By Joe Bonadio

Towering over the streets and alleyways of North Beach, the dignified spires of the Saints Peter and Paul Church are a defining element of our storied neighborhood. They keep faithful watch over Washington Square, the state’s oldest park, like aging sentinels, imbuing the square with a palpable sense of history. Along with the clanging of the cable cars and the mournful sounding of foghorns in the bay, the church bells are an integral part of our unique aural landscape, keeping us ever mindful of the special place we inhabit.

The Interior Of The Spectacular Saints Peter And Paul Church

The interior of the spectacular Saints Peter and Paul Church. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Completed in 1924, the church replaced the original Saints Peter and Paul Church on the corner of Filbert Street and Grant Avenue (then Dupont Street); along with most of the neighborhood, it burned to the ground in the fire and earthquake of 1906. Over the last century, Saints Peter and Paul has become one of San Francisco’s most iconic neighborhood landmarks, and along with Coit Tower, the church has come to signify North Beach for legions of visitors. One of the most widely recognized and admired churches in the country, it has come to be referred to as “the Italian cathedral of the West Coast.”

I recently had the pleasure of touring the church with my friend David Burbank, who has acted as Sacristan for Saints Peter and Paul Church for the last decade. When the day of the tour arrived, it was the height of Fleet Week, the weather was achingly perfect, and the Blue Angels were roaring through the sky overhead. Admittedly, it was an odd backdrop for a tour of a 92-year-old Catholic church.

I was very curious about the church’s history, excited for the tour–and just a tad nervous. I haven’t attended church regularly since my early teens, and this would be my first trip in years. As we climb the steps to enter the church, the sky above the park is torn by the earsplitting sound of a diving $60 million jet fighter–a suitably dramatic entrance. Looking over my shoulder, I can see the pilots’ contrails, and they form a perfect cross in the sky. Even better.

A celestial greeting from the Blue Angels. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

David launches right into his subject, practically bouncing on his toes. The statue directly above the entrance (which I’ve walked by obliviously a thousand times) is an important relic: the oldest known sculpture of St. Vincent de Paul, a French Roman Catholic priest canonized in 1737. Called the “great apostle of charity,” St. Vincent de Paul dedicated himself to the needs of the poor, and the sculpture is the only piece of statuary that survived the fire at the church’s original location.

The oldest surviving statue of St. Vincent De Paul. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Once we’re inside, David runs down some stats for us, and it’s impressive to say the least: The church seats 720 worshippers, and employs five priests and one brother. The steeples rise 191 feet above the square, and the height of the nave is a soaring 60 feet. The church contains 138 stained glass windows, all of which were made here by Italian glaziers brought to San Francisco expressly for that purpose (they also created the glass for the chandeliers). The elaborate altar was wrought from Carrara marble in Italy, and weighs 125 tons; it was brought here on a ship as ballast, and took an entire year to make the trip around Cape Horn, arriving in 1926.

To take advantage of the tax-free status for places of worship, the top two floors of the structure were built as a parochial school, u-shaped and surrounding the interior of the church below like a horseshoe. The school serves grades pre-K through 8, and currently has 238 students. The kids have to deal with a lot of stairs, but it’s a truly rarefied setting for a school, and the classroom windows command spectacular views of both the city and the Bay below.

Saints Peter & Paul

The High Altar, erected in 1926. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Standing at the altar, it’s easy to become lost in the richness of detail. It seems no corner has been cut anywhere, an impression reinforced when we step around to the back of the altar and see that the elaborately carved marble work continues, even into the church workspace. An immense painting of Jesus Christ, rendered by Ettore and Giuditta Serbaroli in 1949, decorates the dome above the altar; backstage, we now view it from below, framed by struts and supports. The open book in Jesus’ left hand displays the Latin words “Ego sum via, veritas et vita,” meaning “I am the way, the truth and the life.” The letters that surround him are Greek: IC, XC and NK, the first and last letters of the Greek words for “Jesus Christ conquers.” 

Saints Peter & Paul Church

Ettore & Giuditta Serbaroli’s painting of Jesus Christ, a modern version of Christo Pantocrator, as seen from behind the High Altar. Photo: Joe Bonadio

In the slightly cramped office behind the altar, I notice an image of Jesus on an 8 ½” x 11” sheet of paper, scotch-taped to the wall. “Strikes me as a bit of overkill,” I whisper to my companion. After a moment, she notices it and laughs, drawing a glance from our dependable Sacristan.

Of course, overkill is an unfamiliar concept to those who build Catholic churches. Everywhere you rest your eyes you see impeccable handiwork, all evidence of incalculable amounts of talent, time and effort expended. And like the 24-karat gold leaf adorning an alarming amount of the cathedral’s surface area, none of this comes cheap: The original investment in the cathedral and school was $800,000, and though you can’t get a 2-bedroom apartment for that now, it was a princely sum in the twenties. Today’s upkeep costs, meanwhile, are truly astronomical: when the rebar in the towers was reinforced a few years back, the cost of the job was over $2.5 million.

Saints Peter & Paul Church

The keyboard of the majestic pipe organ at Saints Peter & Paul Church in San Francisco. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Next stop: the immense pipe organ, which sits in the fore of the church. Built by Schoenstein & Co. of San Francisco in 1987, it has over 1,800 pipes divided into thirty ranks.  It sits beneath the Rose Window, an exquisite 14’ stained glass window that represents the lamb before the throne of God, placed just above the church’s entrance. The afternoon sun slants through the brightly colored panes, casting a serene, amber glow over the space. David tells us how stained glass is made: different colors of glass are ground to a fine dust, and baked into a “canvas” pane–one color at a time. It’s painstaking, tedious work, and in this case the results are sublime. The colors and shading are as subtle as painted work, and if you look closely you can see the brushstrokes of the artists, long since past.

Saints Peter & Paul Church

Detail of the Rose Window: the twelve angels around the periphery symbolize the twelve apostles and twelve tribes of Israel. Photo: Joe Bonadio

Remembering my days as a novice Catholic, I ask David about the confessionals. I learn the church has six of them–elaborately appointed, of course–three on each side of the nave. But they don’t see a lot of action these days: apparently, today’s parishioners prefer to confess their sins one on one. If you‘re feeling old-school, though, you can still go the anonymous route on Saturday afternoons between 4:00 and 5:00.

Saints Peter And Paul Church

The awe-inspiring nave of Saints Peter and Paul Church. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

We head next to the sacristy, the space where the priests and attendants prepare for services, and where vestments, sacred vessels and other church furnishings are stored. This is David’s domain. He points out the prominent stained glass portrait of Don Bosco, the founder of the Salesian order and spiritual father of the church. Because the beloved priest wasn’t yet a saint when the church was built, it had to be placed inside the sacristy, rather than in the church proper–and the portrait is sans-halo. David also points out the curious blue sink that stands near the exit: called a piscina, it is used to wash linens and purificators (cloths that clean out holy vessels) used during mass. To prevent sacred items such as baptismal water from being swept into the sewers, the sink drain (called a sacrarium) flows directly into the ground.

Saints Peter And Paul Church

The Piscina. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

As we mount the age-worn stairs, it feels as if the tour is building to a climax. A quick turn around the school reveals a different world entirely; aside from the fact that it sits atop a 92-year-old church, this is a small primary school like any other. We meet the principal, a personable woman named Lisa Harris (Dr. Harris, as I learn from the school’s website), and I experience a vague wish that I could have gone to school in this lovely, cloistered place.

Emerging into the sunlight on the roof of the church, we are expecting a grandiose view, but are nonetheless gobsmacked. It is a glorious Indian Summer day, and North Beach and the bay beyond stretch away to the horizon. The sky is crisscrossed with the trails of the F-18s roaring overhead, and the city below glitters and beckons in the afternoon light. Correction: I don’t merely want to go to school here, I want to live in this place. I look across to my apartment building a few hundred feet away and think well, at least I got close. 

Saints Peter And Paul Church

David Burbank, Sacristan of Saints Peter and Paul Church, pulls the strings. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Finally we make our way to the original church bell, housed not in the tower as you might imagine, but in a room at the rear of the church. It has since been replaced with a computer and speakers, but the old bell remains, engraved with the date it was cast: 1906. The clapper inside the bell (also called a uvula, like that little piece of skin hanging from the back of your throat) is deeply worn, misshapen from decades of use. David grabs the rope and gives it a healthy pull, and the air around us reverberates with the bell’s booming report. He turns to us with a smile. “I’m gonna get phone calls about this.”