had invited Levada to countless committee meetings, luncheons, dinners and parades. The archbishop always politely declined.
In one letter, dated Sept. 15, 2000, Levada wrote to Bryan, "I regret that it will not be possible to schedule an appointment because of my schedule for the next several months." In other replies to Bryan's invitations, Levada cited his "previously scheduled engagements" or simply offered no explanation.
Bryan felt powerless. He questioned the point of attending another St. Brigid annual spring dinner at the Fort Mason Officers' Club, another luncheon at the Italian Athletic Club, another picnic at Lafayette Park, another St. Patrick's Day march up Market Street.
Over the past decade, Bryan had attended nearly 500 committee meetings, and by now, only a dozen or so people were still showing up. Bryan knew that these loyalists represented hundreds more who still wanted to return to the church, who took turns keeping a candle lit on the front steps of St. Brigid. But Bryan was finally realizing that St. Brigid was a case he could not win, a client he could not save.
There would be no more bullhorns. No more trips to Rome. No more private investigators. No more legal briefs. No more St. Brigid protests.
During the meeting at Holy Trinity, Tillie Piscevich approached Bryan with a question on everyone's mind:
"If there is no hope for St. Brigid reopening, why don't they have the decency to tell us?"
Coming from a woman who had rarely missed a committee meeting in 10 years, the words hit Bryan hard.
Days later, he wrote another letter to the archbishop: "If you have decided not to reopen St. Brigid, that should be known. To tell the people absolutely nothing is neither good nor proper. Keeping all in absolute suspense for so long now borders on the intolerable."
Levada responded: "You may be assured that I am well aware of your concerns. When final plans for the use of St. Brigid have been determined, I will be in contact with you."
Bryan rehearsed his speech before the committee meeting at Holy Trinity on March 10, 2004. It wasn't going to be easy, but the time was right.
"For 10 years, I have served as chair of the committee," he told the gathered. "It is time for a change. There is a new energy in the committee. I am confident that there are exceptionally qualified people from which to select a new chair."
Committee members applauded Bryan for his work. He was humbled. Despite all the setbacks, these parishioners were unwavering in their faith, unwilling to throw in the towel.
Bryan loved the believers from St. Brigid, and his faith remained intact. But this long journey had affirmed his distrust in the establishment. He was no longer proud to call himself a Catholic. He had not attended Mass in years.
Soon, though, Bryan would find himself called back to the pews of St. Brigid -- not to pray, but to mourn.
Tuesday: A new leader changes the fate of St. Brigid.
E-mail Julian Guthrie at email@example.com.
This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle
THE LOST PARISH
After more than a decade without their church, the faithful return to the sanctuary -- for one emotional day.
Julian Guthrie, Chronicle Staff Writer
LAST OF THREE PARTS
Below an oil portrait of a bearded, unsmiling priest, Joe Dignan nervously played with a small silver hoop in his left ear, his black rubber bracelets dangling on his wrist.
It was March 2004, and the exiled parishioners of St. Brigid were gathered in the basement of a Russian Orthodox church to select Dignan as their new leader, now that attorney Robert Bryan had resigned from the Committee to Save St. Brigid.
[Audio: Joe Dignan addresses a 2005 meeting of the Committee to Save St. Brigid Church ]
The committee veteran was considered a natural choice to rekindle hopes of reopening the historic San Francisco church, closed since 1994. A natural choice by everyone, that is, except Dignan.
The reluctant Catholic gazed at the faces before him. If only he felt worthy. If only he could share the purity of their faith. If only he didn't have this debilitating secret.
Before the meeting, the 47-year-old Dignan had confided in Bryan, asking, "Will my being gay hurt the committee's cause?"
"No, Joe," Bryan replied. "You are not the one who is out of step. It is the Catholic Church that is out of step. Be true to yourself."
The votes were taken, and Dignan was unanimously elected. Over the next two years, he would square off against an archdiocese that had its own plans for St. Brigid. He would struggle to figure out whether he had a place with these good parishioners, who knew little of his inner demons.
In the end, he would make a life-changing discovery about faith -- and love. Just before time ran out.
• • •
Dignan, a freelance journalist, was working at his Potrero Hill home on Jan. 19, 2005, when he got the call. It was from Les McDonald, head of real estate for the San Francisco Archdiocese.
Dignan started off chatty, almost gossipy. Within days of becoming the leader of the effort to save St. Brigid, Dignan had archdiocese officials on speed dial. He called almost every day, whether from his Italian racing bike, cycling class, Farley's coffeehouse, or while walking his basset hound, George.
Of all the people Dignan called at the archdiocese, it was McDonald who most regularly came to the phone. Dignan felt he had developed a rapport with him.
But McDonald was all business.
"St. Brigid was sold to a developer," he said. "We met this morning with city planners to discuss options, including filing for a demolition permit."
Dignan was stunned. He couldn't respond. The church's closure in 1994 had been devastating. The thought of it being reduced to rubble was unfathomable.
As long as the church remained unharmed, parishioners had hope that the tall wooden doors would one day reopen.
Now St. Brigid faced its worst crisis yet.
• • •
Later that day, Dignan stuffed his backpack with papers on St. Brigid, hopped on his Italvega bike and sped to San Francisco City Hall.
He took the stairs two at a time to the second floor, and worked his way down the corridor, asking supervisors to help rescue St. Brigid.
Where Bryan argued, Dignan charmed. Where Bryan wore pinstripe suits, Dignan favored jeans and T-shirts. Where Bryan toted a briefcase, Dignan carried a Timbuk2 backpack. Where Bryan's eyes lit up with possibility, Dignan's dark brown eyes sloped with sadness -- even when he smiled.
And where Bryan had used the law, Dignan would use politics. As his late mother, Eleanor, told him, "It's not what you know, it's who you know."
Dignan's plan was simple: Have the church designated a historic landmark. That way, no one could tear it down -- including the developer, who wanted to build high-rise condominiums there.
Over the next week, Dignan paced the halls. His favorite targets were supervisors Michela Alioto-Pier and Aaron Peskin. When they saw him approaching, they knew what was coming, but they smiled nonetheless. "I know I'm the last person you want to see," he cajoled, "but we've got to save this church!"
In early February 2005, following a whirlwind of lobbying by Dignan, city supervisors unanimously approved a landmark designation for St. Brigid. The gesture was a strong show of support -- but could not protect the church. State law prohibited cities from making churches historic landmarks.
At the urging of supervisors, state Sen. Carole Migden introduced a bill to exclude St. Brigid from the 1994 law and allow the city to preserve the building.
After a decade of setbacks, the Committee to Save St. Brigid finally seemed to be getting somewhere.
• • •
Committee members gathered with Dignan in the cozy basement of Holy Trinity Cathedral -- offered to the group as a meeting place a decade earlier. Sitting at long cafeteria tables, they stuffed envelopes, organized phone lists, gossiped and prayed.
It was Feb. 8, 2005. Margaret Sanderson brought coffee and cookies. Siu-Mei Wong carted boxes with letters, envelopes and mailing lists to and from her home. Carmen Esteva arrived with her homemade carrot cake.
Dignan worked on thank-you notes to the 27 people who had contributed more than $5,000 in recent weeks to help the committee in its fight to save St. Brigid. Wong suggested he try to write more legibly and not leave his cookie-smudged fingerprints on the cards.
It was nice, after years of stagnation, to have momentum. The group had met once a week for a decade. The devoted had cared for the church in ways no one knew about: refinishing the doors, removing graffiti from the facade, plucking weeds from the periphery. They had watched over the building the way a family stands by a comatose loved one.
For Dignan, there was irony in working so hard for the church that had been the bane of his youth.
As a child, Dignan had tried every trick to avoid St. Brigid, feigning fever and aches, colds and coughs. He wanted to stay home from Mass in his flannel baseball pajamas and watch cartoons.
By fifth grade, he had flunked out of St. Brigid's catechism classes, an ignominious distinction in a family that had attended St. Brigid since 1921.
Yet when the closure of St. Brigid was announced in 1993, Dignan attended the early meetings of the nascent committee, ready to fight for the cause.
Dignan struggled to articulate -- even to understand -- his devotion to St. Brigid.
Part of it was because of his mother, Eleanor, who had adored the church. Dignan had seen her as the only person whose love for him was unwavering.
Another reason was committee member Wong. She was the only friend who came to comfort him after his mother died on Feb. 13, 2003. Wong brought him food, cleaned up after him, and refused to leave even when he yelled at her. Sometimes, she would just sit and watch him cry.
But there was something else, too. St. Brigid pulled on him, a magnet of stone and sentimentality.
Sitting inside St. Brigid as a boy had been numbingly boring. Working on behalf of St. Brigid was anything but. Maybe it was the difference between words and deeds. Maybe it was what happened when faith wasn't forced.
When Dignan thought of Sundays at St. Brigid, he could sense his mother's warm hand, could feel the scratchy wool of her suit. He could hear her admonishments, "If you don't stop fidgeting, I just don't know what I'm going to do."
His mother had told him, days before she died, that she believed his fate was tied to St. Brigid.
• • •
Dignan took his lobbying act to Sacramento. He piled his dog into the front seat of his blue Miata, wedging the canine between posters of St. Brigid and stacks of papers on the history of the church.
Once in the Capitol, Dignan -- often wearing the lucky red tie his mother had given him -- charged from office to office. He lobbied legislators to support Migden's bill to protect St. Brigid. With the zeal of an evangelist and the energy of a child, Dignan talked about how St. Brigid was established just weeks before the Gettysburg Address. He talked about it as a place of vibrant souls -- of Carmen Estevas, of Siu-Mei Wongs, of his mother.
Lawmakers were listening. He was winning support for St. Brigid, one office at a time.
In San Francisco, Archbishop William Levada, who had not met with the St. Brigid committee for eight years, now had politicians weighing in on what he should do with his church.
The archbishop was no longer too busy to meet with the group from St. Brigid.
• • •
On Feb. 18, 2005, at archdiocese headquarters, Dignan and three committee members sat across a long conference table from Levada.
Dignan was anxious. He had rehearsed his lines, held conference calls, lost sleep -- and expected the worst.
Levada had not met with the committee since 1997, though he had quietly explored ways of holding onto St. Brigid by turning it into a Catholic museum or a self-sustaining shrine. Neither idea panned out.
The archbishop didn't waste any time at the meeting. He said that the deal with the condominium developer was off and that he wanted to find a solution to keep the church standing.
Dignan was stunned. He had anticipated that Levada would ask them to accept plans to demolish the church to make way for much-needed housing in the city. Dignan had even drafted a speech about why that couldn't happen.
He hadn't been prepared for this. St. Brigid was saved. The faithful had faced down the bulldozers -- and won.
Dignan let himself exhale. He apologized to Levada for the strained relations between the group and the archdiocese.
"We want to be your allies," Dignan said.
He offered to raise money to retrofit St. Brigid. Levada appeared receptive to the idea but said it couldn't be done in the archdiocese's name -- a caveat that Dignan thought limited possibilities.
Dignan emphasized that the committee had no intention of abandoning its effort to reopen St. Brigid. And the archdiocese reiterated that it had no intention of reopening St. Brigid as a church.
But despite their differences, both sides managed to set them aside -- on this day, at least. For the first time in more than a decade, there was peace.
• • •
Dignan wheeled his bicycle into the church basement, smiling apologetically as the clicking of spokes clashed with the quiet hum of prayer. His gloves came off with a rip of Velcro. His heavy backpack crashed to the floor.
When he muttered "Dammit," several women looked up from their rosaries, shaking their heads.
It was the usual Tuesday night committee meeting at Holy Trinity, but Dignan had something unusual to propose. It was mid-June 2005, and he had just gotten a call from Sen. Migden's office. The San Francisco lawmaker had stepped in to save St. Brigid. Now she expected something in return.
Dignan was hesitant to broach the subject, but the truce with the archdiocese had faded in recent months as church officials became increasingly annoyed with the committee's lobbying in Sacramento. These days, Migden seemed like their best hope.
So after taking care of routine committee business, Dignan suggested that it would be a good idea for them to show support for Migden by marching together and carrying signs backing the senator. In the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade.
One committee member said, "I don't think this is the right place for us to be."
By now, Dignan was sure the committee members knew of his sexuality. They heard him make references to a certain friend none of them had met. And they read stories he wrote for gay newspapers. But they never asked Dignan about his love life.
In an attempt at levity, Dignan said, "We have the choice of being next to a transgender group or a leather manufacturing booth."
It was at moments like these when Dignan felt like an outsider. He knew that acceptance came slowly for some -- if at all.
When his father learned Dignan was gay, he had urged his son to stop telling people, as it would "get him in a lot of trouble." His mother had said she suspected he was gay since his college days, but she never said anything because she didn't want to encourage him.
Dignan still carried enormous guilt over his failed marriage. He had loved his wife, Polly, with whom he had a daughter, Mary. He was sure his ex-wife would never forgive him.
After a brief discussion, committee members saw little choice but to have a contingent in the parade. But as Dignan started out on his ride home from Holy Trinity, he doubted that anyone from St. Brigid would actually show up.
• • •
Dignan bicycled to the corner of Howard and Spear streets early on the morning of Sunday, June 25, 2005, the day of the Gay Pride Parade.
He chewed nicotine gum, wishing he hadn't sworn off cigarettes. He repeatedly checked his cell phone, convinced that committee members would call to say they couldn't make it to the parade.
He searched the parade staging area and saw no one from St. Brigid. He was surrounded by men in neon tights and headdresses made of colorful balloons. Drag queens in circus-bright makeup sashayed by.
Then, about 9:30, just as the parade was about to start, Dignan spotted Wong, Beatriz "Bebe" St. John and Jan Robinson. He let out a sigh of relief. Committee members were there not only for St. Brigid -- but also for him.
Migden and her entourage showed up. Dignan made a point of saying hello, so she would know that the St. Brigid crew was there.
Not long after the parade began, Father Cyril O'Sullivan joined them. Eleven years earlier, he had been transferred from St. Brigid to South San Francisco and then Marin County. He had been told to stay away from his former flock, but there he was, wearing his collar under a bulky sweater, and marching with the St. Brigid contingent in a gay parade.
As the group made its way up Market Street, others from St. Brigid were busy in a booth at the corner of Larkin and McAllister, across from City Hall. They had been there since 7 a.m. to gather signatures of support for Migden's bill allowing St. Brigid to be designated a historical landmark.
Lorraine Kelly, her silver hair in a loose bun, stood at the edge of the St. Brigid booth and tried to catch the attention of passers-by.
Directly across from the St. Brigid group was the Hot House Entertainment booth, with posters of videos with titles including "Screw" and "The Hard Way."
"I'm competing with that," she said, smiling.
Yet two hours into the parade, Kelly had gathered more than 200 signatures.
Soon, Dignan arrived at the booth. For so many years, he had been ashamed of being gay. Now, surrounded by the intrepid believers and his revered priest, Dignan no longer felt like an outsider.
This was his family now.
• • •
By late July 2005, Dignan was confident that the bill to save St. Brigid would pass the Senate and Assembly and make its way to the governor's desk. He knew more lobbying was ahead but felt proud of the committee's efforts. He had visited Sacramento so many times that he had his own shelf in Migden's office to store his booklets on St. Brigid.
Then, on Aug. 12, 2005, he got the call.
Siu-Mei Wong was barely making sense. Between anguished gulps, she delivered the news: St. Brigid had been sold.
The buyer was the Academy of Art University, a San Francisco art school with extensive real estate holdings. The building was sold for $3.7 million -- despite a red-hot real estate market and an assessed value 12 years earlier of more than $7 million. The academy said it planned to do seismic upgrades, restore the sanctuary for school and community events, and use the basement gymnasium for its athletic program.
Dignan hung up the phone. There had been 10 years of stasis, of legal appeals that were denied, of questions that went unanswered, of meetings with church leaders that went nowhere. He felt angry, exhausted -- and responsible.
Under his watch, the grand old sanctuary now belonged to an art school.
• • •
The next day, Dignan stood on the foggy, windswept hilltop of Lafayette Park in Pacific Heights. He was joined by dozens of parishioners and the two leaders who preceded him -- Father O'Sullivan and Robert Bryan.
The mood for the group's annual outdoor picnic Mass was as dark as the summer afternoon. Under wool blankets, the faithful huddled for warmth on park benches -- out in the cold, as they had been so many times before.
All eyes settled on Dignan. He stood up straight. His trademark slouch was gone.
"Let me ask," he began in a booming voice, "is there anyone from the diocese here today? Please raise your hands. Make yourself known."
After a pause, he said, "Again, no one from the diocese thought we were worth speaking to.
"But we have ourselves," he said. "We have each other. We have come a long way. In January, the archbishop said he planned to demolish St. Brigid and build condos. He realized we would not let him do that. For that, we can congratulate ourselves."
Dignan asked, "How many of you came to our very first picnic in the park, 11 years ago?"
Nearly all hands shot up. Dignan smiled and nodded. "Well, whether it was at that picnic or this one, I have to tell you I have never had a more moving Catholic experience than in this park with you," he said. "We will continue. We will make certain St. Brigid is preserved, at the very least physically."
His voice breaking with emotion, Dignan declared, "Whatever happens in the future, I can say this for sure: I love you. I do. I love every one of you."
A chorus followed: "We love you, too, Joe."
• • •
It was Thursday, June 29, 2006.
Dignan spent the morning at home, preparing for the next day's meeting with the Academy of Art, the new owner of St. Brigid.
It had taken months to set up this meeting, which would fall on the 12th anniversary of the closing of the church.
Shortly after noon, preoccupied with thoughts of St. Brigid, Dignan went to World Gym on De Haro Street. There, he got on the treadmill. About halfway into his workout, he stepped off the treadmill and sat down. His head in his hands, he began to shake. Then he collapsed.
A firefighter working out ran to his side. CPR was performed. He had suffered a heart attack.
At 1:13 p.m., Joseph Howard Dignan was dead at age 49.
• • •
Committee members came together in the basement of Holy Trinity Cathedral. The seat Dignan had occupied remained empty. The portrait of the unsmiling priest was still on the wall. But there was no clicking of bicycle spokes. No black bracelets. No gossip. No laughter.
Parishioners talked about holding a memorial service in Lafayette Park, where the summer picnic Masses took place. They talked about Holy Trinity, where they had spent so much time. They talked about St. Dominic, a Catholic church across town.
But they knew there was only one place to honor Joe Dignan.
• • •
Siu-Mei Wong sat in her apartment on Van Ness Avenue, two blocks from St. Brigid. Having a memorial service inside St. Brigid seemed impossible, but Wong would try -- for Joe.
She called Father O'Sullivan on his cell phone. Before long, other committee members were making calls to the Dignan family, the Board of Supervisors, Sen. Migden's office -- and the Academy of Art University, which held the keys to St. Brigid.
Wong left her apartment and made her way to the steps of St. Brigid. A tiny figure dwarfed by the ornate front door, she prayed. "You have to help me with this," she said. "Please, Joe."
The academy had opposed the committee's efforts to designate St. Brigid a historical landmark, but its leader, Elisa Stephens, knew when to set aside differences and understood how these Catholics felt about their church.
On July 11, the day the Board of Supervisors honored Dignan, the Academy of Art announced that friends and family were welcome to use St. Brigid for a memorial.
Word spread quickly. It was what everyone wanted, and what no one wanted.
• • •
Lorraine Kelly held her breath as she walked into St. Brigid. She scanned the sun-dusted sanctuary, anxious to see whether it was as she remembered. She looked from the nave to the altar, from the organ loft to the marble pillars. She was relieved. St. Brigid was more resplendent than ever, with fresh paint, and polished pews and floors. Even the pulpit was where it had been.
Carmen Esteva walked up the right aisle. She blinked at the brightness of the sanctuary. She was reminded of the splendor of the stained-glass windows. Kenneth Epley greeted friends he hadn't seen in years, remarking that Dignan had dreamed of seeing everyone inside. Helen and Tillie Piscevich walked slowly up the steps of St. Brigid. They were speechless from the sight of the front door opened wide.
It was 4 p.m. on July 20, 2006, and Joe Dignan's memorial service was set to begin. Hundreds of people packed the church.
Everyone took their seats: the Pisceviches near the front on the right, Kelly near the stained-glass window dedicated to the memory of her late grandfather, Esteva one row back.
At the altar was a portrait of Dignan, surrounded by bouquets of flowers gathered from his late mother's garden, including his favorite, the dahlia.
Robert Bryan sat in his usual pew off to the left side. The death-penalty attorney and former head of the committee remained embittered toward Catholic officials, but was inspired by the dedication of these believers. If not for the integrity of Father O'Sullivan and the devotion of people like Joe Dignan and Siu-Mei Wong, Bryan would have renounced his Catholicism years before.
Father O'Sullivan walked slowly to the altar. He faced his flock inside St. Brigid for the first time in more than a decade. In fewer than three years, the Irish priest had eulogized Dignan's mother and father. Now it was Joe.
"When I heard the news that Joe Dignan had passed on, I simply froze," O'Sullivan told the assembled. "He was such an active, energetic human being. It tears your heart open."
Gazing at the church that meant so much to him, O'Sullivan said, "Joe stood up to save this magnificence. He took on the Catholic hierarchy. He said to them, 'You are not leading us. You are misleading us. You are not sanctifying us. You are de-sanctifying us.' He lived these truths until the very end. He was working on St. Brigid until he died."
O'Sullivan continued, "This struggle for St. Brigid has been full of disappointments, full of humiliations. I don't know how many nights Joe went to bed disappointed. But he got up the next day and was not discouraged. I have nothing but honor for Joe. His kind of dignity is my kind of dignity. His kind of Catholicism is my kind of Catholicism. His friendship is my friendship. His leadership is my leadership. So much is owed to this one man."
Before the service ended, O'Sullivan played "An Irish Lament" on his flute. The melancholy notes moved like a gentle wave from the front communion rail to the back pew. A hush fell over the sanctuary.
For a moment, St. Brigid was a church again.
• • •
After the memorial service, parishioners lingered below the steps of St. Brigid, just as they had done on the church's final night in 1994. The heavy front door was again pulled shut, this time by security guards from the Academy of Art University.
Unlike the night of the closure, the bell of St. Brigid did not ring that day. It had been Dignan who had sneaked up the church tower after the final Mass to ring the long-dormant bell.
On the steps, committee members smiled as they shared stories, including the last picnic Mass in Lafayette Park almost a year earlier, the day after they had learned that the church was sold.
They recalled how Dignan had stood in the center of the group on that cold and windy day. They remembered his calm, his certitude.
"I have come to understand that faith is within us," Dignan said. "This understanding of faith came to me when no one was telling me I had to be in church. It tested the nature of faith. It asked: 'Is your faith worth standing freezing in a park for? Is it worth having Mass in a parking lot?' "
Dignan's eyes welled with tears.
"What I've learned," he said, "is that my faith has nothing to do with the gold chalices or big cathedrals. It is deep inside."
On Oct. 24, 2006, San Francisco supervisors unanimously approved landmark status for the exterior of St. Brigid -- a move made possible because the church is now in private hands.
Archdiocese spokesman Maurice Healy said: "We hope the group of people that has long sought to have the church reopened will understand that the perspective of the archdiocese is based on what is best for all of the faithful throughout the local church."
Members of the Committee to Save St. Brigid continue to meet once a week in the basement of Holy Trinity Cathedral.
Archbishop William Levada is now second in command at the Vatican. Before leaving San Francisco, he publicly acknowledged that proceeds from the sale of St. Brigid could be used for sex-abuse settlements. To date, the Catholic Church in San Francisco has paid $70 million to settle more than 100 clergy abuse cases, and has 15 cases pending.
Archbishop John Quinn has retired and lives in Menlo Park.
Father Cyril O'Sullivan was recently made pastor at two churches in Nicasio and Lagunitas in Marin County. He continues to coach the St. Brigid soccer team.
Robert Bryan still represents clients on death row. He has not attended church regularly for nearly a decade.
Joe Dignan's ashes will be scattered in San Francisco Bay, along with the ashes of his mother.
E-mail Julian Guthrie at firstname.lastname@example.org