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placeholder Berkeley parish launches centenary celebration

Priest musician sings one Sunday Mass each week

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placeholder January 5, 2009   •   VOL. 47, NO. 1   •   Oakland, CA

Parishioners join hands for the Lord’s Prayer.
all photos by José Luis Aguirre
Berkeley parish launches centenary celebration

Bishop Emeritus John Cummins, surrounded by some of the 15 priests who concelebrated the liturgy, gives a final blessing. The Knights of Columbus (right) form an honor guard.

For several months John Mullarkey, an electrician by trade, has been trying to piece together the history of his parish, St. Ambrose in Berkeley, using a most precious resource — his own memory.

Although he has been a member of the parish for over six decades, Mullarkey, 81, can remember a number of details about parish life in the late 1940s as if they happened yesterday.

In those years following World War II, for example, parishioners literally flocked to the church for Mass on Sundays. “Every Sunday there were five Masses — at 6, 7:30, 9, 10:30 a.m. and 12 noon,” he said. The church, he added, was usually filled — except for the 6 a.m. liturgy which, he said with a laugh, was attended by three nurses who came before the start of their hospital shift.

The church, nestled in the midst of neighborhood homes, has never offered much in the way of parking. Though considered an inconvenience for today’s parishioners, the lack of parking in the late 1940s and early 1950s did not matter much because parishioners walked to church. And, the parish historian noted, “There were not many cars.”

Mullarkey also remembers the excitement surrounding the construction of the current church at the corner of Gilman Street and Cornell Avenue in 1952. Father Andrew Carroll, who served as pastor from 1946 — 1966, oversaw the effort that involved a funding campaign by men of the parish who went door-to-door to solicit support.

Father Joseph Paradayil, parochial administrator, in front of St. Ambrose Church.

These memories and other information gathered over the years by Mullarkey and fellow parishioners is being gathered together in the hope that a history book will be ready for St. Ambrose’s 100th anniversary in December.

Last month the parish launched its official year-long countdown to the anniversary celebration with a Mass on Dec. 7. Bishop Emeritus John Cummins joined Salesian Father Joseph Paradayil, the parish’s parochial administrator, and 15 priests for the liturgy. Following the Mass, the festivities continued in the parish hall where over 300 people were served lunch.

After a year of events, still in the planning stages, parishioners will gather again in the church on Dec. 6 to conclude the centennial celebrations with a Mass with Bishop Allen Vigneron.

In the meantime, John Mullarkey is continuing his work on the parish history. While information prior to 1940 has so far eluded him, he is certain about the parish’s creation story: St. Ambrose Parish was established by San Francisco Archbishop Patrick Riordan on Dec. 7, 1909 to help accommodate growing numbers of Catholics who moved to northwest Berkeley in the months following the earthquake and fire that devastated San Francisco in 1906.

Father (later Msgr.) Robert Sampson, founding pastor, presided over the building of the parish’s first church at the corner of Gilman Street and Stannage Avenue at a cost of $12,500. The first Mass in the new church took place on Christmas Day 1910.

Parishioners read over a page in the missalette for the liturgy.

When the present church was built 40 years later the old rectory was moved to make room for the new place of worship.

Parish demographics have also changed over the years. When a housing complex for married students at UC Berkeley was built in the 1950s, the parish saw the addition of couples who attended until they graduated and another group of students would begin coming to Mass. The construction of the BART system caused the displacement of many parishioners, and other families left because the parish did not have a school.

Choir members sing hymns in both English and Spanish.

The ethnic mix of the parish, which began with families of Italian and Irish backgrounds, now includes Filipino and African American parishioners and a growing number of Latinos, including employees at the nearby race track. The parish has added a Spanish Mass at 12:15 p.m. on Sundays.

Along with a lively choir, the Spanish-speaking community has contributed to the parish’s landscape by transforming an area next to the church into an attractive plaza that includes a tile mosaic of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

In 2001, St. Ambrose Parish, which has about 700 registered members, experienced another breath of fresh air when the Salesians of Don Bosco assumed the administrative reigns of the parish. Parishioners like Mullarkey believe these newest additions are helping to usher in an era of revitalization in the community.

“We’re lucky,” Mullarkey said. “We have good people.”  

Choir members in song at the Dec. 7 Mass.

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