How a Band of Believers Lost Their Church and Found Their Faith
Julian Guthrie wrote a three-part series called "The Lost Parish," for the San Francisco Chronicle in 2007. The series, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, brought to life the decade-long struggle by a group of Catholics to save their church, St. Brigid. It was the backbone for Ms. Guthrie's new book, The Grace of Everyday Saints: How a Band of Believers Lost Their Church and Found Their Faith.
Commonwealth Club of California
Finding Faith and Spirituality in the 21st Century
Julian Guthrie, author of "The Grace of Everyday Saints"
The San Jose Mercury News review of August 30th"In 1993, the Catholic Archdiocese suddenly and without warning ordered St. Brigid Church, one of San Francisco's architectural treasures, to close its doors. The order came as a surprise to its loyal congregation, and a group quickly came together to try to save the 130-year-old church. What followed was a dramatic David-and-Goliath tale, as the resistors -- led by a lawyer, a priest and a reformed Catholic -- took on the Vatican and uncovered some devastating truths. Guthrie, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter, covers the story in riveting detail."
O Magazine, September"An inspiring true story set in the 1990s tells how a Catholic congregation in San Francisco, including its anti-Establishment priest, worked together to save their church—from the Church."
As reviewed by the New York Journal of BooksJulian Guthrie crafts her narrative as if it were a novel. She follows three main protagonists, among a cast of dogged parishioners who combined to challenge the Archdiocese, the Vatican, and state and city boards when bureaucratic as well as hierarchical opposition to this grassroots movement to "Save St. Brigid" stiffened.
With a wide variety of parishioners from Burma, China, the Philippines, and Latin America added to the Irish and Italian families historically resident in the parish, the cosmopolitan makeup of San Francisco itself serves as a microcosm for the challenges facing the Church in the City. Historic St. Brigid’s—with its stained glass by famed Irish artist Harry Clarke and its sculptures by renowned craftsman Seamus Murphy—stands as a long-lived, elegant sanctuary.
Ultimately, the parish meets its fate. The moral Ms. Guthrie provides can be summed up in her subtitle: How a Band of Believers Lost Their Church and Found Their Faith. It appears that those who choose to remain or become Catholic will encounter, whether or not they face the closing of their own parish, a similar tension between basic human values of decency and fidelity and those values proclaimed by concentration of clerical wealth, dogmatic certainty, and institutional privilege.
- Reviewer John L. Murphy coordinates the Humanities sequence at DeVry University in Long Beach, CA. He researches medieval and modern literary, musical, religious, and popular culture
A July 15th review of The Grace of Everyday Saints, by Kirkus ReviewsA dramatic David vs. Goliath account of a church under siege by its own power structure. San Francisco Chronicle journalist Guthrie begins with the unexpected 1994 closure of St. Brigid Catholic Church, a beautiful landmark built more than a century ago by Irish immigrants in one of San Francisco’s busiest areas. The closure did not make sense—the magnificent Romanesque building had survived earthquakes, fire and both World Wars, and boasted 21 active parish groups and nearly three-quarters of a million dollars in funds—but the Catholic leadership ordered it closed nonetheless. Along came the faithful—people like Lily Wong, a blind woman who knew the exact number of steps it took to get from her house to St. Brigid’s—and their vigilant struggle to have the church reopened. Guthrie’s exhaustive research and interviews with more than 75 parishioners delve below the surface, and allow her to paint a striking portrait of their struggle and strength. Led by unlikely saints such as Father O, an offbeat priest who waved a white towel while urging parishioners to not “throw in the towel,” they kept a candle burning and petitioned for a decade to save their beloved St. Brigid. The odds seemed insurmountable and faith-shaking. Some of the people, like Carmen Esteva, originally held church officials’ decisions in godlike reverence; she later became the group’s spiritual leader. Through myriad twists and turns, Guthrie’s smoothly written narrative uncovers powerful church secrets—and a pillar of community faith. Engaging proof that ordinary people can do extraordinary things.
As reviewed by Publisher's WeeklyAward-winning San Francisco Chronicle reporter Julian Guthrie tells the story of a small group of everyday Catholics who dared—for more than a decade—to challenge the official Roman Catholic hierarchy’s decision to close their historic parish church, St. Brigid in San Francisco. The diocese insisted the closure was a response to the expense of repairs to an aging church and declining membership. But as parishioners dug deeper, they gradually discovered a darker set of motives. ...A gripping story, this book paints lay Catholics as heroes—and is unlikely to be popular with the Catholic hierarchy.
Author of The Sublime Engine: A Biography of the Human Heart"Julian Guthrie’s deeply compelling debut is about many kinds of faith – in God, in community, in truth. Writing with a journalist’s precision and a poet’s heart, Guthrie depicts a disparate group of San Francisco worshippers as they take their battle to save their church all the way to an often indifferent Vatican. Like St. Brigid itself, The Grace of Everyday Saints is a real treasure."
Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Uphill Walkers"…must reading for anyone who struggles with the meaning of faith in these turbulent modern times. The author has written both a hymn of praise for a community of believers who refuse to let go of their vision, as well as a heartfelt prayer for a better world."
Author and media critic, The New Yorker"Julian Guthrie has crafted a gem of a book. With the gift of an accomplished story teller, she tells of an amazing community of people come together to save their church. The story of their struggle is waged against a foe their Archbishop and his minions dare not mention: the church's sexual abuse scandal. Many trees have been felled to expose the pedophilia of too many clerics and the stony silence of church officials. This book shines a very different light on this scandal, and at the same time introduces readers to individuals we'd welcome as our shepherds."
National Book Award-winning author of Jerusalem, Jerusalem"Julian Guthrie's moving and eloquent book offers a parable of authentic faith, how resistance and reverence open to one another. A new image of belief - and just in time."
Author of A Slant of Sun"This is the story of a candle that burned on the steps of a fabled, shuttered church and of the people who kept that flame—and their own faith—alive, even as those vested with ‘higher’ authority failed believers everywhere. What is sacred? Who can be trusted? Can communities save us when hierarchies cannot? This brave and engrossing book seeks answers. It sanctifies a truly moving quest."
Author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt"A vivid, compassionate account of the battle waged by the men and women of a historic San Francisco parish against orders to close their church. Ranging from family gatherings to the halls of the Vatican, Julian Guthrie tells a story of community, faith, and resilience in the era of clerical child-abuse scandals and ecclesiastical intransigence."
Author, Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church"This beautiful book about the resilience of a small group of Catholic parishioners against the shutdown of their church is a parable of larger convulsions caused by unjust bishops. Pope Benedict would learn a lot from Julian Guthrie's eloquent reportage."
Maxine Hong Kingston
National Book Award-winning author of I Love a Broad Margin to My Life"Must a religious community depend on a physical structure for it's reality? Or do the people themselves make sacred ground wherever they gather? The exiled congregation of St. Brigid have not given up their church. Their story will reverberate long after this amazing book ends."
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The Marina Times
Review by Bruce Bellingham
San Francisco Chronicle
Review by Don Lattin
What interested you about this story?
First of all, I was struck by the group’s tenacity. They had waged a quiet battle for 10 years to save their church, St. Brigid in San Francisco, and showed no signs of giving up. They had met once a week for all this time, and had kept a candle burning on the front steps of their church, night after night, year after year. I drove by the church many times at night; the image of the candle burning was powerful for me. I also was struck by their objective: They had spent all of this time and energy and anguish over a church. An old – but beautiful and historic – Catholic church. I wanted to know why. How could a church mean so much? What happens when a place of faith is taken away? The more I learned, of these parishioners without a parish, the more intrigued I became. The people themselves were a writer’s dream: funny and flawed, heroic and improbable. From day one, they inspired me in my own life.
This story spans more than a decade, from late 1993 to the summer of 2006. Why is this story important today?
This story has great messages, some overt, some subtle. For Catholics, it is a story that has simply not been told. It is the tale of one parish’s struggle to cope with crushing losses – loss of a church, and loss of trust. These Catholics were dealing with the closure of their beloved parish, St. Brigid. At the same time, they were being hit with the news that some local priests – men they believed were God’s representatives – were being charged with unthinkable acts. These parishioners in San Francisco were learning of clergy abuse years before it became a national scandal with the Boston Globe’s reporting in 2002. So, it sheds light, in real time as events were unfolding, on how Catholics struggled with the news, going from disbelief and defensiveness to anguish and on to forging a new kind of faith. This is an intimate portrait of what it looked like from the inside when the Catholic Church was going through one of the most convulsive periods in its 2000 year history. Having said that, this story could not be more relevant today, as the scandal around the Catholic Church continues to rage. And, for the general audience, this story is ultimately about the healing nature of faith. It is about finding community. And it is about what can happen when you fight for something you love.
Will I enjoy this book if I’m not religious?
I hope so! This true story is dramatic, with twists and turns, loveable, brave and funny characters, a tragic death, devastating losses and unimagined victories. The characters are a lot of fun, and great in their differences, from the jovial but feisty Irish priest to a verbose death penalty appeals attorney to a closeted Catholic to a group of women you’d love to call friends. There is something else that I appreciate, too, and that is the seeming incongruity of this story happening in San Francisco. Here is a city known for its progressive people and politics, for its stand on issues like gay marriage. Yet, here is a group of pretty conservative – but loving and wonderful – people who came from across the globe and are proud to call San Francisco home. It is a side to San Francisco that is strong and vibrant, yet that gets lost in the more popular stereotypes. These are the hard working immigrant types who founded San Francisco, and made it a city of rich cultures and traditions.
What were some of the things you learned along the way?
This story changed me. It made me think about what I hold sacred. I learned the cliché is true: if you love something, you should never give up on it, even when everyone around you tells you otherwise. I think this book is incredibly inspiring, and I hope readers will feel the same way. It’s innocent, it’s refreshing, it’s about transcendent themes of finding faith and love and community. And, as I said in the previous question, I learned about another side of San Francisco, a side to be cherished.
You are not Catholic, but were raised Episcopalian, attending church pretty much on the big holidays. What did your outsider status do for this story?
Being an outsider, someone who is not Catholic, allowed me to see both the beauty of Catholicism, and the glaring problems. I saw the lines clearly divided between those in the pews, and those in charge. There is, in many parishes, a disconnect between the faithful and the leadership. And, there is a growing sense among the hundreds of Catholics I've spoken with that the Catholic Church, this 2000-year-old institution, is living in the past, and perpetuating long-outdated and even bigoted ideas. Many Catholics are hungry for a more progressive Church, and were disappointed in the choice of Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope.
How do you feel now about the Catholic Church?
I feel in awe of believers, because they so clearly love their church and God, and good Catholics are among the nicest people I've ever met. But I also feel anger toward the Catholic Church, because of its positions on myriad social issues, particularly when it comes to women and gays. I also think the Church remains ultimately paternalistic and that followers need to fight the Church's tacit position that “father knows best.” In the case of St. Brigid, I do feel that church leaders were too paternalistic to really take the laity seriously. They discounted the "grandmas and grandpas," as one official called them. It is the exact same problem the church has had with cases of clergy abuse. They are so busy defending themselves and their position that they fail to remember the people in the pews. It made me closer to my family’s faith tradition, which is Episcopalian. The Episcopal Church in San Francisco has a woman dean. A gay woman dean. She is brilliant, the church is inclusive. Everyone is invited. And it's a democracy, not a theocracy or autocracy.
You have been a professional journalist for more than 15 years. Did you find it difficult to keep that journalist’s objectivity as you grew to know and love these folks?
I became very close with this group of people, and became quite fond of them. I attended their parties, vigils, and was at their side when they rallied their case before politicians, the public, and church leaders. I was there through their victories, and their devastating losses. I also attended the funerals of a few beloved parishioners. But, I had to remain objective to clearly tell their story, and to give it the texture it naturally has. These good people of St. Brigid cannot see that their crusade is heroic. They are simply trying to save something they love. I saw the bigger themes: of finding faith outside of a church, of forging a family from strangers, of finding resilience in unexpected places. I also wanted the perspective of the Church leaders, and to weave that into the story. I suppose I came to see there is a fine line between devotion and fanaticism, and Church leaders saw the St. Brigid group as fanatics. I see them as devoted.
What do you hope readers get from reading this book?
First, pleasure in reading the book, learning the story, and getting to know these amazing people. I also hope readers will be left with a new sense of hope, and a courage to stand up for whatever it is you love and believe in.