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Sacred Spaces: San Francisco

The Cathedral of St. Mary's of the Assumption (Credit: Gwen McKay)

The Cathedral of St. Mary's of the Assumption (Credit: Gwen McKay)

Softly undulating hills modulate the topography of San Francisco. To me this is a city epitomizing the feminine principle. In opposition to this, linear tracts of housing wind up the base of hills like Twin Peaks, their rigid lines skewing the curving ground. Jefferson's Land Ordinance of 1785 was designed to encourage agrarian land use while guaranteeing income for the fledgling government from tax revenue. The resulting orthogonal grid is nonsensical when applied to the topography of San Francisco; streets were laid in with no regard to steep hills or plunging valleys. California became a state in 1850, though it had been colonized long before. Cortes officially claimed it for Spain in 1535 and the land became part of La Nueva España. Ownership changed during the Mexican conquest of 1821 and by 1848 the Hidalgo Treaty granted the territory to the United States. As a result, the city's religious landscape was indelibly marked by colonization and mission, traces of which remain in contemporary street names and neighborhoods.

The aboriginal Ohlone Indians had a highly evolved religious devotion, and traces of their Bear shamanistic practices are echoed in the current state flag. It's easy to forget that this West Coast city is also the other side of the Pacific Rim. Japanese and Chinese cultures have profoundly influenced both the physical architecture and the philosophy and religion of the city.

Of all the cities we researched, San Francisco is the one with the least alliances to traditional religions. In the late 19th century, amidst extreme growth of industry during the Gold Rush, spiritual residents like John Muir advocated for the designation of the wild vestiges of the original frontier, to be set-aside as public sacred space. We selected spaces that understand the need for tending, while maintaining a space of spiritual wildness, reserved for contemplation amidst the hustle and bustle of everyday life. We hope you enjoy the grand monuments and hidden treasures we found within this city at the Golden Gate.

Deirdre Colgan
Executive Director, Sacred Space International
Chicago, 2010

Swedenborgian Church (Credit: Gwen McKay)

Swedenborgian Church (Credit: Gwen McKay)

Download the San Francisco Sacred Spaces Guide
The guide includes maps and three suggested tour routes. The following Sacred Spaces are featured:
• Buddha's Universal Church
• Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption
• Congregation Beth Sholom
• Grace Cathedral
• Huntington Park
• Islamic Society of San Francisco
• Mission Dolores Park
• SS Peter and Paul Church
• St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church
• Swedenborgian Church

Download the San Francisco guide here (PDF).

Tell us about your experience on the tour or your favorite Sacred Space in San Francisco. Create a page in the God in America Faithbook or submit a video to WGBH Lab's Open Call or leave us a comment below.

About Sacred Space International
Sacred Space International was founded in 2002 by Suzanne Morgan to promote interfaith education and dialogue through the understanding of religious architecture. Morgan, a retired architect with expertise in liturgical design, started the organization in response to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent climate of social tension, cultural misunderstanding and fear. She conceived the idea of religious architecture as a catalyst for interfaith dialogue and education. Without promoting any single faith or tradition, the organization seeks to use the common language of architecture as an educational means to foster reciprocal respect, awareness and appreciation of the different traditions that comprise our pluralistic society.

Visit Sacred Space International's website for more information.


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Published October 11, 2010

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