As late as 1844, San Francisco was a small village known as Yerba Buena of approximately 50 inhabitants.
Upon the discovery of gold in 1848, the settlement became the heart of the mining activities and this brought many adventurers into the area. By 1850, San Francisco had a population of 25,000.
In 1850, California became the 31st State of the Union. Also, in 1850, Joseph Alemany became Bishop of Monterey (California). On his trip from Europe to California, he stopped in Paris to request the Daughters of Charity for his diocese. It was decided that he would make his request anew at Emmitsburg, Maryland where it was agreed that an establishment of the sisters would take place sometime in the future.
In 1852, Archbishop Alemany of San Francisco, while in Baltimore, renewed his request for an establishment of sisters. The Council of the Daughters of Charity (Emmitsburg) decided to send sisters to California. Seven sisters were named for the distant mission of San Francisco. They were Sisters Francis McEnnis, Corsina McKay, Ignatia Green, Honorine Goodman, Fidelis Buckley, Sebastian Doyle and Bernice Williams.
At this time the railroads did not crisscross the country and a journey to California could only be made by stage or steamer. The journey from Emmitsburg to San Francisco was not only long and weary but also dangerous. These seven sisters boarded a steamer and sailed from New York to Panama on July 6, 1852. When they arrived on the Atlantic side, it was necessary to cross the Isthmus on mules. The road was narrow in places and difficult for the animals to find their footing. After they had crossed the Isthmus and arrived on the Pacific side, two sisters, Honorine and Ignatius, died of cholera and were buried in Panama City. After losing their companions and meeting many delays, the five survivors boarded another steamer and sailed on to San Francisco where they arrived on August 18th (42 days after their departure from New York).
At last, after many trials, this small group of sisters reached San Francisco. It had been a difficult journey and they were relieved to reach its end, but many more difficulties were to face them in this new rugged country. Yet they were to draw great strength and new energy from their adventure. Sister Francis McEnnis was the leader of this colony of sisters in San Francisco. Here, they established an orphanage and school and later an infant home and infirmary.
The Daughters of Charity have provided more than 150 years of continuing service to the people of San Francisco.
Early Years in San Francisco
Market and Montgomery
The carriage brought the Sisters to their new home, the “old brown hours” at Market and Montgomery Streets (Market opposite Montgomery) in the area of San Francisco known as Happy Valley.
Four years earlier, San Francisco was a small village with a few hundred people. Then, the immigrants rushed to the gold mines in nearby Coloma and San Francisco became a fast growing city on the American frontier. The Sisters had lived in the more established cities of the east, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and were new about to experience life in a frontier city.
The orphanage began as soon as the Sisters arrived in San Francisco as they had already assumed the care of Nellie on board the “Ohio.” Two weeks later, the first orphan from San Francisco was received. Soon many other motherless children joined them. Then, six weeks after the orphanage, the girls’ school began.
Living and working conditions were cramped within the walls of the “old brown house” as it was a Church on Sundays, a school on weekdays and an orphanage with dormitories at night. St. Patrick’s Church and the boys’ school were already housed within these walls when the orphanage and girls’ school moved there.
The early weeks, months, even years were difficult times. The Sisters had lived in the substantial buildings of the eastern cities and were unaccustomed to the more basic dwellings on the American frontier. Living in the “old brown house” was a challenge for them.
Also, the journey to California, especially the time in Panama had weakened the Sisters physically and it was many months, even years before they recovered their health and some never fully recovered.
The cramped conditions at the “Old brown house” were somewhat relieved after the first two years when the church moved to its new building next door on market Street (September 1854). Now, only the orphanage and school were housed within these walls and then a few months later (December 1854) conditions were further improved when a new orphanage and school building went up next to the “old brown house.” By this time the number of orphans and scholars had greatly increased.
Soon five other Sisters journeyed from Emmitsburg to San Francisco (March 1855) just after the Panama Railroad was completed across the Isthmus. Now there were more Sisters to care for the orphans and teach the scholars. Within the next three years still other Sisters made the same journey, so now there were even more Sister-caregivers and Sister-teachers to meet the needs of an increasing number of orphans and scholars.
Around the same time, the Sisters decided that they would manage the orphanage and school by themselves. They were not satisfied with the gentlemen providing the financial management rather than themselves. So they informed the gentlemen of their decision and became themselves the financial managers of the orphanage and school as well as the caregivers and educators of the children.
The orphans, boarders and day scholars were all housed in the same building and when the numbers swelled to almost 400, conditions again became cramped. A new schoolhouse was needed for the 300 day scholars and was finally built on Jessie Street (in 1859) just in back of the orphanage. It was called St. Vincent’s School.
In August, 1858, the Sisters formed a legal corporation, named the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum, and they may have been the first group of women in California to incorporate. They did this in order to protect their orphanage and school property from becoming Church property as these were days before the lines of ecclesiastical jurisdiction were clearly drawn. Property ownership was a contentious issue that persisted over a twenty-year period.
In time, the neighborhood of Market and Montgomery Streets became the business area of San Francisco and was no longer a suitable location for an orphanage for very young children. So, the Sisters purchased property four miles away in a place called South San Francisco, in the Silver Terrace Area. Here they began building an orphanage for the infants and very young children (Mount St. Joseph Infant Asylum). In the meantime, it was necessary to construct additional buildings on the Market Street property to accommodate the increasing number of older children coming into the orphanage.
It was the desire of some influential persons in the City to extend Montgomery Street to the Bay. Eventually, the Sisters began hearing that Montgomery Street (New Montgomery) was coming and that it would run right through their property. However, it was a couple of years before this actually happened.
New Montgomery Street did eventually cut through some of their property near the site of one of the new buildings. It was expected to cut through more of their property on the sites of the other buildings.
There was a more immediate need now from Market and Montgomery Streets. The Sisters needed to sell their Market Street lot. They had already decided on the location for the new orphanage. It was to be built on their property in the Silver Terrace area of South San Francisco where Mount St. Joseph Infant Asylum was already located. They began construction on the new building in 1869.
Finally, the Sisters sold the original Market Street lot and vacated the old orphanage buildings as soon as their new one in South San Francisco was habitable.
In 1873, approximately 300 orphans moved from Market and Montgomery Streets in downtown San Francisco to the Silver Terrace area of South San Francisco. The San Francisco Trolley Company provided door-to-door transportation for the orphans and Sisters while many individual people made their carriages and carts available to move furnishings and belongings. As a result the move was completed all in one day. The orphanage was now located a high point in South San Francisco and was called mount St. Joseph (legal name remained the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum). Mount St. Joseph and Mount St. Joseph Infant Asylum, separate works in separate buildings, were now located on the same property in Silver Terrace.
For the first time the orphanage and school, after so many years of close proximity, were now separated by a distance of four miles. The orphans were now in South San Francisco while the day scholars were still at St. Vincent’s School on Jessie Street in San Francisco. Later in 1873, the day scholars moved into their new school building on Mission Street, a few blocks from Jessie Street.
Looking back over their early years, the Sisters remembered the bonding of the original pioneer sisters, the leadership of Sister Frances as well as the progress made with the orphanage and school.
In the early 1850s, when the Sisters first rode up market and Montgomery Street (Market opposite Montgomery), they saw nothing but sand and a “destitute looking shanty.” Inside the picture of desolation was completed; there were no chairs, only wooden stools, and upstairs, seven cots without sheets or blankets. They were plagued by fleas and inconvenienced by sand and water coming into the “old shanty.”
By the mid 1870s, this same lot on Market and New Montgomery Streets that once housed the “destitute looking shanty” now housed the grand Palace Hotel where visitors lived with elegance and luxury and where celebrities from around the world were entertained.
Beyond Market and Montgomery
By the 1880s, the orphanage and school were separated by three or four miles. Mount St. Joseph and Mount St. Joseph Infant Asylum were located in the Silver Terrace area South of San Francisco. St. Vincent’s School was located on Mission Street in the business district of San Francisco.
In 1886, the Sisters at Mount St. Joseph opened a “trades school” for their older girls. The school was called St. Francis Technical School and it was located on Geary and Gough Streets in San Francisco.
The following year (1887), the Sisters at St. Vincent’s School for girls staffed a new school for boys. This new school was called St. Patrick’s Boys’ School and it was located a few blocks away on Everett Street.
The San Francisco Earthquake
At 5:15A.M. on Wednesday, April 18, 1906, there was an earthquake that violently shook the City of San Francisco. This was soon followed by a fire that burned out of control as there was no water to fight the fire because water mains were severed in the earthquake. A four-square-mile area of San Francisco was demolished.
The Sisters left the City and walked to Mount St. Joseph in South San Francisco where the earthquake had done little damage. They stayed here but went back into the City during the day to help with the wounded. Eventually, they went to the Sister’s Sanitarium in San Jose.
The neighborhood of Guerrero and Brosnan Streets was also within this four-square-mile area. Construction on the new Mary’s Help Hospital was almost completed when it too was demolished.
The Geary and Gough neighborhood was just outside this four-square-mile area. Although St. Francis Technical School was badly damaged by this earthquake, it was still standing and became a relief center. Many of the Sisters stayed to help with the relief effort while others went with the children to Mount St. Joseph in South San Francisco.
Mount St. Joseph in Silver Terrace neighborhood of South San Francisco felt the earthquake but had little damage. It became a refuge for the Sisters and children.
After four days of earthquake and fire, a four-square-mile area of the City of San Francisco lay in charred ruins. Nothing was left but rubble and steel frames. The relief effort was under way with people sleeping in tents and standing in line for food.
After a few weeks, the recovery effort was under way. St. Vincent’sSchool and St. Patrick’s Boys’ School were putting up a “temporary school” at Fifth and Clementina Streets that would house them both. The Sisters moved into temporary quarters and opened the school in early August, less than four months after the earthquake and fire.
The St. Francis Technical School moved into temporary quarters and leased their building at Geary and Gough to the City for use by the Relief Committee.