Wheel Vector

St. Isidore Celebrates a Centennial

By Beverly Lane

St. Isidore’s Catholic parish

St. Isidore’s Catholic parish was founded in 1910 in Danville. But that date certainly doesn’t mark the first Catholic service here.

In 1772, before the founding of Mission Dolores in San Francisco, Father Juan Crespi accompanied the Fages expedition through the San Ramon Valley. He may well have presided over a mass at their camp site in Danville. In Crespi’s diary entry for March 31, 1772, he said “This valley appeared to me to be a charming site for a settlement (mission), with all the advantages that are required.”
The next known mass took place here in 1875 at the home of Edward and Mary McCauley. The mass was celebrated in Green Valley on the occasion of a sick call by the Dominican Rev. James H. Aerden. At this time Father Aerden set up a regular celebration of mass at the Alamo Hotel Hall on the fifth Sunday of each month.

Eight years later, in 1883, Rev. Lawrence Serda took charge of Walnut Creek, Lafayette and Moraga Valley and celebrated mass for a congregation composed of ten families in the Walnut Creek Grange Hall on the second and fourth Sundays of the month. In 1884, on land donated by Mr. and Mrs. Antone Silva Botelho, a church was constructed in Walnut Creek and dedicated in two services, one in Portuguese and one in English.

According to the Walnut Creek Courier Journal in 1937, “On April 20, 1910, Archbishop Patrick W. Riordan established Danville as a parish center, appointing the Rev. John Collins as the first pastor. St. Mary’s Mission of Walnut Creek was then detached from Martinez and transferred to the parish of Danville.

“Father Collins gathered his congregation for Sunday Mass at the Grange Hall in Danville, living the while in the Danville Hotel until the church and rectory were completed late in the year 1911. St. Isidore’s church is Danville is built according to the Mission style of architecture. It is a frame building with a seating capacity of 300. In 1913 the Rev. J. J. Hennissey added a bell tower to the original structure.”

The church and rectory cost $11,000. Located at the corner of Hartz Avenue and Linda Mesa, the church was dedicated by Archbishop Riordan on July 28, 1912. Father Peter C. Yorke preached the dedication sermon.

St. Isidore’s Golden Jubilee program states: “The firm of Shea and Loquist was selected as the architects, while the contract for the buildings was given to Stanley and Archer.” “The new parish of St. Isidore embraced expansive boundaries, taking in the Tassajara School District, bordering Livermore and Pleasanton, touching the Hayward and Oakland parishes on the west, including Moraga Valley and Orinda, and the boundaries of the Martinez and Concord parishes to the north, and along to the eastern slopes of Mount Diablo.” Other parishes were formed from St. Isidore’s beginning in 1941. In 1960 the parish boundaries went to Livorna Rd, the County line on south and the Morgan Territory on the eastern slope of Mount Diablo.

Chuck Fereira remembered the friendly Father Plunkett with a funny anecdote recently. In the 1950s, when he and friends attended a Catholic education class after school one day a week, the boys occasionally gave the nuns some problems. Sister sent them to Father Plunkett for another level of discipline. After saying they needed to behave, he gave them candy and sent them on their way. Perhaps a different message than Sister had in mind!

As the Valley’s population swelled after World War II, the congregation outgrew the original church and a new St. Isidore’s Church was completed on La Gonda Way. In 1960 the congregation celebrated its Golden Jubilee, dedicating the program to Father Henry Plunkett who served the church from 1951 to 1958.

In 1963 the old building was razed while many in the congregation watched with sorrow. Tony Cabral, who had worked on the church when he was just 22, said only the finest materials were used and “was built better than the buildings of today.” He saved some wrought iron railing and a large post from the wreckage. Lena Fereira recalled that her mother, Mary, cared for the altar and did much of the maintenance work in the church for 35 consecutive years.

Sources: Museum archives, The Fages-Crespi Expedition of 1772, p. 21; Walnut Creek Courier Journal, July 29, 1937; St. Isidore’s Jubilee Program; Valley Pioneer Dec. 18, 1963; Chuck Fereira Aug 1, 2007

St. Isidore’s Builds a New Church

By Beverly Lane

St. Isidore’s Builds a New Church

The original St. Isidore’s church served the community faithfully for over 50 years.

The church building itself evolved, adding a taller bell tower and white siding. Father Henry Plunkett came in 1952 and watched as the church membership grew too large for the facilities.

Columnist and teacher Al Gentile was active in the Holy Name Society at the church. In one of his columns he recalled Father Plunkett’s plans for expansion. “I remember well the night Father Plunkett told all of us in the Holy Name Society his plans for the future. He invited us all to have dinner with him at the Danville Hotel and, in his after-dinner speech, he told us that he had purchased the land on which the church and school now stands (in 1956). And then he lowered the boom: ‘All you have to do now, gentlemen,‘ he said, ‘is to spread yourselves through Danville, San Ramon and Alamo and go out and get enough pledge money to raise a good home for our patron saint, Isidore!’

“ ‘I’m tired of me old house, I’m very much looking forward to me new house,’ Father Plunkett said with a pronounced Irish brogue. The old Irishman had a remarkable sense of humor, and that’s the truth. Ask anybody who was there at the time.”

The new buildings moved quickly. First the school was completed in 1958, designed by Jack Buchter, A.I.A., of Lafayette and assisted by James Crossen of Danville. The contractor was George Hanson of San Leandro. The school was conducted by the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis and a convent with chapel was situated adjacent to the church. It was formally dedicated in 1963.

Since the Sisters were not ready to open the school in 1958, the rooms were rented for public school classes from 1958-1960. The Danville School District was overcrowded and scheduling double sessions. Bruce Marhenke recalls that Montair School opened in 1958 and four classes, dubbed the “Montair Annex” were conducted at St. Isidore’s for the next two years. They also had an office which the teachers shared.

When Vista Grande opened in September, 1960, most of the students went to that school. The boundary line for Montair and Vista Grande was Danville Blvd. Marhenke was the first principal for Vista Grande and recalled students cutting across open fields down Bobbi Lane to school. The freeway was not built from Walnut Creek to Danville until 1964.

By 1961 the new St. Isidore’s Church and rectory were completed and, in May of 1962, the church was blessed. The old church and rectory were razed in 1963, to some tears. Friz Fereira, whose grandmother had so faithfully tended the church, handled the land’s sale.

As the congregation grew, additional improvements were needed. In early 1978 the Msgr. Julius Benson Community Center was completed. The next year with the parish population reaching 2,4000, St. Joan of Arc Parish was established. In 1994 the diocese decided to improve the facilities instead of creating yet another parish when the parish census reached 3,600.

Today La Gonda Avenue has St. Isidore Catholic buildings on both sides. The school has expanded to include, administrative buildings and a double gymnasium, the Rettig Activities Center, Kids Konnection for baby and child care and a Youth Center with activities and meeting space.

Local drivers all notice the creamy white statue of St. Isidore the Farmer on La Gonda, erected in 1985 on the 75th Anniversary of the parish and dedicated to the memory of Msgr. Julius Bensen. Msgr. Bensen was recognized as the builder of the church, school and rectory on La Gonda Way where he was Pastor from 1959 to 1978.

From a little country parish, to a thriving twenty-first century one, St. Isidore’s has been blessed by energetic pastors, diverse programs and generations of faithful parishioners. Congratulations are in order for its Centennial.

Sources: From Here and There, Al Gentile, April 3, 1999, museum archives, Jubilee programs, St. Isidore Church web site, Walnut Creek Courier-Journals.

This article first appeared as a column called Presenting the Past in the Danville Weekly.