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April 4, 2006 > Earthquake- A hundred year testament

Earthquake- A hundred year testament

by Vidya Pradhan

Tucked away in the basement of a beautiful building in Fremont are two pieces of history from one of the worst natural disasters in the Bay Area.

Shortly after 5 a.m. on an April morning in 1906, the ground began to rumble. Within seconds the terrifying sound of the ground moving under their feet had awakened the inhabitants of San Francisco and surrounding towns. The quake is said to have lasted only a minute but the damage it did still resonates.

This story relates to the events as experienced by the Dominican Sisters both from the Immaculate Conception Academy (ICA) in San Francisco and from our very own Mission San Jose.

Saint Dominic established the Dominican Order in 1206. Three centuries after his death in 1221, members of the order landed on the Atlantic coast along with the Spanish colonists. In 1876, a group of sisters from Brooklyn, urged by Joseph Alemany, the Dominican Archbishop of San Francisco, moved to California to respond to the educational needs of German immigrants in the state. By 1888 these sisters became the Dominican congregation of Mission San Jose, under the leadership of Mother Maria Pia Backes.

The order's members were primarily dedicated to proclaiming truth and the gospel message through preaching and teaching. To this end they started several schools of which the Immaculate Conception Academy (ICA) on Guerrero St. in San Francisco was one and the Josephinum at Mission San Jose was another.

When the earthquake hit, the damage it did was not restricted to just ground movement and displacement and destruction of several buildings. A bigger hazard were the fires that ripped through the city, completely destroying up to 490 city blocks and killing anywhere between 500 and 700 people.

Since most buildings were too far away from the Marina and water mains had been destroyed by the quake, sometimes the only recourse available to the firefighters to stop the fire from spreading was to dynamite buildings in the fire's path.

The ICA convent was targeted for dynamiting and the sisters were in a quandary about what to do with all the precious possessions of the church. Finally it was decided that the big altar and the picture above the altar would be moved to higher ground near St. Anthony's Church in Bernal Heights. Sister Pulcheria Reichert and an unidentified companion loaded the large pieces onto a dray wagon and set off to the new location. As the horse drawn wagon slowly wended its way through the rubble of the destroyed city, people knelt in the streets asking for the blessing of the Holy Mother. The other sisters buried office books, candlesticks and statues in the convent garden, which was the best plan they could think of with such short notice.
That night, the direction of the wind changed and the fire moved away from the ICA so there was no longer any need to dynamite the building. Praising this miracle, the sisters brought back all the artifacts to the convent over the next couple of days.

Meanwhile, back in Mission San Jose, the damage was even greater. While there was some damage to the seminary building and the adjoining house, the kitchen and refectory were completely destroyed.

When the buildings were destroyed by the quake, the inhabitants were forced to spend the greater part of the day outdoors. By 1906, the Josephinum had become an orphanage housing mainly girls and perhaps their infant brothers. Over the next couple of weeks, activities of the orphanage were carried out in the open, which for the children was like an elaborate and lengthy picnic. The sisters found time to bring help to the quake-hit residents of nearby Washington Township. Many people who lost their belongings in San Francisco found refuge here. Residents reported that they could feel the heat from the San Francisco fire 30 miles away.

Events of that day and subsequent ones are recorded in the Novitiate Annals, a book kept by the newest members of the order, a tradition that continues to this day. Eventually the altar and altarpiece picture landed at the Mission San Jose headquarters of the Dominican Sisters. They are beautiful pieces of art, enormous in size, a testimony to the piety of the two sisters who carried them to safety. The mind boggles at the complexity of their task.

For more information on the Dominican Sisters and their history, contact Sister Evangela Balde, OP at (510) 657-2468.

1. Novitiate Annals.
2. "Two centuries of Mission San Jose," Philip Holmes.

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