Saints Peter and Paul, San Francisco – 52 Churches

I picked a Catholic church for my last Sunday in San Francisco, largely for two reasons: sentiment and novelty. Saints Peter and Paul Church presides over Washington Park in the city’s North Beach neighborhood, a twin towered handsome white church I’ve admired since I first lived in San Francisco in the early 1980s. It is the church where Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe were said to have been married — at least so said my bartender friends back in the day — but as it turns out Joltin’ Joe did not tie the knot to Marilyn there, but posed for photographs on its steps after their civil ceremony. DiMaggio’s funeral was held in the church in 1999 and he was married to his first wife in the church in 1939.

I have never witnessed a Latin Mass before andsince the church conducts one at 11:45 am on the first Sunday of every month, I took the opportunity while it was available.

Now for the obligatory DaveDigression into me and the dead language of Latin. Rewind to September 1973, I am a fourth former (sophmore, 10th grader) at an all boys school founded on Episcopalian principles with arguably the best high school classics department in the United States thanks to the presence of the legendard Doc Baade and his disciples, William Poirot, Tom Burgess and Dudley Wright. I have to take a language but am scarred by an earlier attempt to learn French which failed because my pronunciation sucked and I could not roll my “r’s” to the satisfaction of a tyrannical asshole who embodied the old insult about “those who can, can and those who can’t, teach French.”

So I took Latin and I liked it.  The standard highschool Latin textbook (edited by Scudder, Baade, and Burgess) was literally written at Brooks and the Brooks method was very engaging, the classes were a mixture of novice and advanced students, and the teachers, particularly Tom Burgess, brought a huge amount of wit and intelligence to the subject. The bathroom humor of the Satyricon … the fact that Latin has two words for fart: crepitus and flautus. Digressions into Pompeiian toilet stall graffiti. The press-gang productions of Latin plays in the spring in which I poorly played the tricky slave Tranio in Plautus’ Mostellaria (The Little Ghost)…..

I was a diffident student. I saw no logic in a language with genders, but did appreciate the intellectual exercise of decoding the mean of a sentence by figuring out the declension and endings of the words and their modifiers. The big bonus was not being graded on accent. As Mister Burgess said, no one speaks it anymore so who knows what it is supposed to sound like?  All three of my children went on to great careers as Latin scholars which should stand them when when it comes time for the verbal portion of the SAT.

Anyway, that was a long way of saying I wanted to hear a Latin mass. I am not a student of Catholic history, but I know there was some grumbling among the faithful in the 1960s when the Vatican phased out the Latin Mass in favor of whatever local language or vernacular the parish conversed in. Latin was Catholicism for two millenia. It was the mystery, the barrier to entry, the opium for the masses. All that Da Vinci Code mystery and weirdness just demands Latin to work. Alas, along with Eisenhower and black and white television, it went away in the 60s.

The Service

The Salesian order administers the Sants of Peter and Paul Church.  I arrived right on time, climbed the stone steps, and entered the dark narthex where a priest handed me a red booklet with the liturgy and its English translation. I had to return the booklet at the end of the service, but it was a great aid in following along for the next sixty minutes.

The church is large and very ornate with a white marble church within a church behind the altar, an immense portrait of Christ in the curved dome above, Stations of the Cross, confessionals, little nooks with banks of votive candles, a Christmas creche, and a nice array of stained glass windows.  Christmas decorations festooned the columns, and the altar was decked with banks of poinsettas. The liturgy was amplified. The pews were one third full. There is a Chinese service at 10:15 which would have been interesting, but much more incomprehensible for me.

A small choir of six older men in street clothes crowded around the lectern. One explained the service and when we would be singing along with the Gregorian chants. The processional began and the priest and his attendants entered in their robes.

The congregation seemed to be a mixture of local parishioners and tourists. I was overdressed in my standard blue blazer uniform and sat towards the back of the starboard side of the nave.

The service was familiar to me thanks to Hollywood and the  repetition of the many catchphrases from the Latin Mass. The priest had an accent, Italian perhaps, so his quick reading of the service gave the Latin a very Italian singsong flavor, reminding me of the movie The Name of the Rose, when Ron Perlman as Salvatore speaks a very Latin-like hybrid language with an Italiano-lilt.  When it came time for the parish to sing or chant I found I was the only vocal person in my neck of the nave, getting back into the old Latin groove from 1976 when as Tranio I declaimed: “Quid tibi malum? Hic omnia, alia est?”

The singing was well done by the men’s choir who obviously have a love and a discipline for singing in Latin.  It was interesting to recite the Lord’s Prayer in Latin as well as the Credo.

I passed on communion, gave $5 in the collection basket, and before existing ducked into a side vestibule to light a candle for my late father, the first overtly religious thing I’ve done in a long time. I stepped outside, blinked in the sunlight, fired off a pair of photic sneezes, and looked down at the little park where I first kissed my wife.

Random Observations:

  • Scenes from Dirty Harry and the Ten Commandments were filmed at the church.
  • The church still has an Italian neighborhood feeling to it.
  • The bell that rang during the Eucharist when the priest was blessing the bread and wine sounded like an electric doorbell.
  • The bell that rang in the bell tower sounded very real.
  • I don’t know how to genuflect.
  • Kneeling benches are nice things.

Next week: I red-eye from Vegas (CES) to Boston, so next Sunday might see me draw a bye. I’ll have to see.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

4 thoughts on “Saints Peter and Paul, San Francisco – 52 Churches”

  1. Love this series. I think you need to parlay it into a tour of churches abroad and why stop at 52? (Wallace-sonian aside: “Parlay” pronounced like the French “parler” from the Latin “par” and a useful word in Vegas.)

    Bought Graham “Good Without God” (by Greg Epstein, Harvard’s humanist chaplain) for Christmas in keeping with buying my kids books I want to read myself.

  2. Darn!!!! I was hoping the Catholic Church would be Christ the King in Mashpee.

    I think Latin is the cycling of Academia -mastering either is highly time consuming but accessible to most. With Latin you have gobs of memorization and with cycling you have heaps of miles. I will give you the Latin root of gobs and heaps later.

    1. Marta,
      I have like 43 churches to go, so trust me, Christ the King is happening, just later in the “cycle.” I have a long boring winter and spring’s worth of churches, temples, mosques and shrines to work through! Thaw out yet?

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