Restoration of San Francisco’s “Beacon on the Hill”

You must climb 170 steps in a very narrow spiral staircase to reach the top of the east spire of St. Ignatius Church, San Francisco’s “Beacon on the Hill”. Trust me. I did it the other day.

After my legs stopped burning, my dizziness subsided, and my lungs stopped protesting, I stood there in the steeple and gazed out at our great city. I saw the heavens above. The Salesforce tower below. And all the rest. It’s the kind of view you don’t forget.

Unfortunately, I also saw water damage on the roof, chipped masonry and rusty siding. It’s the kind of stuff Father Greg Bonfiglio can’t forget. In fact, the spiritual leader of St. Ignatius Parish thinks about it all the time.

Father Greg Bonfiglio, SJ of Saint Ignatius Church. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

That’s because he’s in the midst of a $25 million fundraising campaign to renovate the exterior of the church, in hopes of preserving its incredible interior. In recent years, water leaks have damaged some of the beautiful frescoes that line the walls. Fortunately, it was fixable. But next time we might not be so lucky. And you always have to think about earthquakes.

So the popular priest reached out to his flock and they responded. But he still has miles to go before he reaches his goal.

While the main sanctuary of St. Ignatius Church appears pristine, water leaks have damaged some of the frescoes that line the wall.  (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

While the main sanctuary of St. Ignatius Church appears pristine, water leaks have damaged some of the frescoes that line the wall. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

“What we do with this project is that we take care of the envelope to preserve the interior,” Bonfiglio said, as we strolled through the Baroque-Renaissance interior of the church. “Six years ago, someone from the University (of San Francisco) came into my office and said, ‘Father, you have to take a look at this,'” he said. “We went up the spire and he showed me the decomposition that remains to this day. This started a series of studies for us.

Bonfiglio called in an architectural firm to assess the damage and draw up a plan. It’s the same company that restored the crack in the Washington Monument, he told me. But before they could get to work, they had to find the money, an effort that began in August 2020.

It’s still a work in progress, but Bonfiglio managed to raise $21 million. Four more to go.

Water damage is visible on the roof of one of the spiers of the Saint-Ignace church.  (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Water damage is visible on the roof of one of the spiers of the Saint-Ignace church. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

So far, Carol and Dixon Doll, co-chairs of the St. Ignatius fundraiser, alongside review editor Clint Reilly and his wife Janet and Gerry and Jim Sangiacomo, have provided the anchor contributions, according to campaign coordinator Patrick Kennedy. However, all parties involved have asked the parish not to disclose the amount of their donations. If you want to kick it, head over to stignatiussf.org/pledge.

I’m not a theologian, but I know that the Jesuits played a key role in the history of San Francisco. They arrived in 1849 as missionaries, hoping to fill a need in our burgeoning city. They opened St. Ignatius in 1914, a symbol of San Francisco’s rebirth after the 1906 earthquake. Father Bonfiglio told me that the parish held outdoor sermons during the Spanish flu of 1918-19, providing a community gathering place during the church’s first pandemic. And St. Ignatius served a similar purpose during COVID, connecting and attracting new parishioners from around the world.

“”We asked people to send in their selfies and their photos and we recorded them on the pews,” Bonfiglio said. “And even today, when we are back in our parish and the people who joined us online are back in their parishes, we still get 200-250 people joining us online every Sunday.”

I asked Bonfiglio what he thought of the state of religion in an increasingly secular and polarized world.

“People talk about the growing secularism in our society today, but God is still active in people’s lives. Our job is to help people notice where it is. We Jesuits do this in a way that is unique and compelling to people,” he said. “The Church is not immune to the divisions we experience in society. Our voice is one of inclusivity. We try to keep the tent walls as wide as possible to accommodate people. Anyone who walks through these doors is welcome here.

Water damage is visible in a stairwell of the church.  (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Water damage is visible in a stairwell of the church. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

All of this testifies to the outsized impact that Saint Ignatius had. Located at the top of the hill, next to USF, it is a symbol of San Francisco that stands next to the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, Grace Cathedral and the Painted Ladies of Alamo Square.

Let’s support this effort to preserve our history and help the lighthouse continue to shine. Who knows? We can be saved.

The Arena, a column by Al Saracevic of The Examiner, explores San Francisco’s playing field, from politics and technology to sports and culture. Send your tips, jokes and quotes to [email protected] Sign up for his weekly newsletter here. And follow him on Twitter @alsaracevic.

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