First dedicated in June of 1904, the Church of the Nativity of Our Lord at 240 Fell Street in downtown San Francisco has been the gathering place for Croatian and Slovenian immigrants, their children and other Slavic Catholics for more than a hundred years.
During the 1850s, many Croatian (primarily from Dalmatia) and Slovenian men from lands in the Austro-Hungarian empire followed thousands from around the world to California's goldfields seeking their fortunes. The first Poles came to the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1840s. By 1860 730 Poles resided in California. Once all these immigrants began to marry and have families, their desire for a church where they could hear God's Word in their own languages, and praise Him in songs from their own traditions became even more powerful.
By the turn of the century, through their societies and leaders, Slovenians and Croatians were regularly petitioning San Francisco's Archbishop Riordan to find a piece of land where they could build their church. Eventually, their petitions were answered and the Archbishop established the parish of Church of the Nativity of Our Lord, purchasing the lot on January 6, 1903. Croatians and Slovenians, through their societies, began to collect money for the land and church building. The Slavonic Mutual & Benevolent Society was an active supporter of the building effort. During this time they were attended by Father Bontempo, S.J., a Jesuit priest who was fluent in the Croatian language and serving as shepherd to Slavic Catholics in the Bay Area. He established a mission at Nativity parish which also served Polonia with clergy of Polish background or familiar with the Polish language.
Eventually, Archbishop Riordan arranged for a young Slovenian priest to take on the assignment as Pastor of Nativity. The first Nativity church was dedicated on June 5, 1904 and burned to the ground in San Francisco's great earthquake and fire of 1906. Father Turk immediately began the task of rebuilding the church on the very same spot. The congregation worshiped in a basement church but in not too many years after, there was a grand celebration of the newly-rebuilt Nativity dedicated once more as God's house on January 21st, 1912.
Through two World Wars, the Great Depression, and the Cold War, Nativity continued to be a haven and home for Croatian and Slovenian immigrants and refugees and their descendants as well as Polish, Czech, Slovak and other Slavic Catholics. In 1955 Nativity served as one of three liturgical centers for Polish immigrants. Croatian Fraternal Union Lodge #1007 "Ivan Mestrovic" was organized at Nativity in May 1968. From 1980 until 1990, Polish Sunday masses were celebrated at Nativity Church. But then disaster struck in 1994 when Archbishop John J. Quinn closed nine churches in San Francisco, Nativity among them.
Nativity's Slovenian and Croatian parishioners held prayer vigils in front of the closed church each Sunday morning for two and a half years until, under the newly appointed Archbishop William Levada, their prayers were answered. In September 1996, Archbishop Levada assigned Fr. Czeslaw Rybacki, S. Ch., chaplain of the St. Wojciech Polish Pastoral Mission, as the new pastor to serve all three groups: the Polish, Croatian and Slovenian communities. Nativity was reopened in December 1996 just in time for Christmas services.
After being closed for more than two years, there was much work to be done to make Nativity a suitable home once more for Our Lord and his flock. And now, fortunately, with three communities to assist in cleaning, repairs, liturgy, hospitality, and other important parish-related responsibilities, there were many hands to share the work. From December 1996 until September 2003, Fr. Rybacki guided the parish, making many needed improvements in the church, hall and rectory.
In September 2003, Fr. Rybacki was transferred to Florida and Fr. Jerzy Frydrych, S.Ch., was welcomed as Nativity's new and current pastor. He arrived in the middle of preparations for Nativity's 100th Anniversary and continued the planning with the parish Centennial Committee. Now that we have reached this historic milestone together, we look forward to a bright future as one of the San Francisco Archdiocese's active ethnic parishes.