St. Dominic’s creating a columbarium

A composite photograph shows the burial niches behind the main altar at St. Dominic’s.

FOR THE FIRST TIME since the 1930s, when San Francisco’s cemeteries were dug up and moved to Colma, Catholics will soon have a place to inter their loved ones in the neighborhood.

St. Dominic’s Church is creating a columbarium within its stately Gothic arches and flying buttresses. It will offer 320 niches behind the main altar, each big enough for the cremated remains of two parishioners. They are priced from $4,200 to $15,200, with the most costly located within the Friars Chapel. Others will be in the area around the altar known as the ambulatory.

“It doesn’t disturb the architectural integrity of the church,” said Father Xavier Lavagetto, who persuaded the archbishop of San Francisco to allow the columbarium after repeated requests from members of the church.

The Catholic church banned cremation until 1963. Now approximately half of local Catholics are cremated, but there has been no place in the city to inter their remains, as Catholic doctrine requires.

“A number of people in the parish have grandmother at home,” Father Xavier said.
One of those is Judie Doherty, a St. Dominic’s parishioner who has spearheaded the project to create the columbarium. Her mother’s ashes, currently in an urn in her home, will be among the first to occupy a niche in the new columbarium. At least 15 other members of the parish also keep a relative’s ashes at home, she said.

“There was a need,” said Doherty. “It was a vision of Father Xavier’s many years ago. I knew it was something he wanted to do.”

So Doherty, a former executive at the McKesson Corp. and a refugee from the now-shuttered St. Brigid’s parish, set about researching the possibilities and determined to make it a reality.

So far 120 niches have been sold, more than paying for the project. The revenue from additional sales will go into an endowment to support the work of the church.The niches are 12 x 12 x 12 inches, stainless steel on the inside, faced with limestone and granite. They are being built by a firm in Texas and will be installed this fall.

Doherty refers to them as “ELCs — eternal life condos.” There are six levels of prices, primarily based on the distance from the altar. “It’s about location,” she said. “It’s like real estate.” But she added: “There’s not a bad seat in the house. Everybody’s name will be visible.”

When the niches are installed, Doherty expects sales to increase. “Once I’m not just selling a ‘bridge to nowhere,’ it’ll make a huge difference,” she said.

Half a dozen benches will be installed near the niches. Families may sponsor the benches for $10,000 each. Plaques will be available for $300 each to honor people buried elsewhere. The archbishop required that 10 percent of the niches be set aside for indigent or low income parishioners, said Father Xavier.

There are five other columbaria in the city, including the San Francisco Columbarium, in the inner Richmond. The others are all at Episcopalian churches.

MORE: The Columbarium at St. Dominic’s