On Saturday, November 9, the feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica, San Francisco’s Star of the Sea Parish celebrated its 125th anniversary. The day was marked by a Mass celebrated by the pastor, Father Joseph Illo, concelebrated by parochial vicar Father Matthias Wambua and archdiocesan Moderator of the Curia Father John Piderit, SJ. The homily was given by 80-year-old Father Lawrence Goode, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi, who had served as Star’s pastor in the early 1980s. A gala dinner followed.
In his talk at the dinner Fr. Illo described the creation of Star as the first parish in the “outside lands” – San Francisco’s western expanse – an area of “sand dunes and impenetrable fog.” He then indicated the reason for choosing the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica as the date of Star’s anniversary celebration, pointing to one of the inscriptions on the façade of the basilica: mater and caput – mother and head, mother and father. “Every parish is a mother to all of the souls within her boundaries, daily feeding them the body and blood of the Lord, giving supernatural birth through baptism and carrying her children to eternal life through Christian burial. It offers a sacred refuge for troubled souls.” The parish, he said, is also a father “The parish as head, as Father gently but firmly bring order to the local community by providing God’s authority for human flourishing.”
Father Illo gave a brief history of the seven generations of the parish, the succession of pastors and families, and the arrival of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet who began the parish school. He introduced two of the Carondelet Sisters who were in attendance, Sister Lorraine and Sister Noreen, and then shared the remarkable statistic: “Over 400 priests and sisters have come from this parish. As Sister Marie told me, ‘Star of the Sea broke all records as the parish with the most vocations to consecrated life in the archdiocese of San Francisco.’” In his homily, Father Goode had alluded to the same fact: “When I hear priests talk about vocations, I always think of Star of the Sea. I don’t know of any church with so many vocations. I recall the story that the people used to say there was a Jesuit from every block of the parish!”
Yet, as was the case throughout the country, those vocations had dried up. There had not been a vocation from Star since the 1980s – until the arrival of Father Illo. The parish once again leads the archdiocese in the number of seminarians; Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone has referred to Star as his “vocations parish.”
Father Illo was followed by parochial vicar, Father Mark Taheny, who entertained the crowd with songs by Irving Berlin and from Fiddler on the Roof.
The keynoter was Catholic author and speaker Patrick Coffin, who listed twelve seemingly counter-intuitive reasons for hope. Excerpts:
“Lt. General Chesty Puller was right: When surrounded on the Korean peninsula and outnumbered 29 to one, General Puller told his Marines: ’Everywhere we shoot we hit the enemy. He’s got nowhere to run.’ That’s you and I as disciples of Jesus Christ in post-Christian America. Everywhere around us there are opportunities… be like Chesty!
“The standard for church membership is embarrassingly low: “That’s very good news….the main criteria for membership in the Catholic Church is that you must be a sinner!
“Sanctity is not optional: “Apologetics is not enough. Orthodoxy is not enough. But sanctity is not optional…. As Mother Teresa said ‘Sanctity is not for the elite. It is for the baptized.’”
Coffin illustrated the challenge posed by sanctity by asking married couples to raise their hands. “A wonderful exercise is to go back and look at the wedding vows you pronounced. There are two verbs used in the Catholic Rite of Matrimony. One is ‘I will’ and the other is ‘I do.’ No reference to your feelings! We’re a culture that worships at the altar of feelings, a therapeutic culture… If it doesn’t feel good it must be bad. The teachings of Jesus Christ – as manifest in this parish, I can already tell – is that some pains can save your life. And some pleasures can kill you.”
The evening’s final blessing was given by Father John Chung, a past parochial vicar at Star, now serving as pastor of St. Philip’s Church in San Francisco. He concluded the evening by leading the people in singing the Salve Regina.
– By Gibbons Cooney