Grace Cathedral, San Francisco

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Grace Cathedral and the adjacent (right) headquarters of the Episcopal Diocese of California.
Three-quarters view of cathedral

Grace Cathedral is an Episcopal cathedral located on Nob Hill in San Francisco. It is the cathedral church of the Episcopal Diocese of California, once state-wide in area, now comprising parts of the San Francisco Bay Area.

The cathedral has become an international pilgrimage center for church-goers and visitors alike, famed for its mosaics by De Rosen,[1] a replica of Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise, two labyrinths, varied stained glass windows, Keith Haring AIDS Chapel altarpiece, and medieval and contemporary furnishings, as well as its 44 bell carillon, three organs, and choirs.

It contains one of only seven remaining Episcopal men and boys cathedral choirs, the Grace Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys, along with two other choirs with its corresponding boys K-8 school in the United States, along with Washington National Cathedral. Its director of music and choirmaster is Ben Bachmann. The Very Reverend Alan Jones retired as dean on January 31, 2009. He was also the moderator of The Forum at Grace Cathedral. On June 25, 2010, the Rev. Canon Jane Shaw was named the eighth dean of Grace Cathedral.[2]


From California Street

Its ancestral parish, Grace Church, was founded in 1849 during the California Gold Rush. The cathedral is the daughter of historic Grace Church. The first little chapel was built in the gold rush year of 1849, and the imposing third church, for a time called Grace "Cathedral", was destroyed in the fire following the 1906 earthquake. The railroad baron/banker Crocker family gave their ruined Nob Hill property for a diocesan cathedral, which took its name and founding congregation from the nearby parish.

Mark Twain was to satirize the church's efforts to find a short-term rector in the 1860s and 1870s.[clarification needed] Among the short-term rectors were roll film inventor Hannibal Goodwin and James Smith Bush great-grandfather of former US President George H. W. Bush and great-great-grandfather of former US President George W. Bush.[3]

Dean J. Wilmer Gresham nurtured the young cathedral and work began on the present structure in 1928. Designed in French Gothic style by Lewis P. Hobart, it was completed in 1964 as the third largest Episcopal cathedral in the nation.

Works by Jan Henryk De Rosen[edit]

Grace Cathedral has a significant collection of varied works by Jan Henryk De Rosen.[1] Among these are a faux-tile mural behind the Chapel of Grace reredos from 1932, the mural in the Chapel of the Nativity's Adoration from 1946 showing the Holy Family with the magi and shepherds. At the donor's request, the original angels hovering above were removed by the artist, however constellations still mark their place. De Rosen also included a little image of his boyhood home in Warsaw in the mural.[1] On a smaller scale, De Rosen painted exquisite panels for the original old High Altar which is now in the Chapel of St. Francis columbarium.

The most visible works of De Rosen in Grace Cathedral are the historical aisle murals that were painted between 1949–1950 and composed in a style blending elements of the early Italian masters Giotto and Mantegna.[1]

Ghiberti doors[edit]

Ghiberti doors
Detail of the doors

The cathedral entrance has an impressive pair of doors, often called the Ghiberti doors. They are a copy of the doors of the Florence Baptistry by Lorenzo Ghiberti, also dubbed Gates of Paradise. It has been said that they had been removed from a Renaissance church in Florence, but it is now known that during World War II the Nazi occupation government had ordered the doors to be removed from the church (to protect them from bombing and maybe to give Hermann Göring a chance to add them to his collection) and that they had been hidden in a disused railway tunnel and that reproductions had been made. The San Francisco philanthropist Charles D. Field bought these replicas, and they were then shipped to San Francisco and installed on the newly completed church in time for its official dedication in 1964.[4] Curiously, the original Ghiberti Doors are no longer installed on the baptistry: Conservators have decided that they must be preserved in a totally dry, controlled atmosphere. The doors now on the baptistry are also modern replicas, installed in 1990.


Labyrinth in Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, summer 2013
Labyrinth inside Grace Cathedral

Laid out on the floor of Grace Cathedral is a labyrinth that is based on the famous medieval labyrinth of Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres (The Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres) located in Chartres, France. It is said that if a visitor walks the pattern of the labyrinth it will bring them to a meditative state. There is also another labyrinth outside of the cathedral in its courtyards.


Contained in the cathedral are 7,290 square feet (677 m2) of stained glass windows by noted artists that depict over 1100 figures ranging from Adam and Eve to Albert Einstein.[5] 32 windows or window groups, dating from 1930 to 1966, were designed by American Charles Connick and his Boston studio. Connick windows include The Chapel of Grace and baptistry window series that contains over 32,000 pieces of glass and covers nearly 833 square feet (77.4 m2).[6] The Cathedral also contains 24 faceted windows by Gabriel Loire of Chartres, France, including the Human Endeavor series depicting John Glenn, Thurgood Marshall, Jane Addams, Robert Frost, and Einstein. Between 1995-1998 several of the cathedral's choir and aisle windows were restored by Reflection Studios of Emeryville, California.[5]


The carillon was the gift of Nathaniel T. Coulson, a San Francisco dentist and realtor who came from Lostwithiel in Cornwall. When Coulson first arrived in San Francisco in 1875, he found his way to Grace Church, which lacked a bell tower. Although a Methodist, he vowed to provide bells for the church and eventually spent his life savings to realize his dream and to erect the Singing (north) Tower to house them.[7] The carillon consists of forty-four bronze bells, cast and tuned at the Gillett & Johnston Foundry of Croydon, England, in 1938. The bells arrived before the cathedral tower was completed, so they spent their first years on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay as the centerpiece of the 1939-40 Golden Gate International Exposition. The carillon was first played from its Singing Tower home on Christmas Eve, 1940, and was formally dedicated in 1943. The bells have been rung to mark a number of important events, including D-Day and the centenary of the San Francisco cable car system.[8]

In popular culture[edit]

Grace Cathedral front façade

Notable photographer Ansel Adams produced a series of photographs of the uncompleted cathedral in 1935.[9]

"Grace Cathedral Park" is the first song on Red House Painters' first self-titled album.

"Grace Cathedral Hill" is Track 7 on The Decemberists' Castaways and Cutouts album. It recounts a New Year's Eve experience in which the singer and his sullen (presumably grieving) female companion visit the church to light candles.

Alfred Hitchcock filmed an abduction scene for his final film, Family Plot, in the cathedral in 1975. It also appeared in The Pleasure of His Company (1961), Bullitt (1968), Time After Time (1979), and Bicentennial Man (1999).[10]

Armistead Maupin's iconic Tales of the City series has an Episcopal cannibal cult operating out of Grace Cathedral as one of its sub-plots. In the TV adaptation, Maupin plays a cameo role as a priest of Grace Cathedral, but the cathedral interiors were actually filmed in Montreal.

Jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi recorded a "Jazz Mass" at the cathedral in 1965.

Duke Ellington performed his televised Concert of Sacred Music at the cathedral on September 26, 1965.


  1. ^ a b c d
  2. ^ [1]
  3. ^ Years of Grace, Part I: Chapel to "Cathedral" - - Retrieved January 8, 2007
  4. ^
  5. ^ a b Lampen, Michael. "Divine Light". Grace Chapel. Retrieved 2009-11-13. 
  6. ^ Lampen, Michael (2004). "Gospel in Glass". Grace Cathedral. Retrieved 2009-11-13. 
  7. ^ The Bells Shall Ring: An Account of the Chime Bells of Grace Cathedral, Rosa Lee Baldwin, James J. Gillick Inc. 1940
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^

External links[edit]


Coordinates: 37°47′30″N 122°24′47″W / 37.79167°N 122.41306°W / 37.79167; -122.41306