History of Holy Angels Church
Peter Dunks of Colma donated the land for the church to Archbishop Alemany, the first Archbishop of San Francisco, on November 9, 1867. In fact, we still have the remainder of a larger Dunks Street named after him. It’s on the east side of the 76 gas station off San Pedro Road. The original church was named St. Anne Church in honor of Anne Dunks, the daughter of Mr. & Mrs. Dunks.
The exact date of erection is unknown. Generally it is understood that the edifice was raised about 1868 under the supervision of Father Denis Dempsey, then pastor of Saint Matthew Church in San Mateo from 1863-1881. Priests came from San Mateo and later from San Francisco riding on horseback until the advent of the railroad in the 1970s. One such priest, the Reverend James Cooper, was actually known as “the horseback priest” for having to spend so much time in the saddle to complete his rounds. It took him four days for the round trip.
From 1884, during the pastorship of Reverend Callaghan in San Mateo, Reverend James Cooper, his assistant came to Colma to say Mass, instruct the children, visiting the families, etc. He was charged with the care of the Catholics between Ocean View and San Mateo.
The 1906 earthquake did no appreciable damage to St. Anne. The tower was added in 1892-1893. Lightning knocked down the cross. The church bell, a gift of the Biggio family, is now located outside in the courtyard by the entrance to the chapel. The following was noted: “The only church to have and use a bell, Holy Angels, lies in a perfect valley setting where conformation of the surrounding land gives its tone a resonance that carries its dulcet pealing through the historic valleys of Colma”.
From 1899-1914, St. Anne was a Mission of St. Michael in the Ocean View district were Father Cooper had been made a pastor. The name of the church was changed in 1914, when the mission received the status of a parish.
The first pastor was Reverend Michael Clifford, who added two small wings. No other alterations were made until 1952. Father Clifford rented a cottage nearby. In March 1915, the rectory was erected; the cost was $6,700. The local architect was John Foley. There was a somewhat subterranean hall where catechism was taught, meetings and dinner dances were held.
For many years, the Catholics from the coast side had to come to Holy Angels for Mass and the sacraments. During Father Sorasio’s pastorship with the generosity of Mr. James Troglia from Rockaway Beach, Father was able to set up a mission in a house across the street from Fassler Blvd. to the entrance of the street leading to the shopping area near Nick’s Restaurant. Father would say Mass here, drive to Rockaway Beach, hear confession, celebrate a Mass, and return to Holy Angels.
By 1952, it was obvious that the church was too small for our increasing population including Broadmoor, Sterling Park, Sherman, and Callan Heights and other new developments. A decision had to be made—a new church building or a parish school. During Father Sorasio’s pastorship, a preliminary drawing of a church for 500 people was made. At that time, it was a grandiose idea. Father displayed the drawing in the vestibule; it had a statue of the Blessed Mother over the front door.
Before the new project got underway in 1952, under the pastorship of Reverend Morrissey, there was talk of moving the location of Holy Angels to Sullivan Ave., south of the main post office. Such a move was not possible, for the property could not be sold; it would be returned to the heirs of Mr. & Mrs. Dunks. A huge campaign got underway with 350 workers and the all-out school fund drive begun on July 13, 1952. The debt would be $350,000 to build a parish school and enlarge the church. Actually a few years earlier there was a brief parish campaign that brought in $7,000. The chairman of the drive was Mr. Thomas Callan, supervisor of San Mateo County, and member of the Jefferson Union High School Board. Peter J. Markovich, J.H. Berning, and David Arata assisted him. It began with a dinner in the Jefferson High School cafeteria; parishioners were to be in their home from 6:00 to 10:00 p.m. so that two workers could make the visit. Church bells would ring for the beginning and end of the drive that night. Some parishioners, who knew they couldn’t be home, phoned the rectory to make their pledge ahead of time. It was suggested that a pledge of $200 be made, to be paid in a two-year period. This really was a major step for Holy Angels, the first major alteration in 87 years. During this period Westlake was growing and a new parish could be built there. On Sunday, July 6, 1952, Father Morrissey read a letter from the pulpit.
And so we enlarged that church, now our hall. Actually our church was only between these posts and later the two wings. The new altar is where the kitchen is now and the sacristy was in the back. The school with eight grades and a library and office and the convent were built at this time. Around 1960 there was a fire in the church. It started in the sacristy by children playing with the candles. There used to be a rack with votive candles on either side of the altar. Father Farrell, who was in the rectory, discovered the fire and sounded the alarm for the Colma Volunteer Fire Department, The entire sacristy burned out and all vestments and linens and a wall behind the altar were lost. A crucifix very special to Father Farrell was completely melted.
In 1961, the need for a bigger church was critical. On February 3, 1961, a report was submitted by, architects, Angus McSwenney and John Michael Lee, so that plans for building our beautiful church could begin. There was a small school building between the old rectory and New Geneva Bakery that was torn down. Another campaign was put in motion with a goal of $300,000. From the 1952 construction there remained a debt of $128,000. The cost of the new church would be $500,000. The general chairman was John A. Putkey with Dr. Robert Terrry, the division chairman. This campaign had 132 men working. The ground breaking was June 1962 and the dedication of our new church and rectory was on September 23, 1962. A telegram was sent by Archbishop Vagnozzi, Apostolic delegate to Most Reverend Joseph McGucken. It read as follows: “Am pleased to inform Holy Father, Pope John XXIII, graciously imparts paternal apostolic blessing Reverend Thomas Farrell, priests, religious, laity participating in dedication of new Holy Angels Church, Colma, on September 23.”
Father Farrell blessed the Baldwin Three Manual Organ on December 2, 1962 followed by an organ recital by Robert Read. It had been encouraged that parishioners could have memorials of the main altar, side altars, sacristy, baptistery (that originally was a separate building, but now the baptismal font has been moved to the sanctuary), holy water fonts, confessionals, statues, stained glass windows and pews. Metal plaques, bearing the name of the person of the honored and that of the donor will be appropriately placed. This was not followed except for the donors of the statue of the Sacred Heart.
Our new church has simple beauty characteristic of the Mission architecture of early California. Its mosaic murals, stained glass windows and carved religious figures harmonize the old and the new. The seating capacity is 1140. The old church building became our present parish hall. It was opened in November 1962 as “Carnival Americana”, the parish Fall Festival from November 8 to November 11.
Since the establishment of Holy Angels we have experienced the loss of active parishioners, for new parishes have been formed on our boundary—Our Lady of Mercy in 1954, Mater Dolorosa in 1961, and St. Andrew in 1968.
Since the formation of our parish in 1914, we have had sixteen pastors. Until 1936, most pastors served from one to five years with the exception of Father Patrick Heslin (58 years old) who was here a very short time. On the evening of August 2, 1921, a man shielding his face with the collar of a heavy overcoat and wearing goggles came to the rectory stating that father was needed for a sick call in Salada Beach. Father Heslin dressed in official clerical garb left in a touring car driven by the caller. The housekeeper, Maria Wendell, and Mary Bianchi, who lived across the street, heard the commotion. Father’s body was found eight days later. William A. Hightower helped in the rescue. He was accused of the crime and spent over 43 years in San Quentin. He was released from prison on May 20, 1962, at age 86.
The last four pastors have served from 8 to 22 years. Father Farrell’s pastorship was from 1952-1976. Just a few months before his death he became a Monsignor, but he refused to buy the new vestments. The Marian Council #3773 of the Knights of Columbus did buy them so our beloved pastor was buried wearing them. A memorial endowment fund has been established in his honor.
Holy Angels is a rich parish because of its diversity. From its humble beginning with German, Irish, and Italian immigrants to the present population of parishioners from Mexico, Central and South America, from the Philippines, Fiji Islands, and other areas of the Pacific Rim, we remain a friendly group of people who continue to respect and learn from each other.
An invitation is extended to you to visit our beautiful church. The main doors are closed except for Masses, weddings, funerals, Quinceańeras, etc., but the door to the chapel is open for about twelve hours a day. The façade of the church has angels in honor of the name of the church. Below there are the following: St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, and St. John. We like you to see our marble altar, with it huge mosaic by John D. Rosen behind it with Jesus on the cross and Mary in red standing. Mary Magdalene in blue is kneeling, and John the Evangelist is dressed in gold. There is a smaller altar in front of the marble altar. Since Vatican II in the 1960s, the priest celebrates Mass facing the congregation and the vernacular, not Latin, is used. On either side of the altar are carved statues of St. Joseph and the Blessed Mother. A smaller statue of the Infant Jesus of Prague is incased. The fourteen Stations of the Cross in mosaic, seven on each side, line the nave of the church. Above them are stained glass windows, some examples:
Holy Angel, Witness of All My Actions, purify me.
Holy Angel, My Counselor, inspire me.
Holy Angel, My Helper, sustain me.
Holy Angel, My Defender, protect me.
Over the choir loft is a stained glass window “This is none other than the House of God”. As you walk through the chapel you will notice the eight stained glass windows of the Beatitudes and before entering the nave, the statue of the Sacred Heart. Behind it are the two stained glass windows of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. On the opposite side is the cry room. It was originally intended to be the Blessed Mother Chapel. There are stars hanging from the tall ceiling as our light fixtures. Finally, our bells are ringing again.
Bianca Caserza is the author of this history of our church