During the 1920s, innovations in science and technology, growth in commerce and industry, a significant population increase, and high employment appeared to guarantee unending prosperity and limitless opportunities for the nation and for San Francisco. Then came the stock market crash of October 1929. Within a matter of days, $30 billion was lost, and the economy of the United States and much of the world was shaken to the core. Although only a relatively small percentage of the U.S. population was directly affected by the stock market crash, the market’s collapse set in motion economic forces that soon led to massive layoffs, business closings, and bank failures that wiped out the life savings of tens of thousands of people. In 1930, the United States saw 26,000 businesses close their doors, followed by another 28,000 in 1931. By 1932, almost 3,500 banks had gone under, eliminating billions of dollars in uninsured deposits. Twelve million people, or nearly 25 percent of the labor force, lost their jobs, and those who kept their jobs saw their real earnings fall by 33 percent. The economic collapse of the U.S. economy ushered in what soon became known throughout the world as the Great Depression.
As in the rest of the cities in the United States, the stock market collapse and the Depression that followed had a major impact on San Francisco. Unemployment in the City by the Bay soon rose to 20 percent. Throughout the 1930s, public works projects helped alleviate the nation’s massive unemployment. In San Francisco, the 1930s witnessed the building of two great publicly funded bridges that connected the city to the eastern and northern sections of the Bay Area. The San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge was completed in 1936, and the Golden Gate Bridge was finished in 1937. To celebrate the completion of these two bridges, and also to provide a psychological boost to the city and stimulate its economy, San Francisco decided to host a world’s fair by the end of the decade. These plans came to fruition in 1939 with the Golden Gate International Exposition, which ran from February 19 to October 29. Sunday, October 14 was set aside as USF Day at the world’s fair.
Like the city for which it was named, the University of San Francisco faced major economic challenges during the 1930s. Finances were a constant source of concern for the school’s leadership, and enrollment was flat during most of the decade. The institution began the decade, however, on several optimistic notes, including a celebration of its 75th anniversary and a U.S. Supreme Court decision paving the way for a major land acquisition that encompassed part of an old Masonic cemetery that extended the campus north to Golden Gate Avenue, east to Masonic Avenue, and west to Parker Avenue. A shortage of cash during the Depression did, however, prevent USF from purchasing the portion of the cemetery that ran all the way to Turk Street and from building on the land it did acquire. The co-curricular programs that had flourished during the 1920s, including athletics, drama, and debate, survived the economic woes of the 1930s, though desperately needed improvements for the library, science equipment, and classroom facilities were financially impossible. Graduates of the university found the job market terrible, and alumni contributions were minimal.
In 1930, St. Ignatius College celebrated its 75th year of Jesuit education in San Francisco. This Diamond Jubilee, encompassing a host of civil and ecclesiastical events, was planned under the direction of the institution’s president, Edward Whelan, S.J., with the assistance of staff, faculty, alumni, and civic leaders. The Diamond Jubilee began on May 19, 1930, with the annual commencement exercises held in San Francisco’s Dreamland Auditorium. On July 14, the celebration continued with a luncheon for civic leaders held at the Palace Hotel. At the luncheon, Mayor James Rolph lavished praise on the institution’s preparations for its 75th birthday and committed the City of San Francisco to support the celebration. “We are delighted at the opportunity,” the mayor proclaimed, “to do something and do it big for St. Ignatius.” The Diamond Jubilee week began on Sunday, October 12, with a Mass of Thanksgiving in St. Ignatius Church, presided over by John Collins, S.J., a visiting bishop from New York. The next day, students of the college and high school, faculty, and many alumni held a rally in the St. Ignatius High School stadium. On October 14, the Alumni Association hosted a luncheon at the Elks Club for visiting educators and alumni. That evening, the festivities moved to Civic Auditorium, where the university’s literary honor society, Kappa Lambda Sigma, hosted a series of lectures. The Diamond Jubilee week concluded on Sunday, October 19. The day began with a parade of civic, religious, and fraternal organizations of San Francisco, marching from the Panhandle section of Golden Gate Park to the stadium of St. Ignatius High School. At that location, an outdoor Mass was held at a specially constructed altar under an enormous canopy. The mass was attended by 30,000 people and featured San Francisco Archbishop Edward Hanna as the principal celebrant, with Cardinal Patrick Hayes of New York giving the sermon. Cardinal Hayes’ sermon was broadcast live by a local radio station. For 75 years, the Jesuits had served the citizens of San Francisco through St. Ignatius Church and College. Various alumni groups during the 1920s had urged the leadership of St. Ignatius College to change the school’s name to the University of San Francisco, and it seemed altogether fitting, therefore, that the Golden Jubilee celebration be the occasion for the announcement that the Jesuits’ experiment in education would henceforth incorporate the city’s name and become the University of San Francisco.
The world was two years into the Great Depression when James Conlon, S.J., USF professor of chemistry, organized a relief effort for foreign missions under the auspices of the Pacific Coast branch of the Catholic Medical Mission Board. In 1932, Fr. Conlon founded the St. Ignatius Circle, a group of San Francisco women who purchased bolts of cloth and fashioned them into bandages and dressings at their weekly meetings on the USF campus. Members of the USF Bio-Chemical Club, a group of USF pre-medical students organized under the direction of Fr. Conlon in 1923, then packed the supplies and prepared them for trans-Pacific shipping. Over the next six years, the St. Ignatius Circle and the USF Bio-Chemical Club provided many tons of medical supplies to international organizations, and Fr. Conlon received grateful letters from missionaries throughout the world who benefited from his work. Fr. Conlon founded the Pacific Coast Branch of the Catholic Medical Mission Board, headquartered in New York City; the agency still exists today. For more than one hundred years, the Catholic Medical Mission Board has furnished medical supplies and other assistance for international relief efforts.
In 1930, the United States Supreme Court made a decision that was to have a major impact on the development of the University of San Francisco. After years of litigation, the Supreme Court ruled that an old Masonic cemetery, covering approximately 28 acres of land located directly north of the new Liberal Arts Building on Fulton Street, could be sold to any prospective bidder. Looking toward the eventual expansion of their institution, the Jesuits had sought for years to buy this cemetery, which extended from Parker Avenue to Masonic Avenue and from Turk Street to Fulton Street, not including the property already owned by the Jesuits where St. Ignatius Church, the faculty residence, and the Liberal Arts Building stood. Although burials had not been permitted on this property since 1901, there was strong opposition on the part of 17 cemetery lot owners to the removal of the estimated 19,000 bodies interred within the cemetery limits.
When the removal issue was brought before the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1928, an ordinance authorizing the removal of the bodies passed with the support of the Masonic Cemetery Association, owner of the property. This association was eager to sell the property and argued that the land had become a “menace to health, a wilderness frequented by vagabonds and a barrier to fire apparatus.” The cemetery lot owners fought the ordinance in the federal circuit court, which issued an injunction against it. This injunction was appealed all the way to the United States Supreme Court, the appeal being handled by Matthew Sullivan, graduate of St. Ignatius College, former Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, and dean of the school’s College of Law. On March 10, 1930, the Supreme Court dissolved the injunction and upheld the ordinance, thus clearing the way for the Jesuits to buy the cemetery.
After several years of negotiations, the Masonic Cemetery Association agreed to sell the entire cemetery to the Jesuits for $690,000. With the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929, however, and with the Jesuits’ growing financial burdens, USF was able to purchase only approximately half of the cemetery property (the land south of Golden Gate Avenue) at a cost of $290,000, with an option to purchase the rest of the land by 1934. Unfortunately, the Jesuits could not raise the funds necessary to exercise this option, and the land between Golden Gate Avenue and Turk Street was sold to private developers. The deeds to the property south of Golden Gate Avenue finally passed to the Jesuits in March 1934.
In the last months of the negotiations between the Masons and the Jesuits, unclaimed headstones and tomb monuments at the Masonic Cemetery were removed and used for seawalls, landfill, and roads along the San Francisco Bay, and most of the bodies interred in the cemetery were hastily exhumed by the Masons and transported to the Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma. The removal crews missed many of the bodies, however, because the deceased had often been buried in inexpensive nineteenth-century wooden coffins that eventually deteriorated, and the canvas bags that had sometimes been used to wrap the deceased disintegrated over time, the bones mixing freely with the sandy soil. Additionally, bodies sometimes shifted from their original locations under marked tombstones in the wake of earthquakes and other land movements, and many other coffins and mausoleums had been buried under tons of dirt removed from the excavation site of the San Francisco College for Women on Lone Mountain and remained unnoticed by the removal crews.
In later decades, therefore, when foundations were constructed for new buildings on campus, overlooked bones were frequently unearthed. When contractors were excavating the foundation for Gleeson Library in 1950, one of their large earthmovers crashed through the roof of a buried mausoleum, and coffins containing bodies were churned up by the tractor operator. In 1966, when ground was broken for the foundation of Hayes-Healy Residence Hall and the adjacent garage, the work crew came upon so many bones and skulls that they refused to continue working until the human remains were removed from the site. One of the crew members told his foreman: “Sir, you know we will work for you almost anywhere and do whatever you tell us to do, but we do not work in cemeteries.”
In July of 2011, when workers started to excavate the site for the new John Lo Schiavo, S.J. Center for Science and Innovation, they found human remains. Work was immediately halted, and the San Francisco Medical Examiner’s Office was contacted. A team of professional archaeologists was also called in to ensure that all human remains and coffins were excavated with care and that cultural material was preserved. The archaeologists eventually uncovered 55 coffins, 29 human skeletons, some additional skeletal remains, mortuary artifacts, grave markers, funeral hardware, and ornaments. At this location, where nineteenth-century San Francisco citizens were once buried, twenty-first-century USF students, some destined to save lives as future physicians, now study science and conduct research.
Alan Ziajka, Ph.D.
Associate Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and University Historian