Old red-brick church survives in high-tech San Francisco

The outsider tends to think of San Francisco as irreligious city.

Cable cars, the Golden Gate Bridge and LGBT pioneers are among things so-called “Baghdad by the Bay” is easily recognized for, but San Francisco has an array of beautiful structures, including many houses of worship such as Grace Cathedral, Sherith Israel synagogue, Saint Ignatius Church, Saints Peter and Paul Church and Mission Dolores, the oldest surviving structure in the city, dating to 1776.

Other noteworthy houses of worship are less well known. Take Saint Francis Lutheran Church, the only Lutheran church in the world to be named for the Italian (Catholic) saint.

Located on Church Street, near the intersection of Market Street in the Castro District, Saint Francis Lutheran dates back to just before the devastating 1906 Earthquake. By the time of the disaster, the main floor meeting hall had been completed and was in use, but the sanctuary above was still unfinished.

The earthquake damaged the sanctuary, but the main floor was left intact and was used by the Red Cross as a hospital and shelter for the injured and homeless.

The red-brick church was constructed in a Danish-Gothic style, modified in the Nordic tradition, according to NoeHill in San Francisco, a website dedicated to San Francisco historical sites.

It possesses a wooden steeple and features a stone foundation and steps. In the sanctuary are copies of two masterpieces by Danish sculptor Berte Thorvaldsen (1770-1844).

San Francisco, like much of California, received a wide array of immigrants from many parts of the world following the 1849 Gold Rush. Danish immigration to California began in the San Joaquin Valley and gradually moved to Fresno and then north to the Bay Area and San Francisco.

For many years, religious services in San Francisco were performed by Lutheran clergy dispatched more than 180 miles from Fresno, according to NoeHill in San Francisco.

Around 1900, when the Danish community in San Francisco had reached a size to warrant its own church, the community wrote to Queen Louise of Denmark asking for financial assistance. The monarch sent a gift of 500 Kroner, which formed the basis of the building fund.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the area around the church was populated mainly by Scandinavians and Germans. For many years, the neighborhood supported five Lutheran churches, each holding services in a different language: Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Finnish and German.

Over the years, as English became the common tongue the various Lutheran congregations merged. In 1964, a Danish and Finnish congregation merged and named the new congregation in honor of San Francisco’s patron saint, Saint Francis.

(Top: 111-year-old Saint Francis Lutheran Church, in San Francisco’s Castro District.)


Country churches remain vital, historic part of American life

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There are few places today untouched by “progress.”

Historic buildings may be preserved, but the structures around them are often modernized if not replaced with new edifices. Battlefields are often encroached upon by development, and nature has a way of altering the landscape, as well. Even the rural countryside changes, albeit at a slower pace, as older abodes deteriorate without constant care, and sometimes, over many years, eventually disappear.

Country churches, though, can endure myriad decades and much longer if congregations continue to dedicate their time, talent and treasure toward their houses of prayer.

St. Matthews Lutheran Church, located in the rural Calhoun County community of Creston in central South Carolina, is among those that has seen many, many generations of parishioners come and go; yet it soldiers on.

The church was formed around 1776 and is among the oldest continuous Lutheran congregations in South Carolina. The church was formed following a large influx of German and Swiss immigrants to South Carolina earlier in the decade under the promise of available land.

The original structure, built in the 1760s, was replaced in 1826. The current church was built in 1900, and sits along a country road, with only its cemetery and parish house nearby.

Today, despite its distant location, St. Matthews Lutheran Church remains a small but vibrant house of God.

Country churches, and country ministers, possess the ability to connect with parishioners in a way that their counterparts in cities often cannot.

Ministers working in the country or small village have an advantage over those in the city because of the close contact with nature provided by the open country, Ernest R. Groves wrote nearly a century ago in Using the Resources of the County Church.

“In his nearness to his people the minister of the church of the small community … may enjoy an intimate knowledge of personality, just as he is given the conditions for a close contact with nature,” Groves wrote.

“It is difficult indeed to live in the country without discovering much about human motive, the weaknesses and the strength of character; in the city, on the other hand, it is not easy to uncover the deeper life of men and women, because they are hidden in the crowd. Life moves on rapidly and for the most part the relations between persons must be superficial,” he added.

(Top: St. Matthews Lutheran Church, located in Creston, South Carolina.)

Reconstruction-era church shows artistry of past

One of the great sins of our time is that the artistry evident among talented skilled laborers of yesteryear – talents which once could be found in the best  blacksmiths, carpenters and brick masons – is largely a thing of the past.

Progress has brought with it machinery that can produce fabricated metal at a rate 25 or 50 times what a skilled smith could turn out a century ago.

Carpenters armed with power saws and nail guns can put up a sizeable house in a matter of weeks, compared to months or longer many decades ago; and today’s home has far more amenities, to be certain.

Brick structures, too, are erected quickly and efficiently.

And today’s trades, with their emphasis on alacrity, have meant less outlay for consumers, when adjusted for inflation.

But the gains we’ve realized in convenience, speed and cost haven’t come without a price:

  • Metal bought from home-improvement stores, for example, can be of a lesser quality, weaker and more brittle, than what was once hand-crafted;
  • All but today’s top-of-the-line houses lack the craftsmanship that was a regular feature in many mid-range homes up until at least World War II, when the art of carpentry began to be supplanted by the need for massive amounts of construction on short notice; and
  • Rare today is the structure built completely of brick. The few with any brick at all often have nothing more than a brick veneer and lack the creative flourishes that made many a building a testament to the talents of those who built it.

Consider brick masonry for a moment. It was for centuries a stable trade that valued workers who prized craftsmanship. Today, brickwork is limited to that which can be done the quickest for lowest cost. Indeed, Flemish bonds, barrel vaults and circular arches are largely a lost art among brick masons.

To get an idea of what’s been lost, take a walk around any city with buildings more than 100 years old, and look at the intricate designs found in the brickwork.

French arches, cornice molding and rowlocks can all be found in edifices of all sorts, some of which were of the most pedestrian type when constructed.

Today, one would likely have to scour bricklaying unions around the nation to find even a handful of aging masons able to so much as recall how such ornamentation was done, never mind actually do it themselves.

The photos in this post were taken at the Ebenezer Lutheran Chapel in Columbia, SC. The church was started in 1830 and burned by Federal troops in 1865, in the waning months of the War Between the States.

It was rebuilt in 1870, and the congregation eventually moved next door to a larger structure in 1931.

The older building was retained for Sunday School, and was refurbished in the 1990s.

The brickwork, while perhaps of a common quality for its time, is stunning. It’s unclear how many masons it took to rebuild the church, but they clearly were a talented group who took great pride in their profession.

Ebenezer Lutheran Chapel is unusual only in that it has survived the depredations of time. But many similar beautifully crafted structures remain throughout our nation’s architectural terrain – in bustling big cities and languid small towns, in calcifying Rustbelt communities and reborn Southern hamlets.

Alongside the glass and steel and siding of today’s modern architecture, works such as Ebenezer Lutheran bear witness to an age and time when the term “artist” extended beyond the easel and sketch pad, and included now-forgotten craftsmen who left indelible reminders of their talent each time they placed brick on mortar.

Celebrating a historic SC church’s rebirth

One of South Carolina’s most historic churches held a homecoming service earlier this month to celebrate an extensive renovation project that enabled it to formally reopen its doors after nearly a decade.

The Church of the Holy Cross, located in the Sumter County community of Stateburg, traces its history back to 1852, when it was built by slaves.

The Gothic Revival cruciform-design church features walls of yellow pise de terre – or rammed earth – and a high-pitched roof of red tile, and contains a rare organ and original carved walnut pews, according to a description of the Episcopalian house of worship on the National Register of Historic Places.

Using an ancient building technique, slaves “pummeled Georgia red clay into wooden forms to create monolithic walls, 18-inches thick,” according to The State newspaper.

By packing earth between wooden molds, tamping it down, and leaving it to dry, the earth became as hard as baked brick.

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