History of Our Lady of Fatima Church 

Rev. Hieromonk Karl Patzel, S.J.
Jesuit Magazine, 1970

On the corner of Lake Street and 20th Avenue, in San Francisco’s Richmond District, stands a pleasant, substantial mansion and enclosed garden. The house contains the Chapel of Our Lady of Fatima, a research library, and meeting rooms. The garden surrounds the outdoor shrine of Our Lady of Fatima. Both are surmounted by the familiar onionshaped cupolas peculiar to Russian churches, each topped with the distinctive Russian cross.

This foundation is of recent origin and was not the first attempt to establish a center of Russian Catholic spirituality in San Francisco. This house was bought for that purpose in March 1955, but the graphic story of the origin, growth and development of Our Lady of Fatima Russian Center began in 1950, with the aim of caring for the Russian exiles who had been uprooted from their old civilization in Russia with the advent of Communism. After years of sojourn in China and the Philippines, these people had arrived in San Francisco, bringing with them a history of endurance, courage and tenacity to their faith and traditions.

During the year 1950, the idea of founding in San Francisco a place for Catholic presence among the Russians assumed more concrete form. It began with the arrival of Father Fionan Brannigan, S.J. and of ships from China with Russian refugees. Father Feodor Wilcock, S.J. joined him in May 1952. Both were Byzantine Rite Jesuits, trained in Rome for the Russian Apostolate. Now they were working with the Russian Diaspora in San Francisco.

These priests went frequently to the port to meet ships from the Philippine Islands, Tubabao and Hong Kong. They met the lonely immigrants, some of whom were Catholic, and blessed them in their own language, giving them strength and courage to accept their life in a strange new land. Both priests were convinced that a distinctly Russian Catholic Church of the Byzantine Rite was needed to be a vital force in the life of these people and to preserve their religious traditions.

Father Brannigan left San Francisco in the fall of 1952 for New York and Father Wilcock organized a committee to buy a small lot on Arguello Boulevard. just below the University of San Francisco. In December 1953, Father Wilcock introduced Father Nicolai Bock, S.J. as the new head of the Russian Mission.

Father Bock had been the Czar’s last envoy to the Vatican. Later, he became a Catholic and joined the Society of Jesus. It was in those days that Bishop Guilfoyle wrote about a “Russian Dolores”, because it was at Mission Dolores that Father Bock celebrated the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (as the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is called in the Byzantine Rite). Mission Dolores, founded by the Spanish Padres, now echoed with Slavonic liturgical melodies. But on week days, and when it was cold and rainy, Father Bock celebrated the Divine Liturgy at St. Ignatius Church. There the altar breads (leavened) were stored in the refrigerator. One morning before the Liturgy, Father came for an altar bread. Confusion! They were all gone! Later that day, he heard some scholastics discussing the delicious biscuits they had found in the refrigerator!

In October, 1954, Father Bock had a heart attack, and when he had recovered sufficiently, he followed Father Brannigan and Father Wilcock to New York. He never returned to the Mission in San Francisco. Instead, Father Andrei Urusov, S.J. was sent to replace him.

Father Urusov’s ideas were different from those of his predecessors. He wished to change the location of the proposed center and also the character of the new foundation, making it not primarily and only a church, but a cultural center as well. He sold the lot on Arguello Boulevard and with funds collected by the committee (with Mrs. Arturo Oreña and Mrs. Harry Hill at its helm) he bought the present mansion for the Catholic Russian Center.

Many Russian people and the Knights of Columbus helped selflessly, in countless evening and Saturday shifts, to repair and reshape the house. The entry to the house became the entrance to the chapel. A new entrance had to he made on Lake Street for the rest of the house. On October 14. 1956. the house and the chapel were solemnly blessed by Bishop Donahue in honor of Our Lady of Fatima. This name was chosen because of the Mother of God’s intense interest in the conversion of expressed by her prophecy to the three children of Fatima in Portugal: “Russia will he converted!”

In November, 1957, I was sent to San Francisco to assist Father Urusov, who was at that time in St. Mary’s Hospitalbecause of a serious car accident. This help lasted four weeks; it was just enough time to become acquainted with the work at the Center. During Lent and Easter of 1958, I was sent here for two months.

At the end of my Tertianship (in Port Townsend, Washingon) in June, 1958, I was told to take Father Urusov’s place in San Francisco temporarily, presumably for a few months. Father Urusov was to give an eight-day retreat to the alumni of the Russian College in Rome at the end of September. He was expected to return to San Francisco by the end of 1958 and I was to return to Europe, which was supposed to be my destination after ordination. But, as the saying goes, “Man proposes and God disposes.” Father Urusov finally returned to San Francisco by Christmas the following year, 1959. Bythat time he had received permission from Father General to keep me permanently as his assistant.

Now, with two of us at the Center, Father Urusov could travel extensively, giving lectures on Communism and ecumenical questions. By this time the interior of the house had taken final shape. The chapel on the main floor became the dominant feature of the building. In the basement, a kitchen and dining-room were set up for daily use and on Sundaysafter the Liturgy refreshments are served to those of the congregation who wish to join. A meeting room on the same floor serves larger groups. The floor above the chapel has quarters for the priest and cantor. There is also an extensive library, dealing mainly with Eastern and Western spirituality, with thousands of books and many current Soviet newspapers and periodicals, which are available to students for research purposes. The top floor has additional library space and a guestroom.

In July, 1966, Father Urusov was transferred, and on March 9, 1967 I was appointed pastor, being officially installed a year later. The valiant efforts of my predecessors are being continued with determination to achieve the purposes of the Center. Only in January 1979,1 received an Assistant Pastor, Father Theodor Frans Bossuyt, a Byzantine Rite Jesuit who for many years wasworking in Rome at the Russian program of the Vatican Radio.

The principal aim is, and was from its very beginning, to serve the spiritual, educational and welfare needs of the Russian colony; to provide religious leadership; to offer encouragementto the Russian faithful in the practice of their religion; and to serve as an agency of assistance in their various needs. Our secondary aim is to acquaint Latin Rite Catholics with the Byzantine Rite and to offer those not of Russian nationality an opportunity to participate in the Russian spiritual heritage.

We extend pastoral care to the Catholics among the Russians. They are few, but a very fine group, and they know they have a spiritual home in our Center. Naturally, all Russians, regardless of the groups to which they belong, are welcome.The only question ever asked them is what problem or questionthey may have and how we can be of help to them. Year after year, they come to us with requests to have their children enrolled in Catholic schools. Thanks be to God and to the Sisters and Brothers and the good Fathers of St. Ignatius for their helpful cooperation in this regard. Early in 1954, the founding fathers and the Committee agreed not to build a Catholic school for Russian children, as had been done in Harbin, Manchuria and in Shanghai, as they realized that the existing Catholic schools here could take care of these children.

Occasionally, friendly people donate clothing, furniture and other useful articles which we distribute to needy Russians.Our charity work has been increased since the Quakers have discontinued their relief work for Russians. The needy turn more readily to us and we have assumed this additional responsibilty.

These are some of the ways the Byzantine Jesuits at the Russian Center (who are, of course, affiliated with the University of San Francisco) fulfill the spiritual and sometimes the material needs of the citizens of Russian origin in San Francisco.

A few words about the division of the Russian colony withregard to their religious affiliations may help give some understanding of the various Russian churches. Russians are usually assumed to be of Russian Orthodox faith. However, here in San Francisco, as in all of North and South America, the Russian Orthodox were split into three jurisdictions: (1) Russian Americans, with the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity at Van Ness Avenue and Green Street; (2) the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia (the Emigrant Church), at the Holy Virgin Cathedral, Geary Boulevard and 26th Avenues; (3) the Church loyal to the Patriarch of Moscow, St. Nicholas Cathedral is located on 15th Street near Market. All three jurisdictions had observers at the recent Vatican Council.

The Russian Americans (1) and the Patriarchal Church (3) are members of the World Council of Churches. Negotiationshave been under way between these two groups, with the aimof achieving autocephaly for the American Russian Orthodox Church. They have succeeded and since April 10, 1970 thereare now only two jurisdictions left: (1) with the abbreviated name “Orthodox Church of America” and (2) the Russian Emigrant Church. Besides the two groups of Orthodox, there are the Molokans, a splinter non-Christian group of pre-revolutionary origin; the Baptists, who are well represented among the Russians,with publications and broadcasts to the USSR; a small numberof Jehovah’s Witnesses, some Pentecostals, and a few who have no apparent religious affiliation.

In conversations with many Orthodox Russians, I have to answer numerous questions about the Catholic Church. Not long ago, I had a discussion with an Orthodox lady, recently arrived from Brazil, which could be of wide interest. She complained about a certain narrowness she had encountered among some of her new friends. She said she had been threatened with excommunication if she dared to attend a church other than her own. I reminded her that among Russians in San Francisco, as among other people, there are those of different frames of mind. There are those like Simeon, longingly expecting the Saviour, who look forward to His return. These people are of the past, for the future belongs to those who work and sacrifice for the unity of Christians. As a warrant, we have the word of Our Lord: “One flock and one shepherd” (Jn 10:16). His prayer for unity among His Apostles on the evening before His own sacrifice was simply a prophecy.

From another angle also, we learn from the Apostle John that God is Love. Everyone knows from his own experience that love is the principle of unity even here on earth. People in love want to he together. The literature of all nations is full of examples of this fact. Relatives travel thousands of miles to be together. The opposite principle is hatred, the principle of divisiveness, which poisons relations between people. This is the work of the devil (from the Greek “diabolos”-the slanderer-and, as we remember, he was a liar from the beginning). This line of thought is easily applied to the question of ecumenism, mentioned above. Realizing all this, our Center has become a place where we work with all our strength for unity among Christians, striving to promote this unity among Russians and all Christians: “Ut omnes unum sint” (Jn 17:20).

Our activities away from the Center also further this aim. By invitation, we visit various schools, parishes, Newman Clubs, military bases and other places, to introduce Latin Rite Catholics to the treasures of Byzantine heritage, its beauty, and its tribulations. We travel all over California, and even beyond, giving talks, engaging in innumerable conversations, and celebrating the Divine Liturgy. In this way, we help eliminate the “Iron Curtain” of ignorance between East and West, and we constantly remind people not just to call themselves Christians, but to act as such.

Definitely, we are engaged in grass-roots ecumenism. Both sides, the Christian East and the Christian West, should realize the scandal of a divided Christianity. Both sides should implore the Holy Spirit to enlighten their minds and strengthen them in their determination to end this scandal. Then the unity of Christianity will be assured.

There is another very important area—Communism in Russia (and also in Eastern Europe, China, South and Central America) about which we are expected to give authentic information; indeed, we are well qualified to do so. We have an immense amount of source material, books, periodicals andnewspapers from Soviet and non-Soviet sources, in Russian, English and other languages available for study by interested students.

I myself have had years of personal experience within the Soviet Union and I find it strange that people are quite unmoved when Communism is mentioned, yet, when the word”Naziism” is spoken, everyone is alarmed. Why is Communism more acceptable than Naziism? Why are there millions of Communist sympathizers? Are not Communism and Naziism twins, both totalitarian systems, the one as godless as the other? One—Naziism—is dead now, while the other—Communism—has engulfed a third part of mankind. Is it then not evident what tremendous educational work is needed to expose the fundamental error of Communism?

There remains to be mentioned the source of our income. Who accepts financial responsibility for the Center? How dowe live and find support for our work? Russians often think that we are financed by the Vatican! Recently, I had to fill out a questionnaire from Rome regarding our means of subsistence. My short answer was “By donations.” Yes, we live by the sacrifice of many good people who have come to the conclusion that our work is important, even though it does not make headlines. It is quiet, it has long range goals, and it promises to be of great import for the future, for it has Our Lord’s promise that there shall be “one fold and one Shepherd.”(Jn 10:16)

To achieve our dual aims, we invite the people of San Francisco to attend the Byzantine Liturgy in our chapel, held daily at 7:00 am, and on Sundays and special feasts at 10:00 am. There are vigil services on Saturday evenings and before feasts at 7:00 p.m.

The first Saturday is observed in accordance with Our Lady’s request, with a special Liturgy in English at 10:00 a.m. Two choirs, Slavonic and English, complement the services. Anyone who sings and wishes to join either choir—or both—may do so. We bid you welcome!