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‘Eternal life condos’ at St. Dominic’s

The columbarium is behind the grand main altar of the church.

The columbarium is behind the grand main altar of St. Dominic’s Church.


For devout Catholics who plan ahead and believe in eternal life, a meeting with Judie Doherty might be wise. She is the overseer of the most desirable property of its kind in San Francisco — a final resting place in the columbarium at St. Dominic’s Church at 2390 Bush Street.

Inside the Gothic-style church, with its flying buttresses and roots that date back to 1873, are the final 48 of the original 320 niches reserved for the cremated remains of parishioners of St. Dominic’s.

The placement of the columbarium in the church makes it prime property. “It’s within the Friars Chapel behind the grand main altar of the church and along the ambulatory walkway that encircles the altar,” says Father Michael Hurley, the pastor of St. Dominic’s. “It’s where the Dominican brothers would meet and say the different daily prayers.”

Doherty, a St. Dominic’s parishioner and a former senior vice president of San Francisco’s McKesson Corp., has the energy of an entrepreneur and the sensitivity of a salesperson who deals in delicate wares — and a wry sense of humor.

A driving force in launching the columbarium in 2010, she describes the 12x12x12-inch niches — stainless steel on the inside with a marble facing on the outside — as “ELCs, or eternal life condos.”

The columbarium is within the Friars Chapel behind the grand main altar of the church.

Many of the columbarium’s niches are within the Friars Chapel at St. Dominic’s.

All niches in the columbarium will accommodate one or two people. When it opened, prices ranged from $4,700 up to $16,200; however, the 48 remaining niches now range from $10,700 to $16,200.

“It’s about location, location, location,” Doherty says. The higher priced niches are inside the Friars Chapel, which she calls “the best seats in the house.” All prices include the name and pertinent dates of the deceased, engraved in marble.

There are also additional options for honoring the deceased. There is a large Wall of Remembrance with memorial plaques available at $300 each. The “remembered” does not have to be a parishioner or connected to the church, says Doherty.

St. Dominic’s, with 3,400 registered parishioners, has made internment in the columbarium financially straightforward. There is one charge and payments can be made in equal amounts over 12 to 18 months, with no interest on the outstanding balance. Ten percent of the niches are set aside at a reduced price for low income and indigent registered parishioners.

But Doherty insists interment in the columbarium at St. Dominic’s is “about being in your church forever, about being in a sacred place. It is about preplanning. It’s not about the money.”

Doherty is a true believer. She was a key player — along with a team of church leaders including former pastor Father Xavier Lavagetto, tax attorney Donald Fitzgerald, church administrator Michael Rossi and other parishioners — in creating the columbarium at St. Dominic’s. Her motivation: Doherty’s own mother’s cremains were in her home, and the idea her mother would have a final resting place in her church was, she says, “extremely comforting.”

The columbarium includes a wall of remembrance. Photographs by Rose Hodges.

The columbarium includes a wall of remembrance. Photographs by Rose Hodges.

Getting permission to create a columbarium was no small undertaking. The Catholic Church had a worldwide ban on cremation until 1963. But it was not until 2012 that St. Dominic’s became the first — and still the only — Catholic church in San Francisco to offer a columbarium to its parishioners.

The Neptune Society of Northern California operates a secular and architecturally distinctive columbarium at Stanyan and Anza, and four Episcopal churches in San Francisco also have onsite columbariums.

“The tradition of burying folks in a church goes all the way back to the very beginning of the church,” says Father Hurley. “The first places of Catholic worship were cemeteries — actually the Roman catacombs, the tunnels for burials where Christians would go to worship to avoid persecution.”

As Father Hurley explains it, the Catholic Church opposed traditional cremation for so many years because the disintegration of the body would thwart the resurrection of body and spirit. “In this contemporary age, cremation is permissible for practical and financial reasons as long as it is not an implicit denial of the resurrection of the body,” he says.

When the niches all sell, can the columbarium at St Dominic’s be expanded, even double decked under the church’s soaring ceiling?

A cryptic question indeed.

“Any discussion of that would be very preliminary,” says Father Hurley. “Right now, we are focused on filling the niches we have.”

EARLIER: St. Dominic’s creating a columbarium