The meaning of grace: New book about the St. Brigid saga

Author Julian Guthrie Photo: Lance Iversen
My contact with the Catholic Church over the years has always reminded me that the term “grace” is a powerful notion.

Julian Guthrie, in her new book The Grace of Everyday Saints: How A Band Of Believers Lost Their Church And Found Their Faith, certainly brings it closer to the heart. It’s all about a story that most people in this part of San Francisco are aware of: the decision by the San Francisco Catholic Archdiocese to close down that beautiful church, St. Brigid, on Van Ness and Broadway in 1994. The reason, ostensibly, was that it required an all-too-expensive earthquake retrofit. Parishioners were suspicious. The church, according to Guthrie’s observation, was solvent. Maybe much had to do with paying off settlements for the myriad stories of priests’ sexual abuses.

Guthrie was not among St. Brigid’s flock at the time.

In 2004, she was driving along Van Ness Avenue and noticed a single white candle burning on the front steps of the church. One simple candle. Guthrie, the good reporter that she is, sensed something profound might be going on.

Julian Guthrie is a longtime writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. She decided to ask a few questions, and then spent six years investigating what had happened to this landmark church. Like all good reporters, she found something she was not setting out to find. The people who loved St. Brigid were willing to fight for her survival. What Guthrie discovered is a remarkable fabric of faith in the followers who had no place to worship – at least not the place where they chose to worship.

Guthrie presents the reader with a splashy collection of characters like Father Cyril O’Sullivan, known affectionately as Father O. Guthrie provides passages like this about Father O, who “pulled on his baggy pants, oversized fisherman’s sweater, and tennis shoes. He stopped before the mirror in his bathroom in the rectory to check his dark, curly hair, reminded that the older priests found his locks long and unruly.”

The Grace Of Everyday Saints:
How A Band Of Believers Lost Their Church
And Found Their Faith, by Julian Guthrie,
288 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,
$25, hardcover and eBook

He’s the sort of rebel that the people in what became the Committee to Save St. Brigid would admire. Father O had a habit of giving away the other priests’ food to the homeless. When the decision to close St. Brigid came down from on high, Father O was conflicted. Guthrie writes, “Father O remembered something his father had told him (back in Ireland): ‘You always respect the collar, son, but not always the man.’” Father O was tempted to defy his bishop, John R. Quinn. Ultimately, Father O took up the cause to fight for the preservation of St. Brigid.

Another major player in this story is Robert Bryan, perhaps the most vociferous person on the Committee to Save St. Brigid. Bryan, who practices law in Cow Hollow, is a relentless fighter against the death penalty – and was a relentless fighter for the parishioners of St. Brigid who could not bear to lose her. I met Bryan years ago at a radio station where he introduced me to Anna Hauptmann, the widow of Bruno Richard Hauptman. Bruno was executed for the kidnap and murder of the Lindbergh baby. Yes, Mrs. Hauptmann was quite old when I saw her. Bryan was trying to clear the name of Mr. Hauptmann, who was railroaded in a mockery of a trial. I got the impression then that Bryan did not flinch from taking on lost causes.

All the same, Bryan sure gave the San Francisco Archdiocese a run for the money.

This, in Guthrie’s book, is an account of what Bryan wrote to Bishop Quinn:

“Many Roman Catholics have contacted me regarding the enormous problems plaguing our Archdiocese due to your morally corrupt leadership. I ask that you and your staff resign before the Catholic Church here is damaged beyond repair.”

Quinn resigned in 1995. Bryan went to Rome to take his argument to the Vatican. It didn’t work, as we know.

Another great character amid many in Guthrie’s book is Joe Dignan, to whom she dedicates the book. Dignan was a San Francisco reporter, a gay man who remained devoted to the Catholic Church and was a great force in the effort to save St. Brigid. When Dignan died in 2006, many insisted a memorial service be held at St. Brigid. It worked out. Guthrie quotes State Senator Carole Migden, “In life, Joe couldn’t get in here; in death, he’s in.”

 St. Brigid now belongs to the Academy of Art University.

Guthrie’s book is a compelling piece about what people can do as a community – or try to do. It’s a story about the triumph of faith against bad odds and how new things are found in the effort. The book is full of great characters – yes, right here in our backyard – and skillfully written by a first-rate reporter. It’s moving. It’s sweet. And Guthrie is not above describing how the whole St. Brigid drama has had an effect on her own spiritual world. If you live in this neck of the woods, it’s a must read.

Bruce Bellingham is the arts and entertainment editor for Northside San Francisco. E-mail: