Landmark St. Ignatius Church needs repairs, and it’s not going to be cheap

Preservation of historic San Francisco beacon still $4 million short

Al Saracevic

Examiner staff writer

You need to climb 170 steps up a very narrow spiral staircase to reach the top of the eastern spire of St. Ignatius Church, San Francisco’s “Beacon on the Hill.” Trust me. I did it the other day.

After my legs stopped burning, my vertigo lessened and my lungs ceased their protest, I stood there in the bell tower and looked out upon our great city. I saw the heavens above. The Salesforce Tower below. And everything in between. It’s the kind of view you don’t forget.

Unfortunately, I also saw water damage on the roof, chipped masonry and rusty cladding. That’s the kind of thing Father Greg Bonfiglio can’t forget. In fact, the spiritual leader of St. Ignatius Parish thinks about it all the time.

Jesuit priest Father Greg Bonfiglio has been worried about damage to St. Ignatius Church, for six years. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Jesuit priest Father Greg Bonfiglio has been worried about damage to St. Ignatius Church, for six years. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

That’s because he’s in the middle of a $25 million fundraising campaign to renovate the outside of the church, hoping to preserve its amazing interior. In recent years, water leaks have damaged some of the beautiful frescoes that line the walls. Luckily, it was fixable. But next time, we might not be so lucky. And there are always earthquakes to think about, too.

So the popular priest reached out to his flock, and they responded. But he still has miles to go before reaching his goal.

While the main sanctuary of St. Ignatius Church looks pristine, water leaks have damaged some of the frescoes that line the wall. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

While the main sanctuary of St. Ignatius Church looks pristine, water leaks have damaged some of the frescoes that line the wall. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

“What we’re doing with this project is we’re taking care of the envelope to preserve the inside,” said Bonfiglio, as we strolled through the church’s Baroque-Renaissance interior. “Six years ago, somebody from the University (of San Francisco) came over to my office and said, ‘Father, you have to take a look at this,’” he said. “We went up to the spire and he showed me the decay that remains to this day. That started a series of studies for us.”

Bonfiglio brought in an architectural firm to assess the damage and come up with a plan. It’s the same company that restored the crack in the Washington Monument, he told me. But before they could get to work, they had to find the money, an effort that started in August 2020.

That’s still a work in progress, but Bonfiglio has managed to raise $21 million. Leaving four more to go.

Water damage is evident on the roof of one of the spires of St. Ignatius Church. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Water damage is evident on the roof of one of the spires of St. Ignatius Church. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

So far, Carol and Dixon Doll, the St. Ignatius fundraising co-chairs, alongside Examiner Publisher Clint Reilly and his wife, Janet, and Gerry and Jim Sangiacomo, provided the anchor contributions, according to campaign coordinator Patrick Kennedy. However, all parties involved asked the parish not to disclose the amount of their gifts. If you’re interested in kicking in, go to stignatiussf.org/pledge.

Now, I’m no theologian, but I do know the Jesuits played a key role in San Francisco history. They arrived in 1849 as missionaries, hoping to serve a need in our growing boomtown. They opened St. Ignatius in 1914, a symbol of San Francisco’s rebirth after the 1906 quake. Bonfiglio told me the parish held outdoor sermons during the Spanish flu of 1918-19, providing a community gathering place during the church’s first pandemic. And St. Ignatius served a similar purpose during COVID, going online and attracting new parishioners from around the world.

“We had people send in their selfies and photos, and we taped them to the pews,” said Bonfiglio. “And even today, when we’re back in our parish, and the people who joined us online are back in their parishes, we’re still getting 200 to 250 people joining us online every Sunday.”

I asked Bonfiglio how he felt about the state of religion in an increasingly secular and polarized world.

“People talk about the increasing secularism in our society today, but God is still active in people’s lives. Our job is to help people notice where that is. We Jesuits do that in a way that’s unique and compelling for people,” he said. “The Church is not immune from the divisions we are experiencing in society. Our voice is one of inclusivity. We try to keep the walls of the tent as wide as possible to welcome people in. Anyone who walks through these doors is welcome here.”

Water damage is evident in a stairwell at the church. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Water damage is evident in a stairwell at the church. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

It all speaks to the outsize impact St. Ignatius has had. Sitting high atop the hilltop, adjacent to USF, it’s a symbol of San Francisco that stands alongside the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, Grace Cathedral and the Painted Ladies of Alamo Square.

Let’s get behind this effort to preserve our history and help the beacon continue to shine. Who knows? We may get saved.

The Arena, a column from The Examiner’s Al Saracevic, explores San Francisco’s playing field, from politics and technology to sports and culture. Send your tips, quips and quotes to asaracevic@sfexaminer.com. Sign up for his weekly newsletter here. And follow him on Twitter @alsaracevic.

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