Finding the Sacred at the University of San Francisco

By Rev. Donal Godfrey, S.J., Associate Director of University Ministry, University of San Francisco

A few times each semester, I collaborate with my colleagues in Human Resources at the University of San Francisco (USF) to take a small group of faculty and staff on a tour through our campuses. As we walk familiar paths, past the buildings in which we work and teach every day, we talk about where we can find the sacred on our main campus, in the heart of San Francisco. 

Our campus is stunningly situated between the Golden Gate Bridge and Golden Gate Park. The lower campus is dominated by St. Ignatius Church, a vibrant urban parish and the scene of convocations and graduations. The upper campus sits high on Lone Mountain, with views of downtown’s financial district, the Bay, and the Marin headlands. 

As our group walks, catching our breath at the top of hills and taking in the beauty all around us, I remind them that the sacred is personal, and that God is in all things: in the crowded, complex city over there; in the carefully tended garden over here. You may find the sacred in the quiet of the library or the peal of bells from St. Ignatius Church. Your colleagues and friends may have found the sacred in a science lab or on the soccer field; in a history lecture or at a hip hop dance class.  

I encourage my walking companions to cultivate their own sacred spaces – be it the view from a bench at the top of the Lone Mountain steps or regular time visiting the University's art gallery. I also remind them that the campus is constantly changing, with art installations, Holy Day celebrations, memorials and more. Taking full advantage of these special moments can be transformative.

Earlier this year, in the atrium and rooftop of Kalmanovitz Hall (the University’s humanities building), artist Paz de la Calzada invited visitors to explore the meaning of passage and transformation with a site-specific installation called “Portale.” Inspired by a common ornamental pattern used in churches of Northern Italy, de la Calzada intricately pieced together reclaimed carpet (from hotels and casinos!) to form a path that linked a Romanesque monument inside of the building with the atrium space. This colorful path led visitors upstairs to walk a permanent “Nomadic Labyrinth” located on the rooftop. Used throughout history and in spiritual practices around the world, labyrinths serve as paths for contemplation, meditation and reflection. In creating the carpet path, the artist evoked with irony the relationship between the sacred and the profane, and encouraged the viewer to be open to what a change in perspective can mean.

My walking tour conversations have reminded me, too, of the sacred moments that emerge in dialogue. The Óscar Romero Room in the offices that house USF’s department of University Ministry is a constant venue for such dialogue – conversations among student groups; meetings to plan gatherings, events and liturgies; preparation for immersion trips or retreats; and discussions on difficult issues and topics on campus. Romero, the fourth archbishop of San Salvador, El Salvador, who actively worked and spoke out against poverty, social injustice, assassination and torture, was himself murdered in 1980 while offering Mass. A portrait of Romero dominates the room and is a dramatic presence that reminds students, faculty and staff who gather and talk here, that we are all seeking understanding; that together we can create a brave space where we can learn from each other.

Each November, USF marks the 1989 assassinations of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador. Their lives and their work for justice for the people of San Salvador are remembered with a temporary installation in a heavily trafficked location at the top of the Lone Mountain stairs. Staked in the garden are eight simple white crosses, each baring the name of one of the dead, including Rev. Ignacio Martín-Baró, S.J., for whom the garden is named. A psychologist and vice rector of the University of Central America, Fr. Martín-Baro is also the namesake of a signature first-year living-learning community at USF. The Martín-Baró Scholars engage in a rigorous academic curriculum and work alongside our community partners to bring about concrete and lasting change.

Our magnificent St. Ignatius Church is the legacy of a dynamic and continuous Jesuit presence in San Francisco from the city’s earliest days. The first St. Ignatius Church was a simple, wooden structure on then-remote Market Street. It was dedicated in July 1855, only six years after the first Jesuits arrived in San Francisco from Italy.

The first church grew to accommodate the needs of the growing city. A three-story, brick school building was built adjacent to it in 1862, into which the St. Ignatius Church worshiping community moved its services. The next iteration of St. Ignatius Church was built at Hayes Street and Van Ness Avenue. It was dedicated in 1880 and stood on the site now occupied by Symphony Hall. After its destruction by fire following the 1906 earthquake, the Jesuits moved to the western edge of the City near Golden Gate Park, where a small, stucco building served as their church. The Jesuits then acquired the piece of land atop the hill at the corner of Parker Avenue and Fulton Street with a vision to construct a building “with towering outlines visible from all parts of the City” and “stately towers piercing the air above the breakers.”* Built between 1910 and 1914, and dedicated on August 2, 1914, the fifth St. Ignatius Church is, indeed, a San Francisco landmark.

Often referred to as “Jesuit Baroque,” the architectural style of St. Ignatius Church is eclectic, drawing inspiration from the Italian and Spanish Baroque, the works of Sir Christopher Wren, and Greek and Roman classical principles. Sculptural ornamentation, typical of the classical style, adorns the exterior, including the statue of St. Ignatius on the upper story above the Fulton Street entrance portico.

While St. Ignatius Church is an icon for the University, the opportunities for quiet prayer within are available to all. The Church’s mission complements the University’s, with community outreach, ministry programs, and a student-centered Mass every Sunday during the school year.

The Multi-Faith Meditation Room, located in the same building that houses University Ministry, provides a sanctuary where people of all faiths and religious traditions may retreat for prayer, meditation and spiritual activities. The space features several design elements or symbols that are represented in all of the world's major religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam, Baha'i, Judaism, Taoism, Confucianism and Christianity.

Bells have long been used as a call to prayer, to worship, and to mark the passing of the day. Bells call us to pay attention and be mindful of the ways in which we encounter the sacred or divine in everyday life. The bells featured in the Meditation Room are handmade by Rev. Arturo Araujo, S.J., an assistant professor in the Department of Art and Architecture.

The tree of life is the main decorative motif of the room. It is a symbol that can be found across cultures and speaks deeply about life, tradition, relationships and spiritual growth. Inside the room is a contemporary, non-denominational prayer rug, inspired by many Turkoman prayer rugs. The Mandala symbol on the rug is a spiritual and ritual symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism, representing the universe. Mandalas often demonstrate radial balance.

Perhaps the newest physical space on campus to be considered sacred, or intended for prayer, is the Peace Garden. The Peace Garden was inaugurated a year ago this month during Earth Week celebrations, soon after the campus went smoke- and tobacco-free. Working with administrative offices responsible for Student Life, Facilities, Marketing and Communications, students mapped out a plan to officially change the name of an area formerly designated for smoking. After obtaining approval, they organized a dedication ceremony, and arranged for the addition of a peace pole, formerly housed in University Ministry. Located in a quiet corner in the heart of lower campus, the Peace Garden gives one a chance to pause between classes, catch up on reading, or have a quiet chat with friends.  

The USF Peace Garden is yet another living example of how the sacred is personal. With the multitude of opportunities for prayer, meditation, contemplation and reflection on our busy campuses, we can nurture ways to enrich and restore our lives here in the heart of the city of St. Francis.

*Quotes attributed to church engineers