Saint Mary's College in Moraga has gotten a head start on its sesquicentennial birthday. The "Year of the Gael" started this year in September and will continue through next year.

Saint Mary's did not start as a four-year liberal arts college. It started as a boys school, grades 1 through 12. And its beginnings can be laid at the feet of one Joseph Sadoc Alemany.

Alemany, a Spanish-born Dominican, was the first archbishop of Northern California. He arrived in San Francisco in 1853 and found a lawless city made of tents and shacks. Vigilante committees had taken over the streets. People from all over the world had come to the state looking for gold.

In his Nov. 15, 1853, report to his superiors in France, Alemany described his situation.

"There are 55,000 Roman Catholics, 40,000 heretics, 100,000 infidels."

He went on to report that there were 24 Catholic churches plus three chapels operated by 24 priests and that only 13,000 of the faithful had been able to go to church on Easter Sunday and take communion.

Alemany's goal was to build a Catholic school system in California. He needed more priests, and Catholic education would be one way to get them.

He started a seminary at Mission Dolores, but it didn't work out. In 1855 he opened a grammar school in the basement of his cathedral (old St. Mary's). That also failed. Alemany needed a separate building.


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By 1860 he had enough money to buy a whole city block (now the site of the San Francisco Civic Auditorium bounded by Grove, Hayes, Larkin and Polk). Again there was failure. The neighborhood was too rough.

Time was passing. Alemany had been in the city by the bay for nine years. He still didn't have the beginnings of a school. It was then he remembered the land set aside for the cemetery. On Aug. 3, 1862, the cornerstone was laid on the site, on the east side of Mission Road just beyond Mission Dolores.

Saint Mary's College, offering education from grades 1 through 12, was ready for its first 60 students on July 6, 1863. Alemany found an Irish priest, Father John Harrington, to run the school.

The yearly fee was set at $150 a year for room, board and education. It was not enough. Alemany realized the archdiocese couldn't support the new school entirely out of its own coffers. What was needed was a religious order to assume the direction as well as the cost of the school.

Alemany wrote to the provincial of the Christian Brothers in New York. The provincial turned him down. San Francisco was too far. The Brothers had enough work to do in the East.

He went a step higher to the superior general of the Brothers in Belgium. Again it was a no.

In 1867 Alemany went to Rome and put his plea before Pope Pius IX. On Aug. 10, 1868, nine Christian Brothers arrived in San Francisco. The next day the Brothers were handed the keys to the school and classes began under the Christian Brothers two days later.

Days Gone By appears on Sundays. Contact Nilda Rego at nildarego@comcast.net.