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When I was a kid growing up in multicultural Malaysia, I noticed some neighbors and teachers would quietly disappear just before midday on the Friday before Easter. They were off to church. After I moved to San Francisco and settled as an adult in the even more diverse and multicultural Mission district, I often visited the Mission Dolores church just a block away from home.

There are actually two buildings of worship at the Mission Dolores complex. A low white structure, the actual Mission Dolores church , was built circa 1782-91 of adobe brick, and survived the earthquakes of the 1800s and the famous big one in 1906. It is the oldest surviving building in San Francisco. Next to the Mission, on the street corner (Dolores and 16th Street) is the Mission Dolores Basilica. A Victorian Gothic Revival brick church on this spot was severely damaged in the 1906 quake and was replaced by the current Basilica. Although designed in the Spanish Plateresque style, the exuberant exterior decoration is not carved of stone, as at the cathedrals of Salamanca and Santiago de Campostela, but appears to be of cast material.

Mission Dolores church and Basilica

Mission Dolores church and Basilica

One Good Friday years ago, I went to the Mission’s Basilica to watch the Stations of the Cross, a rather long ceremony performed in front of a series of plaques illustrating the significant moments on the last day in the life of Jesus. Then I understood what my Catholic neighbors and teachers had experienced.

In the evening of this most somber of Christian holidays, a service called Liturgy of the Word is held simultaneously in both buildings at Mission Dolores. Conducted in English in the old Mission, and in Spanish at the Basilica. I went to the Mission for its Old World ambience. After about an hour and with no pause—so I did not know the service had ended—the congregation was led into the Basilica by singing choristers where the next ceremony called the Veneration of the Cross and Holy Communion was conducted bilingually. There was a lot of kneeling and standing. Then a large cross was paraded up the center aisle by priests and attendants, and passed over the heads of the worshippers, pew by pew. This veneration took a while as there were a lot of pews. After the communion was celebrated, a solemn procession called Santo Entierro started from the Basilica’s portal into the street. Santo Entierro means Holy Burial in Spanish and it was interesting to witness the local, predominantly Hispanic Catholic community continue this old religious tradition at this historic church.

Santo Entierro catafalque with Christ figure on Dolores Street

Santo Entierro catafalque with Christ figure on Dolores Street

Youth carried black and white banners at the front of the procession. Next was a wooden catafalque with a painted figure of Jesus lying down and covered in white fabric. The catafalque must have been heavy as the men in black robes carrying it stopped often to change positions. A statue standing on a slightly smaller platform decked with flowers and carried by women followed. I assume the figure is of the Virgin Mary. Worshippers singing softly formed the rear portion of this short procession. The designer in me wished they did not use fluorescent bulbs in the catafaque’s canopy to light up the Jesus figure. It might have looked better with LED lights powered by batteries. The LEDs bulbs could be discretely placed along the wood frame or even under the white shroud.

Statue borne by women in the Santo Entierro procession

Statue borne by women in the Santo Entierro procession

This modest and mournful parade of about 100 participants. some carrying lit candles, slowly crept 2 blocks towards Dolores Park before turning around. In contrast, the noisy San Francisco Chinese New Year parade (see video) illuminated by klieg lamps draws an audience of over 700,000. San Francisco is certainly blessed to have such an incredible range of cultural events every year.

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December 2017
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