Looking up into the modern “rafters” of St. Mary’s Cathedral 50 years after it was dedicated, San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone marveled at the structure designed and constructed by chance in the years following the meeting of the Second Vatican Council from 1962-65.

“It’s bold, it’s imaginative and it perfectly expresses what the Church has been discerning for a long time now, since the world moved into this modern era,” the archbishop said in the video produced by the cathedral in 2021, its anniversary year. “How can the Church better communicate the timeless eternal truth of the Gospel in the world that we are living in today?”

St. Mary’s Cathedral is the first cathedral in the world built after Vatican II. It is a monument of sorts to the vision of council fathers, who called for a renewal of certain church traditions and liturgical practices in order to help the Church better maintain relevance to the increasingly secular world around it.

After the destruction of the cathedral on Van Ness Avenue in 1962, newly installed Archbishop Joseph T. McGucken began unfolding plans for a new St. Mary’s Cathedral. Three local architects were chosen. Angus McSweeney, Paul A. Ryan and John Michael Lee produced traditional designs that ranged from traditional Romanesque to California mission-style. The designs were critiqued by some as missing the mark in embodying the liturgical changes wrought by Vatican II.

Even the secular media made note of the missed opportunity for “greatness.”

“The cathedral must belong to its own people and place, but also to the world,” wrote Alan Temko, prize-winning architectural critic for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1963. “It must express the oneness of things, as well as their ineffable mystery.”

A Benedictine monk named Father Godfrey Diekmann agreed with Temko’s article and requested a meeting with Archbishop McGucken. “He advised him to go back to square one,” said Msgr. Talesfore, and create a cathedral in the spirit of Vatican II.

Archbishop McGucken seized the day. At his advisers’ recommendation, he approached the innovative Pietro Belluschi, dean of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology School of Architecture, to lead the team. Belluschi was reluctant to accept the commission but did.

Archbishop McGucken encouraged Belluschi to design the cathedral with three major considerations: That the church would stand tall as a beacon to the modern world on the San Francisco skyline; that it should seat a large number of people, since it would function as the center of archdiocesan and civic events; and that it should wrap the congregation around the altar to help them become an integral part of the liturgy.

Some Catholics indeed expressed discomfort with the ultramodern design of the cathedral. It earned some humorous nicknames, including Our Lady of Maytag, from those who thought it resembled a washing machine agitator.

Full story at sfarchdiocese.com.