By Steven M. Avella
I grew up in Sacramento during the 1950s and 1960s. The twin poles of my life were the Catholic Church and the Sacramento Bee. I was a newsboy for the latter for five years (Route #3491—suburban Orangevale). I later became a Catholic priest and a professional historian. I have been teaching in the Midwest (Marquette University) for nearly 30 years. In the past dozen years, I have turned my scholarly interests back to my home region (the West) and especially the history of my hometown of Sacramento.
The city has an impressive array of historical materials located at the Center for Sacramento History. The California Room of the State Library and the Sacramento Room of the Sacramento city library are a researcher’s delight. Using these, and other sources I have produced several small popular books about Sacramento history, a major biography of Charles K. McClatchy, the long-time editor of the Sacramento Bee (1881-1936), and a book on the relationship of the Catholic Church to the history of Sacramento.
Sacramento and the Catholic Church was the fruit of a great deal of study and reflection. It provided me an opportunity to study the city from the perspective of a significant social and cultural institution in its midst. Sacramento is not a “Catholic city” in the way Salt Lake City is a Mormon city. Catholics were a minority in Sacramento, outnumbered by the collective forces of Protestants and the unaffiliated. However, the Catholic Church was one of the most visible and active church communities in the city. It not only occupied important urban space, but its wide institutional outreach responded to needs for social provision (orphanages, day care, health care) and established alternative schools. Sacramento’s ethnic communities were welcomed by Catholic leaders who allowed them to form ethnic parishes. Since 1855, Sacramento has been the state capital. Since 1881 it has also been the capital of a vast territory of Catholic outposts, stretching north to the Oregon border and, at one time, to the middle of Nevada. The local Catholic bishop has always been a figure of prominence. One does not have to be a Catholic to acknowledge the influence of the Church in local affairs.
Sacramento, which claimed the Swiss adventurer Johan Sutter as its putative founder, was really one of Gunther Barth’s “Instant Cities.” It was born in the heat of the gold rush by merchants anxious to “mine the miners.” They literally set up shop on an environmentally precarious site along the Sacramento River. Lashed by floods and fire, and the collapse of gold fever, the city has over its existence reorganized and repurposed itself to survive another day. It built higher and higher levees, raised its streets, and insisted that buildings in its commercial district be constructed of brick. It took maximum advantage of its selection as the capital city and later as the terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad, which brought jobs and wages from the railroad repair yards located there. Although it grew slowly, the city matured, pushing out from its origins along the river bank and moving north and east. In the 1870s, a magnificent new capitol building was erected east of the river and the city grew around it. Other enterprises anchored the city’s growth: the expansion of state government, the location of military installations, and the growth of high tech.
As historian Marc Eifler has noted, a cadre of civic middlemen emerged who dedicated themselves to the cause of Sacramento’s stability and prosperity. These city fathers, whose ranks were replenished over the years, were determined that Sacramento should overcome fire, flood, and economic uncertainty. Sacramento’s desire to survive was summed up in the city motto: Urbs Indomita, Indomitable City. When other instant cities disappeared or were reduced to tourist sites, Sacramento continued to improve, expand its territory, and provide the urban amenities necessary for a “respectable city”: schools, churches, and cultural venues. The Catholic Church got a firm start in Sacramento’s earliest years and grew with the city, becoming an active partner in the city’s continual growth.
The history of the Catholic Church in Sacramento reflects in many ways the role of religion in Western cities. As historians like Ferenc Szasz and others have noted, religious bodies (with the exception of Mormons) were never very robust in the communities of the American West. Primacy was given to commerce and civic advancement rather than religion. Religious groups had a hard time settling in the free-wheeling and transitory communities born in heat of mining rushes. Ministers of all traditions who came to preach to the miners found themselves side-lined and could not count on stable congregations or even erect permanent quarters. Sacramento was this way until the gold fever subsided and the city decided to “settle down” and become a “respectable” community. The Catholic Church was from the beginning part of this urban consensus.
With land donated by California’s first governor, Peter Burnett, a Catholic church was created in 1850 and a stable Catholic presence was assured by interested laymen like local doctor Gregory Phelan (a pillar in the city’s early medical establishment). That church, established near the riverfront, was built and re-built several times, each time stronger and more durable. Eventually this edifice was bypassed as the city moved east from the Sacramento River. In 1881, Sacramento was made the center of a new Catholic jurisdiction (a diocese). Its first bishop, Patrick Manogue, an old hard-rock miner turned church builder, seized the opportunity to put the Catholic community in line with the forces of urban development. He purchased land just one block north of the elegant state capitol building and erected the magnificent Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, a Renaissance gem whose spires dominated the city skyscape for many years. The cathedral, to this day a stunning architectural counter-point to the classical capitol building, was always perceived as an asset to the “greater glory” of Sacramento. Referred to simply as “the Cathedral” even by non-Catholics, a medley of citizens feted and toasted Bishop Manogue. Non-Catholics gave generously to the building and works of art were donated by people of other denominations or even of no faith at all. Across the street from the new Cathedral, a thriving boy’s school run by the Christian Brothers trained young men for professional careers.
Catholic investments in urban space continued to advance wider civic goals. In the late 19th century, when California’s mission revival was underway, the city rehabilitated the old Fort Sutter as a sign of its linkage with a heroic past. Between 1908-1910, German Franciscan friars rebuilt their St. Francis Church to be a replica of Mission Santa Barbara. Since the church was adjacent to the restored fort, city boosters took pictures of these buildings together, suggesting that they were contemporaries. Those who saw the pictures and read advertising copy could be assured that Sacramento had all the amenities that made California desirable to potential eastern and Midwestern migrants: a good climate, citrus fruit, robust schools, beautiful public buildings, and a link to California’s romantic past.
The Sisters of Mercy and the Franciscan Sisters of Penance and Charity created popular schools. St. Joseph’s Academy (today a parking lot) was a girl’s school that welcomed grade-schoolers through high school and beyond. A Normal school program at St. Joseph’s provided teachers for city schools. The Sisters of Mercy also opened a hospital that provided health care to Sacramentans (known only as the Sister’s Hospital). In the 1920s it moved to a more spacious location where it still is today. The Franciscan Sisters taught in St. Stephen’s School in Sacramento’s ethnically diverse West End and also opened a “Day Home” to offer child care for Sacramento women who did seasonal work in the city’s thriving canneries.
Railroad, manufacturing, and canning work attracted scores of European and Mexican immigrants to Sacramento. This mixture of various nationalities on the city’s West End was richly described by writer Ernesto Galarza in his autobiography Barrio Boy. In this part of town, Catholic churches helped provide for immigrant groups by offering them the shelter of their own churches and a thriving Catholic school. Out of St. Stephen’s Church on the West End, repurposed out of an old carriage house, emerged separate parishes and ministries for the city’s Portuguese, Italians, Mexicans, and Japanese. These churches offered services in native tongues and also provided venues for an array of social and cultural activities. Church festivals, parades, musicales, and fund-raisers helped create bonds of unity and social peace for the community.
Later, when the city’s Latino population soared in the 20th century, Catholic leaders helped gather and organize the growing community. This work was done first through the ministry of the Cathedral parish, one of whose priests, Stephen Keating, gathered Mexican children for instruction and sacraments. Later, those efforts led to the purchase of a Mexican Chapel (Our Lady of Guadalupe) followed by the construction of a new Mexican national parish, also named Our Lady of Guadalupe. While Latinos had a diverse array of community-building organizations, Guadalupe provided an important center for worship, cultural expression, and public devotion. To it came Cesar Chavez after his famous march from Delano on Easter 1966.
The recent movie Lady Bird, set in Sacramento, highlighted some of the familiar scenes of the city: the Tower Bridge, the Tower Theater, and the “Fab 40s” neighborhood. It also included vignettes of the Catholic presence in the community and the church’s impact on the film’s characters. The portrayal of the church was in many ways typical of the role and influence of this religious body in California’s capital—present but not dominant and influential in ways not easy to discern.
Steven Avella, was born in Chicago, 1951; grew up in Sacramento; began studies for the Catholic priesthood in 1965; ordained in 1979. MA/Ph.D, University of Notre Dame (1985); Professor of History at Marquette University (1991-present). Author of popular history of Sacramento (Sacramento Indomitable City, 2003, Arcadia); biography of Charles K. McClatchy (Charles K McClatchy and the Golden Age of American Journalism, 2016, University of Missouri Press). Teaches courses in the American West, American Religious History, 20th century America..
 Marc Eifler, Gold Rush Capitalists: Greed and Growth in Sacramento (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002).
 Ferenc Szasz, and Margaret Connell Szasz, “Religion and Spirituality,” in Oxford History of the American West, Clyde A, Milner II, Carol O’Connor, and Martha A Sandweiss, eds., 359-91, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994)
 Ernesto Galarza, Barrio Boy (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991).
Featured image (at top): The Tower Bridge is a vertical lift bridge across the Sacramento River, linking West Sacramento in Yolo County to the west, with the capital of California, Sacramento, in Sacramento County to the east, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
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