St. Francis Parish History
The Spanish missionaries planted the seeds of Christianity in California when they founded their mission system in 1769. The conversions and education of American Indians by the zealous friars became the early roots that anchored the Catholic Church in the Golden State. The missionary movement flourished for over half a century, until the Mexican Revolution curtailed its activities. The monks who served the missions contributed significantly to the early history of the region.
Catholicism in Kern County can be traced to one of the Franciscan missionaries who journeyed throughout the southwest in quest of souls for Christ, Padre Francisco Garces. Padre Garces was as famous a pathfinder, explorer and pioneer as he was a missionary and ambassador of God. During his lifetime, Padre Garces made five expeditions into the great expanses of the southwest, spreading the word of God and ministering to the needs of the Indians along the way. His journeys took him to the areas never seen before by white men. During his travels, he blazed trails across the Yuma and Colorado deserts, expanding and improving the linkage of the missions.
Early in 1776, Garces traversed the Sierra de San Marcos by way of Cottonwood Creek and the Tejon Canyon to an Indian village which he named Rancheria de San Pasqual. The site is located on the present Tejon Ranch, but should not be confused with Fort Tejon. There is where he conducted the first Catholic services recorded in the area. It was also on that historic mission, while seeking a new route to Monterey, that Padre Garces crossed a river which he called the Rio Miguel, now known as Bakersfield. Father Garces was the first recorded white man to visit the locality.
Later expeditions into the valley brought the mountain men, Hudson Bay trappers, Argonauts, American path finder’s, and pioneers. One of the most famous of the early explorers was John C. Fremont who, with his scout Alexis Godey, led a topographical and geographical expedition into the valley. They charted the mountains, canyons, and deserts, and blazed trails for the settlers who were to follow.
The discovery of gold was significant in bringing many pioneers into the valley. Among the gold seekers and newcomers were American, Irish, and French Catholics who settled in the rich green oases that were natural attractions to anyone entering the swampy regions and arid flatlands adjacent to the foothills that bore most of the gold veins. One of the earliest thriving settlements, Visalia, was to become the oldest community in the San Joaquin Valley. It also became the hub of Church activities in the region.
About the time Visalia was founded, Thaddeus Amat, a Vincentian priest who was born in Barcelona, Spain, was consecrated Bishop of Monterey. Bishop Amat was aware of the need for spiritual guidance to the Catholics in the new settlements that were springing up in the valley, but it wasn’t until 1959 that Catholic services would be held in the area. The first recorded Mass in Visalia was celebrated by Father Francisco Mora who, at the time, was pastor of San Juan Bautista Mission. Father Mora made occasional trips to the valley to serve the spiritual needs of the community until May of 1981 when Bishop Amat appointed Daniel Francis Dade as resident pastor there.
Although his parish included most of Tulare County, Father Dade also ministered to the spiritual needs of the scattered settlements, ranches, and mining camps to the east and south of his parish boundaries. Among the communities he visited regularly on his missionary circuit was Havilah, one of the largest towns in the mining district. It was through Father Dade’s endeavors that a small chapel was built there in 1866 and dedicated in honor of the patronage of St. Joseph. Although contemporary newspaper account reported that services were regularly conducted in the church, it is assumed that they were devotions led by laymen, because Father Dade’s visits occurred only on special occasions when he could leave his pastorate in Visalia. On those special visits, he performed baptisms, marriages, and confirmations.
During his episcopacy, Bishop Amat made annual visitations to the Parish in Visailia, celebrating Mass, preaching, and confirming prospective candidates into the faith. In 1870, accompanied by Father Dade and a visiting priest from Los Angeles, Bishop Amat made a visitation and confirmation tour of the entire territory. He ended the tour in Bakersfield. According to Sr. Thomas O. P., in her book, Apostle of the Valley, “There were only six Catholic families living in Bakersfield, with a few sheepmen and cattlemen scattered about in the vicinity.” Bishop Amat said the first Mass in Bakersfield on October 1st 1871, in the rear of a store owned by Pablo Galtes. It was located on the south side of 19th street between Chester Avenue and K streets. During his visit, Bishop Amat requested a meeting of citizens to discuss the possibility of raising money for a Catholic Church and school in Bakersfield. Colonel Thomas Baker was named chairman of the committee and A.R. Jackson, secretary. Julius Chester, who was Bakersfield’s first newspaperman and for whom Chester Avenue was named, Pablo Galtes and Alexis Godey (John C. Fremont’s scout for his 1844 expedition) were appointed to the committee. In the meantime, Fr. Dade, and later his successors, Father Valentin Aguilera, M. Marron, Peter Carrasco, and P. M. Bannon, continued to service the spiritual needs of the distant community and celebrated Mass there monthly.
With the mining activity at Havilah rapidly dwindling, many of the residents moved their families and business establishments to Bakersfield. When the county seat was moved from Havilah to Bakersfield, the Catholic mission was likewise transferred. For reasons unknown, the ambitious plans for building a church in Bakersfield set forth by Bishop Amat and the committee, failed to materialize. In 1878, when Bishop Amat’s successor, His Excellency Francisco Mora, was planning a pastoral visit to major settlements in the San Joaquin Valley, Father Marron revived the defunct church committee. On July 7, 1878, Bishop Mora presided over a meeting, once again held in the back of the Galtes store. Timothy Spellacy was named chairman; Paul Galtes, treasurer; and a 16 year-old newly confirmed Catholic, William A. Howell, secretary. Other committee members included John Lacky, Jeremiah Shields, Sr. Martin Coyne, John O’Neil, Edward A. McGee, Charles L. McGee, E.S. St. Clair, William E. Howell, August Hoffman, Paul Corti, and Edward O’Donnell. The Bishop opened the fund-raising campaign with a contribution of $100.00 and all others present, pledged $25-$50, which were considered generous sums in those days.
The committee purchased a two lot site at the 17th and K Streets for $600. They contracted with J.M. Montgomery to build a small white frame church for $730. Construction began in 1880 and the building was completed to a point where it could be occupied in July 1881. Unfortunately, the congregation lacked funds to complete the interior but the church was dedicated that same year.
According to diocesan records, the committee chose St. Francis of Assisi as patron in honor of Bishop Mora. The parish was then a part of the Los Angeles Diocese, and it became a part of the Monterey-Fresno Diocese when it was established on December 3, 1922.
Records are somewhat confusing as to who was the first pastor of St. Francis Church. Since Fr. Carrasco was the pastor of the church in Visalia at the time the mission station was being developed, some historians claim that he was the pastor of St. Francis. However, records do show that when Bishop Mora dedicated the church, he appointed Fr. Joseph Bannon as resident priest and that on January 1st 1884, Fr. Bannon was officially appointed the first pastor. Father Bannon built the first rectory for the parish about two years later. It was a bungalow located on the north side of the church grounds. According to the files of the Kern County Californian, the rectory burned to the ground on June 28, 1887. All of the church records up to that time were destroyed in the fire. Another rectory was then constructed on the same site.
Father Bannon continued to pastor until 1893 when Father Carrasco temporarily took charge of the parish. He was replaced in 1894 by Father Joseph O’Reilly, who spent two years at St. Francis. Father Fabian S. Noel then took charge of the parish until sometime in 1897 when Father Patrick Lennon was appointed pastor.
By the turn of the century, the tiny church on K Street was becoming too small for the growing congregation. The number of Catholic families, particularly in Kern City, now known as East Bakersfield, increased steadily. Father Lennon felt that a new church was needed in that vicinity, so he undertook the responsibility of accumulating funds to build one. Under his direction, St. Joseph Mission was started. Shortly thereafter, Father Lennon became ill so Father W. F. Quinlan was sent from the Cathedral in Los Angeles to take over the pastoral duties. Father Lennon had hopes of raising enough money to build a new church for St. Francis Parish. But he passed away before his dream could be realized. Before his death, more than $1,600 was raised when the Ladies Aid Society staged a parochial bazaar for a building fund. When Thomas J. Conaty, then Bishop of Monterey and Los Angeles, made a pastoral visit the Bakersfield in 1904, the site for a new church was selected.
For several years, the Catholic movement in Bakersfield declined. Interests in religious affairs seemed to be at low ebb. Bishop Conaty became aware that St. Francis Parish needed a reviving spirit. In the hopes of doing so, he appointed Father George G. Frund, an energetic young priest who had been ordained only three years prior. It was not long after his appointment that parishioners learned of the magnitude of Father Frund’s zeal. He reorganized the committee for building a new church, and plans were made to begin construction. The contract for construction was awarded to W. J. Doherty of Bakersfield for $33,965.
On January 14, 1906, Bishop Conaty, in the presence of over 2,000 viewers, lowered the cornerstone of the new edifice. The new church was an elaborate gothic styled structure. It had two magnificent spires which formed the front corners of the building. The main body of the church seated 700 people and a full sized basement held a spacious hall, library, and meeting rooms and classrooms. The main altar was beautifully carved from white marble and when completed the church cost approximately $100,000.
The first Mass in the new church was celebrated in the basement on Easter Sunday. Masses were held there until the rest of the building was completed. Although there are no records of the date that the first Mass was celebrated in the main body of the church, it is believed to have occurred on Christmas day of 1907. Bishop Conaty dedicated the church on October 8th 1908.
On June 18th 1908, through the efforts of William A. Howell, Father Frund purchased the L. M. Dinkenspiel residence and converted it into a temporary rectory. Fr. Frund had visions of establishing a Catholic school and hospital in Bakersfield, and he felt that the residence could eventually be used as a convent for the nuns that he hoped the nuns could soon be teaching the school and operating the hospital. Fr. Frund’s dreams became reality when the Sisters of Mercy acquired possession of the St. Clair residence at 14th and H street, and soon thereafter converted it into the St. Clair hospital. In 1910, they began teaching in the Church basement.
In the meantime, Father Frund was also channeling a great deal of attention to the needs of the people in the far reaches of the parish. He contacted Benedictine monks to hold missions in Kernville and Isabella. He also said Mass regularly in Maricopa, Delano, and Wasco.
With so much activity underway in the Parish, Bishop Conaty sent Father J. H. Kelly, a New Yorker on temporary leave in California, to assist Fr. Frund. Fr. Kelly spent a great deal of his time developing the choirs at St. Francis and working with the people at St. Joseph Mission. His stay in Bakersfield was short and when he returned to New York he was replaced with Fr. Bernardine Schiaparelli. A man of many languages, Fr. Schiapparelli became well known for his work among parishioners in the Hispanic community. He also assumed Fr. Kelly’s work with the choirs of St. Francis.
On November 28th of 1910, Father John P. Holden succeeded Father Frund as pastor of St. Francis. During his pastorate, the property of Truxtun Avenue, just west of the Church, was purchased from B. H. Sill for $13,000 as a school site. An adjoining lot was later purchased for $7,000. Two temporary school buildings, each containing two classrooms were built, and the school was transferred from the church basement to the new school grounds.
Nearly eight years later, Fr. Philip G. Scher (who later became the Bishop) assumed responsibility for the Parish. During his pastorate, he not only raised sufficient funds to eliminate the existing Parish debt but initiated a dual campaign to raise enough money to build a new school at St. Francis and a chapel.
In March of 1921, after purchasing the land, a combined school and chapel was constructed. It was dedicated that same year to Our Lady of Lourdes. The chapel eventually became Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. About $20,000 was raised by the campaign for the purposed school at St. Francis and a new pipe organ that was installed in St. Francis Church.
Poor health forced Fr. Scher to request a transfer to a smaller Parish. He was replaced by Fr. Joseph L. Daumas, a former assistant at St. Francis. On assuming his new appointment, Fr. Daumas made elaborate plans to improve most of the existing facilities except the Church. A new rectory was built just east of the Church. The structure was designed according to original ideas suggested by the Pastor. It included a fountain and a foyer which opened clear to the ceiling that supposedly would act as a means of air conditioning. The idea proved ineffective. Upon completion of the new rectory, the old one became a convent for the nuns teaching at St. Francis School.
Full attention was then devoted to the needs of the school. The temporary school buildings and the old convent were torn down and a new school was built. The Parish also purchased a new piece of property located on the Corner of Truxtun and H. streets, as a future site for a new convent.
By the time Father Daumas’ successor, Fr. Michael Stack, assumed the pastorate duties in December 1927, the parish population had reached 3,500. Shortly after Fr. Stacks appointment, a second assistant was assigned to the Parish.
Father Joseph B. Howard took over the reins of the Parish on September 28th 1934. During his stay in Bakersfield, Fr. Howard became known for his pioneering work in radio and his translations of works by the Franciscan, Father Maxim Piette. During his pastorate, Father Howard sold the property of Truxtun and H streets to reduce the existing Parish debt.
Father Leo J. Beacom, the next Pastor, came to St. Francis in December 1939. He concentrated on clearing the Parish debt and building a high school and new Church. He succeeded in paying off the $83,000 debt without having to initiate a fundraising campaign. Despite the fact that most of the Parish funds were being channeled into establishing a high school, numerous improvements were also made on both the church and elementary school. The sale of three houses, which became the possession of the Parish, through the generosity of the Vandeveer legacy, provided some $7,000 for the improvements. Although his dream of starting construction of a new church did not materialize, Fr. Beacom managed to accumulate $60,000 towards the project.
When Fr. Beacom was transferred to Monterey in 1945, Father William MacLoughlin became his successor. Shortly after, Fr. MacLoughlin’s appointment, the Bishop and other Pastors in the Bakersfield area decided that a central high school was more important to the area than a new church.
In addition to his duties at St. Francis, Fr. MacLoughlin was appointed chairman of the board of directors at Garces and resumed responsibility for the building and landscaping of the school. Just prior to being transferred to another Parish, he was elevated to the rank of Papal Chamberlain by The Holy Father.
Father Joseph Farrington succeeded Monsignor MacLoughlin and served as a parochial administrator for two years. During his stay at St. Francis, Fr. Farrington and his assistants visited 1,018 families in the Parish. The census revealed an estimated population of the Parish at the time to be about 5,200. When Father Patrick Leddy assumed the pastorate in January of 1952, he was faced with the responsibility of building a new church. His responsibility was compounded when the existing church, which had several parishioners for half a century, was damaged beyond compare by an earthquake in August of 1952.
Immediately after the earthquake, the tabernacle was moved temporarily to the school convent. Sunday Masses were held on the school grounds of the new St. Francis School located at Palm and Pine streets. As soon as the new cafeteria building was completed, it was adapted for use as a temporary chapel. The altar, pews, and other furnishings from the old church were crammed into the smaller quarters. The kitchen area served at the baptistery, confessional, and cry room. The cafeteria served as chapel for all Masses and religious devotions for five years.
The rectory also sustained heavy damage in the earthquake, so the priests took residence at the old O’Hare home which was located on Dracena Street, a short distance from the cafeteria. The rectory remained at that location until the new quarters were constructed. In the meantime, Father Leddy initiated plans to build a new church. The old edifice was torn down, and the preparation of the architectural plans got underway. Parishioners received financial encouragement from a $40,000 contribution from RT. Rev. A. J. Willinger, D.D., then Bishop of the Diocese. Original plans were to build the new church on the Truxtun Avenue site, however, the location did not provide sufficient space for parking. The new location was the site of the Lowell School property located on 10th and H streets. The public institution was condemned following the earthquake.The new church was designed along contemporary American styles by Chaix and Johnson of Los Angeles. Long and Needham of Fresno were awarded the contract for constructing the new building. The structure was made of reinforced concrete and it featured a detached bell tower that is three times the height of the main building and a two story rectory attached on the south end. The main nave seated 950, and two transept chapels each accommodated an additional 75-100. The choir loft seating for about 100 more.
On Palm Sunday of 1956, Fr. Leddy celebrated a ceremony of blessing the church ground and presided over the laying of the new cornerstone with about 1,500 Parishioners. Honorary chairman that day was 90 year old William A. Howell, Knight of St. Gregory, a Bakersfield pioneer who was secretary of the committee that planned the original St. Francis church. The bells from the old St. Francis church were moved to the new church when the 89-foot tower was completed. In their new location, they are electronically operated instead of bell ropes.
The first Mass was said on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1957. The blessing at the time was given by the RT. Rev. Harry Clinch, auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese. The church was formally dedicated on April 12, 1959 and Bishop Willinger led the impressive ceremony.
Financing the construction and furnishings of the new church was the responsibly of the parishioners and the pastor. The final costs far exceeded the original plans. When completed, the church cost approximately $550,000. To raise funds, Fr. Leddy initiated a campaign of which every family of the Parish was asked to pledge a certain percentage of its income.
For his enthusiastic pastoral endeavors, Fr. Leddy was named Papal Chamberlain, elevating him to the rank of monsignor. In 1959, he was appointed Vicar Forane of the Bakersfield deanery. Along with parish responsibilities, Msgr. Leddy was instrumental in guiding the growth and development of Catholic education in Bakersfield. He acquired 11.2 acres of land and constructed a Jr. High School on the site. When the decline of religious vocations and cost of financing Catholic education caused many parochial schools in the diocese to close, Msgr. Leddy exerted a great deal of effort of influence and influence to keep both St. Francis and Garces Memorial High School open.
On May 31, 1968, the Most Reverend Timothy Manning, then Bishop of Monterey and Fresno Diocese, announced he was dividing St. Francis Parish. The Stockdale property was transferred and became the new site of St. Philip the Apostle church.
For his zealous service to the church, Msgr. Leddy was again honored in 1971 when Pope Paul VI bestowed him with the title Prothonotary Apostolic. On June 29, 1980 after a long illness, Msgr. Leddy passed away. He had served the parish faithfully for 28 years. He was succeeded by Msgr. Maurice Lahey.