St. Mary’s in the News

Read a story about our parish today, as we celebrate our 125th Anniversary

Article that appeared on the website
Story by Amanda Damelio June 24, 2016 10:06 AM


If you’ve ever wandered down to the corner of Steiner and Union streets, you’ve likely stumbled upon The Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin. Evoking the more rural early 19th century years of Cow Hollow neighborhood, the rustic, wooden-shingled church stands on the west end of the Union Street shopping area.

It is difficult not to be enticed by the stunning outdoor fresco along the church’s original lych-gate and hedge. Depicting the five high points of the virgin’s life — the annunciation, the visitation, the nativity, the presentation of the temple and Mary at the foot of the cross — the 405-by-9-foot mural decorating the courtyard of the church was not only a gift to the people of St. Mary’s, but to the city of San Francisco.

Artist Lucienne Bloch believed, like her mentor Diego Rivera, that art should be for the public, and murals represented the highest of art forms.

“Murals constitute a primary source for understanding the city’s regional and social organization,” said Lauren McDonald, a St. Mary’s parishioner and head librarian of the Art Institute of San Francisco.

But if the mural was not enough to attract your attention to St. Mary’s, how about the 125th anniversary celebration signs decorating the property? As one of the oldest standing establishments in San Francisco, there is something quaint and unique about this parish.

“How lucky we are to have this glorious place,” Marta Johnson, a representative of the St. Mary’s legacy society, said. “This spiritual oasis… touches us all in different ways. For me it was a place of welcome and friendship, caring and solace at a time in my life when I needed it.”


Today, it seems like there are more Christian denominations in the city than Starbucks. With seemingly endless options, choosing the right church can be quite difficult.

Which brings the question, how do people decide which church is the best fit for them? What is it about a specific denomination, St. Mary’s for example, that keeps bringing people back?

While some may be born into faith or hear about it from word of mouth, others seek faith in new and innovative ways.

“From conversations I’ve had with members of St. Mary’s, I’ve found a variety of stories about how God has led people into this congregation,” James Shepherd, one of the newest members, said.

After recently moving to the Bay Area from Georgia, Shepherd yearned to rediscover his faith in a church where he could be more active.

Shepherd looked to Yelp for answers.

“Actually, Saint Mary’s was the number two church in Cow Hollow on Yelp,” he said.

Initially, Shepherd planned to give both of the top two churches listed a chance since they were both equal distance from his home. After his first visit to St. Mary’s, he knew that he needn’t look elsewhere.

“As soon as I walked into the courtyard for the first time and saw children running around the legs of adults of all ages, I knew Yelp was right,” he said. “Like my beloved church back home, I had found a Christian community that served people throughout their spiritual lives.”


St. Mary’s has adapted to meet the needs of the community since 1891.

In the Episcopal church, a rector is a cleric in charge of a parish. St. Mary’s first rector, William Bolton, established it as a “high church” Anglo-Catholic parish, where worship services are characterized by liturgical readings and ornate rituals.

In an article published in 1891, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “the ceremonials will be exceedingly elaborate of the most ritualistic order ever seen in California.”


While St. Mary’s is now celebrating its 125th anniversary, according to communications director Sandra Gary, the parish “has always had its ups and downs.”

At around 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906, the infamous 7.8 magnitude San Francisco earthquake struck the coast of Northern California. Fires broke out in the city.

The earthquake caused soil liquefaction, decreasing the ability of the soil to support building foundations. Like a holy beacon of hope, St. Mary’s stood tall.

The parish struggled to survive two decades of failed leadership and, along with the flourishing social scene in the neighborhood, membership began to dwindle.

It was not until the early 1920s, when a new deed lifting the previous restrictions for “high church” ceremonies only was issued, that the rebound began.

With a change in style of worship to “broad church,” St. Mary’s began to attract newcomers from a variety of locations. Today, the parish houses over 500 families.


According to Gary, St. Mary’s is known for having the largest Sunday school — with over 150 children steadily enrolled — of any Episcopal church in the city.

Children are also encouraged to join the church’s annual mission trip, which involves a short stay in a community in need. This year’s trip is to Kenya, where participants will teach about American culture.

Through all of its ebbs and flows, Gary says one constant remains.

“Wherever you are in your journey of faith, there is a place for you in the Episcopalian church,” she said.