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Art at the Intersection of Past and Present

Academy of Art University provides its artists with an inspiring canvas after purchasing, and saving, St.Brigid Church

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St. Brigid third grader Sedona, the mural's "unofficial art director." Photo by Jennifer Blot.

At first, it felt like an ordinary Catholic mass. The chorus was comprised of strong, sweet young voices. The robed priest served communion and delivered a sermon on the theme of vocations, a word derived from the Latin “to call.”

But when he said, “We’re standing in the chapel of Academy of Art University. Maybe you are promising artists,” it was clear it wasn’t a typical place of worship.

 

For one, there was a very different scene a few weeks earlier when pews contained camera bags and lighting equipment and the aisles were filled with clusters of photo students taking light meter readings of the building’s darkest corners and brightest patches of streaming light.

The light comes courtesy of stained glass windows that date back decades and hint at the history of the structure at the corner of Van Ness and Broadway. Built at the turn of the 20th century, it was christened St. Brigid Church, a fitting name for a congregation of predominantly Irish Catholic immigrants. In time, tributes to their homeland were erected throughout the building, from plaques commemorating Saints Brendan, Columcille, Patrick, Eithne and Munchin, to those vibrant stained glass creations by Harry Clarke Studios of Dublin, Ireland.

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Grant Okubo and Anthony Wilcox watch as Robert Finch photographs Andrea Gill near the entryway to the Academy of Art Chapel. Photo by Jennifer Blot.

It was an impressive building that could be seen from blocks away. It survived the earthquakes of 1906 and 1989 and served generations of San Franciscans from all parts of the city. But in June 1994, the Archdiocese of San Francisco shuttered the church, citing exorbitant seismic retrofitting costs.

What followed was dramatic and well documented in the news. Parishioners formed the Committee to Save St. Brigid and gathered on the steps of the closed church with signs that said, “Save St. Brigid” and “Sold Out for 30 pieces of Silver.” The group met with local church officials, politicians and even representatives at the Vatican. But the Archdiocese was unwavering and the building remained vacant for nearly 10 years.

In 2005, Academy of Art University purchased it and invested in retrofitting and renovation to make it a multi-use space for classes, film screenings and community events.

These days, the building’s past and present are intersecting in ways that no one could have foreseen.

One morning last December, the side door of the building was propped open for the first time in years and the university inherited a wide-eyed, new group of students; the K–8 students who attend St. Brigid School next door.

The students were enchanted by the bright, spacious interior and an organ that accompanied their choir. It was a much, much better fit than the cramped school auditorium they had been using.

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Photography students Grant Okubo and Andrea Gill explore the light in a staged photo shoot at Academy of Art Chapel (St. Brigid). Photo by Jennifer Blot.

When Academy of Art University President Elisa Stephens agreed to open the church for St. Brigid School’s monthly masses, she didn’t anticipate the outpouring of emotions and gratitude.

It was a gesture that would cement a bond between the elementary school, established in 1888, and the university, founded in 1929.

Malia Peterson, a third grade teacher and second vice principal at St. Brigid School, remembers the anticipation leading up to that first mass.

“We could hardly sleep—it was so exciting,” she said. “The first time we saw it, one of my students walked up and said, ‘Ms. Peterson, why would anyone not want to have mass in here?’

“It still feels like it’s ours,” admits Peterson. “We are mindful of how we leave it because it’s borrowed. I don’t think it feels like less of a church to the kids, to any of the parents. It feels really special—just being in there,” she said.

A year has passed but the novelty hasn’t worn off. The masses are often attended by parents, grandparents and a few core members of the two decades-old Save St. Brigid Committee.

Parent Teacher Guild president Richelle Pozas O’Donnell makes a point to attend the masses.

“We absolutely cherish our neighbor, the Academy of Art. They have been extremely generous in sharing the Saint Brigid Church with our children and families,” she said.

The Academy has also been generous in sharing the chapel with staff members. Last year, Lourdes Livingston, Undergraduate Online Director for the School of Illustration, was invited to use the chapel to renew her wedding vows with her husband Kimball. They were married at St. Brigid in 1983.

“When Kimball and I were married 30-plus years ago, the flooring in the pew area was linoleum tile and the walls around the sanctuary were painted a severe orange,” she recalled. “The restoration was immaculate; the floors and stairs to the choir loft are now a shiny wood; all the stained glass windows were polished to perfection. The walls are now painted a warm white, so the space feels more of a reverent space than when we were married all those years ago.”

As time has passed, St. Brigid School’s second grade aide, Mary Baynes, is one of the only faculty members who remembers the old church.

A few years after Baynes and her husband Ciaran emigrated from Ireland in 1986, they became active parishioners, and later, parents at the school.

“When we landed at St. Brigid’s, it was kind of like, ‘We’re home.’ It was our home away from home,” said Baynes, who has worked at the school for 12 years and volunteered for more than a decade before that.

She was also one of the feistier, younger members of the Committee to Save St. Brigid during those tumultuous months in the 1990s. Day in, day out, she would stand on the church steps during the morning commute holding a “Save St. Brigid” sign and her one-year-old baby.  

She admits fighting “tooth and nail” to save the church, but Baynes seems to have come to terms with how things unfolded.

“We were all in fear that they would sell it to someone who would knock it down. I’m so personally very grateful to the Academy of Art for not basically taking it apart,” she said.

“When I walked in there first last year and sat down, I was looking at the altar, and there’s this string that is going right across. It’s where we hung the Easter banner in 1993 or ’94,” she said.

“You know what? It made me happy. It was a sign that something still remained. It was original. I know it’s only a string, but it meant so much,” added Baynes.

 

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Stained glass window made by Harry Clarke Studios of Dublin, Ireland. Photo by Jennifer Blot.

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Sedona with School of Illustration instructor Carol Nunnelly. Photo by Jennifer Blot.

Academy of Art University has also given the school another lasting gift in the form of “The Animal Race,” a colorful mural in the school’s playground designed by students in Carol Nunnelly’s Mural Painting class. The painting features a dog, monkey, lion and other animals surrounding a majestic owl, who wears a rosary.

Nunnelly and her students visit the school twice a week to work on the mural, now on the verge of completion. One thing she wasn’t anticipating was another boss on the job. 

Since the first stages of the mural, she’s visited regularly at recess by a vocal supporter. Sedona, a vivacious third grader with coppery red hair, brown eyes and a sprinkling of freckles across her nose, has become part of Nunnelly’s team.

“Sedona is the unofficial art director. She points out any color or design areas in the big picture that need attention. This week she noticed the monkey’s vest was missing a stripe. Her eye for color makes her a great fellow collaborator,” she said.

On a recent Friday, Sedona approached Academy student Juan Ruiz to discuss her latest concern; the “creepy eyes” on the monkey.

“Yeah, we’ll fix that,” Ruiz promised, chuckling.

Sedona was clearly possessive of the painting crew, shooing some of her curious friends away.

“It’s going to be a little bit hard for me because helping them has been the best part of the school year so far,” she said. “I usually take time off of the play system because it’s more interesting watching someone painting something than playing with your friends… it’s like a celebration for me.”

On December 18, there will be an official mural dedication ceremony, organized by Rebecca Delgado Rottman and St. Brigid School’s Parent Teacher Guild.

Rottman, the Academy’s Vice President of Community and Government Relations, has fostered a relationship with the St. Brigid faculty and parents that may lead to more murals and collaborations in the future. But it’s the masses that make her feel a deep connection.

“It is such a magical feeling as if history is repeating itself,” Rottman said.

“The pride and joy that several generations felt is being relived, revived and rejoiced by the children at St. Brigid School and the students at Academy of Art University.”

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Sedona with FA 350 Mural Painting student Juan Ruiz. Photo by Jennifer Blot.

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Photography instructor Chris Hardy reviews images with student Tumay Aslay. Photo by Jennifer Blot.