Noe Valley Voice February 2000

Earthquake Renovation Starts at St. Paul's Church

By Kathy Dalle-Molle

After five years of hard work, struggle, and prayers, St. Paul's Parish has begun the $3 million seismic retrofit of its Noe Valley landmark church.

The final Catholic masses prior to the start of the retrofit were held in the Church Street building on Jan. 30. Construction crews were scheduled to arrive the next day.

Pastor Mario Farana expects that the 89-year-old twin-spired edifice, long regarded as one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture on the West Coast, will be closed for up to a year. He hopes construction will be completed in time to celebrate Christmas 2000 in the building.

"That's what we're shooting for," he says. "Nibbi Brothers, our contractor, is pretty sure it can happen, but when you're dealing with a building as old as this one, you just never know."

It's been more than six years since the San Francisco Archdiocese threatened to close St. Paul's Parish altogether, citing a lack of funds to bring the parish's convent, school, and church buildings up to earthquake safety standards. But with parishioners and Noe Valley residents protesting strongly -- along with widespread media coverage -- the Archdiocese had a change of heart and reversed its decision.

Since then, the Missionaries of Charity convent has been retrofitted. And St. Paul's former high school on 29th Street and primary school on Valley Street have been sold to developers, who converted them to high-priced condominiums. Much of the money raised from the sale of those properties went toward the $5.1 million construction of St. Paul's Elementary School building, which opened last year.

"Getting the construction of the school and church under way and completed has been a very big hurdle for us," says Farana, who joined the parish in 1993. "Once the church is retrofitted, we hope to look to the future and how we can continue to maintain a viable parish here, especially with all the changes occurring in the neighborhood."

During the seismic upgrading, all masses for the 1,500-member parish will be held in the Parish Center, located within St. Paul's Elementary School at the corner of Church and 29th streets.

"We're going to make as few changes to the center as possible," says Farana. "We're going to use the chairs that are already there. We'll set up an altar and have some plants and banners, and we'll rent a piano for music."

Activities that already are held in the Parish Center, such as Friday-night bingo, the annual St. Patrick's Dinner Dance, and the Spaghetti Feed and Talent Show, will not be affected by church services. Farana says baptisms will be held in the convent of the Missionaries of Charity, while weddings and funerals will be held at neighboring parishes, "depending on the wishes of the family and the availability of the churches."

According to Ruth Freeman of Michael Stanton Architecture, the firm overseeing the retrofit, the seismic upgrading will include strengthening the church building's two towers, bracing existing steel trusses, and installing concrete sheer walls. A new roof will be added over the side aisles of the church, along with a handicapped-accessible entrance on Valley Street, accessible seating inside the church, a new bathroom on the main floor, and a wheelchair ramp leading into the sanctuary. The north and south vestibules of the church building also will be rebuilt to cut down on wind drafts and to accommodate the new entrance on Valley Street.

"The work is pretty standard as far as retrofits go," says Freeman, "particularly since we need to be mindful of the parish's budgetary restraints."

In addition to $3 million in construction costs, Farana anticipates $500,000 in architectural and consulting fees. To finance the project, St. Paul's is continuing its Capital Campaign Drive, begun in 1994. St. Paul's hopes to receive donations from current parishioners, former parishioners, and alumni of the school.

On the first Sunday of every month, St. Paul's will conduct a special collection for the retrofit at each of its masses. So far, through donations and proceeds from Friday-night bingo and the parish's second annual Dinner Dance and Silent Auction held in November, St. Paul's has raised $600,000.

"It's a very low-key campaign," says Farana. "There are no phone solicitations, but we have received all kinds of gifts and pledges -- from the very small to the very large."

St. Paul's also has obtained a $1.8 million line of credit from the Archdiocese of San Francisco, plus a $1 million grant. (All churches with unreinforced masonry buildings in the Archdiocese received $1 million toward making seismic repairs.)

On Feb. 6, the parish hopes to raise at least $40,000 through its fourth annual raffle. Raffle prizes will total $20,000, according to Katy O'Shea, director of St. Paul's Capital Campaign. First prize is $10,000, second is $5,000, third and fourth are $1,000, and fifth through tenth are $500. Each ticket donation is $100. Participants are invited to a reception in the parish rectory at 221 Valley St. on Feb. 6 from 2 to 4 p.m. The drawing will be held at 3 p.m. Tickets may be purchased up until the time of the drawing, says O'Shea, by calling the rectory at 648-7538.

"The monies generated from this and other capital campaign efforts will play a significant role in our ability to repay the retrofit loan," says Farana.

"Lots of miraculous things have occurred to make this retrofit a reality," he continues. "We solicited four bids from contractors for the project, and three of the bids were very close and much higher than we anticipated. But Nibbi Brothers was right in the area we were hoping for. Their bid was much lower than the other three.

"The Archdiocese had put a cap on how much we could spend on the retrofit construction, and if we didn't have the bid from Nibbi Brothers, I don't know what would have happened. I really believe the hand of God was involved in all of this."