A Look into the St. Ignatius Parish and its Renovations

St. Ignatius came to the Hilltop in 1914, after the 1906 “Ham and Eggs” Hayes Valley
Fire destroyed the previous location of the church. Photo by Samantha Avila Griffin/SF Foghorn.

Parishioners filled the pews of St. Ignatius Church at 10 a.m. on a Sunday last fall. Visitors placed pies on a table by the entrance marked “Thanksgiving pie drive,” under the church’s vaulted ceiling, which is adorned with a painting of St. Ignatius. The Rev. Father Greg Bonfiglio, S.J. strolled the pews welcoming parishioners as they entered. 

While their Catholic faith brings people to mass, what keeps them coming back to St. Ignatius are the connections between parishioners, staff, religious professionals and the community they serve. St. Ignatius sustains the community through outreach initiatives and a welcoming and nuanced service.

“What drew us was the quality of the homilies, and the thoughts and the ideas of the parish,” said church volunteer Terry Potente, who joined the St. Ignatius parish 12 years ago. “The community is very welcoming and friendly.”

While some students’ primary interactions with the church are limited to the beginning and end of their time on campus, students are welcome to, and do, attend the church services.

Sarah McKinley is a USF graduate student whose family joined the St. Ignatius Parish when she was in middle school, after her family relocated to the Bay Area from Minnesota. “Moving to San Francisco was a huge change for me and my family,” she said. “Everything was so new and different, and sometimes, honestly, it felt a little overwhelming. But having a church home like St. Ignatius was a calming presence in the midst of all that change.” 

McKinley said that St. Ignatius Parish played a part in her decision to attend graduate school at USF. “The church had a huge influence,” she said. “The sense of community and shared values I found here made USF an attractive choice. It felt like a continuation of the support and spirit I experienced every week at mass.”

“When I first got to USF, I figured church and school would be separate things in my life, but they’ve actually overlapped a lot,” she said. McKinley appreciates being able to drop in at St. Ignatius Church. “It’s kind of like my go-to spot when everything on campus gets too much. If I’m ever stressed or just need a quiet moment, I can always pop over to the church, eat lunch, sit down for a bit, and just chill out.”

She said she sees cohesion between her studies and her faith. “I’ve found that what I learn and do at church often links up with my classes. Like, the whole thing about caring for others, fighting for what’s right, and being ethical – these are things I hear about in church, and then I find myself discussing them in my classes, especially in subjects like ethics or even some of my business courses. It’s pretty cool when stuff from a sermon at church comes up in class discussions. It makes everything I’m learning feel more connected, like my faith and my studies are part of the same journey.”

The parish operates independently from the university, but they have a working relationship. St. Ignatius Parish shares its building with the USF, and the church serves as the chapel for the University. Angélica Quiñónez, director of University Ministry, said, “We view St. Ignatius Church as one of our most valuable partners.” 

Being so valuable to USF’s campus, construction on the church has been noticeable since it began in early May 2023, as previously reported by the Foghorn. According to Bonfiglio, “Most everything is going to wrap up by the end of June [2024].” The only thing expected to extend beyond June is the implementation of a fire suppression system, “but visually everything that we’ve set out to do will be done by June,” Bonfiglio confirmed.

As of the update posted on Apr. 15 to the USF’s facilities website, it’s projected that the scaffolding removal will continue through May 9. “If it’s not all going to be down, [the] majority of it will be, and those who are graduating will be able to take pictures without scaffolding in the background,” Bonfiglio said. 

Beyond USF, the church has historically been a pillar of San Francisco. “The building was used in the day as a navigation point for ships coming to the Golden Gate,” said Bonfiglio. “It was the highest building in the city so you could see it from outside the Golden Gate even before the bridge.” Nicknamed the “Beacon on the Hill,” it has continued to serve as a focal point of San Francisco’s skyline. Before existing in three other sites since the Jesuits first established it in 1855, St. Ignatius Church settled at its “forever home” on the Hilltop in 1914.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic brought new challenges to the church. The church’s home of San Francisco was one of the first to issue a citywide lockdown —from Mar. 17, 2020, to Jan. 25, 2021, Mayor London Breed ordered a lockdown on congregate gatherings. However, San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone was very vocal about his opposition to mandated church closures and resisted city public health ordinances.

Before the city’s shelter-in-place order went into effect, Bonfiglio canceled mass in hopes of protecting his congregation from the virus. However, when he wrote a letter to Cordileone, requesting permission to cancel mass on Sunday, Mar. 15, 2020, the archbishop denied his request. 

“I don’t think that keeps us safe,” said Bonfiglio. “So I sent an email to parishioners, and I’m clear we are having mass at 10:00 a.m. on Sunday, but please do not come, and so people didn’t.” Instead, parishioners were invited to join in on Zoom for mass. 

The church, which hosts USF’s May and December graduations as well as several music events, was already equipped with cameras and microphones. Patrick Steacy, media producer for USF, produced a live-stream of that Sunday’s service. 

Easter of 2020 fell about a month into the lockdown. “On Holy Thursday [2020] we were about to start mass and Father Greg was in tears because this church was so depressing,” said Don Crean, St. Ignatius’ Director of Sacramental Preparation. “We were walking up the aisles and there were all these empty pews.” 

Bonfiglio asked parishioners to send in photos of themselves to be taped to the empty pews. At the peak of the COVID-19 lockdown, the livestream attracted approximately 2,000 participants, more than double what the church could hold in person. There is still a livestream service for those who cannot physically make it to mass. 

Despite offering one of the best available church livestreams and attracting YouTube viewers from far out of state, St. Ignatius was hurting during the shutdown.  Potente and her husband EJ were among those tuning in for virtual Mass. “It’s like eating winter tomatoes,” she said. “They serve the purpose, but summer tomatoes are a whole different experience.”

Getting people to return to in-person Mass is essential. “We are fed by the sense of community that we share with one another, as we come to know one another, as the body of Christ, and ourselves,” said Crean. Virtual Mass meant not being able to participate in Communion which is a sacred ritual in the Roman Catholic Church. Catholics consume communion wine and bread, known as the Eucharist, to represent the body and blood of Jesus Christ. “We are fed by that which inspires us: in the Mass, and in the liturgy, whether it be the music, or the homilies, or the preaching,” Crean said. “We are fed by the sense of community; we are fed by being able to learn about our faith.” 

Parishioners extend community by leading food, clothing and toiletry drives for donations for shelters in San Francisco.

The congregation also hosts a “Home for Dinner” community meal following the 10 a.m. mass a few times a year. Hanging in a corner of Bonfiglio’s office is a spaghetti-stained apron, which he sports at these meals, inspired by his grandmother. “This is what my grandmother felt when she would have her family around her dinner table every Sunday,” he said. “I issued my grandmother’s warm obligation…I want everybody home for dinner.” 

The tradition recommenced when the pandemic restrictions were lifted. The latest “Home for Dinner” was on May 19 at 10 a.m. 

Bonfiglio said of the parishioners’ mission, “We’re reminding them of God’s love, for them, for all of us, and we’re reminded that God calls us, and God calls us in a particular way, to love, to love ourselves, to love the world around us.”

For more information regarding St. Ignatius’ mass schedule, check their website.

Phebe Bridges and Niki Sedaghat contributed to the reporting of this story. 

Editor’s Note: On May 23, an expanded version of this article was released online. 

Editor-in-Chief: Megan Robertson, Chief Copy Editor: Sophia Siegel, Managing Editor: Jordan Premmer, News Editor: Niki Sedaghat

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