The story of the Catholic Church in San Mateo County begins with the landing of Don Gaspar de Portola. He was accompanied by the Franciscans, who under Junipero Serra immediately set to work to establish missions. Two were founded in the region of the Great Bay; Mission Dolores in 1776 and Mission Santa Clara in 1777, A settlement at San Mateo followed as a matter of course; and so the first beginning of this city was a hacienda or inn where travelers could stay over night and stable their horses. The hacienda stood where the Camino Real spanned the Creek. Later on during the short lived era of the Spanish rancheros there was some sort of .a chapel near the hacienda where mass was said by the padres on their way between the missions.
The missions were confiscated by the Mexican government in 1835 and the Franciscans banished, but with the annexation of California to the United States there came better clays for the Church. The Jesuits took up the work at Santa Clara, and the pioneer Catholics who arrived in the late forties found Father Piccardo already visiting stations along the highway at Halfmoon Bay.
The demand for building material in the growing city of San Francisco created the lumber industry of San Mateo. In the middle fifties there were men felling trees in La Honda, sawing them at Searsville and loading them into barges at the Embarcadero. Searsville was then the metropolis. It stood near the lake of that name to the west of Palo Alto. Many of the pioneers were Irish immigrants who were fleeing the iniquitous troubles of ’48. Among the first to take up land was Dennis Martin. He built a, chapel on his land, which he dedicated to St. Dennis; and this church at Searsville was for a time the center of Catholicism in the county. It was an outmission from Santa Clara. In 1857 Archbishop Alemany sent Father Cotter to Searsville to report on the feasibility of making it a parish. He considered the enterprise premature, but Father Dennis Dempsey came in 1858, and remained, and for a quarter of a century was the apostle of the county.
His first act was to move to San Mateo from Searsville. There were Irish settlements at San Mateo and Colma and some Catholics at the Embarcadero (now Redwood City). Searsville was no longer central, but mass was said at St. Dennis until a new chapel was built in 1870 at Mayfield. The old cemetery was used for burial up to twenty years ago, when the property passed over to the University.
When Father Dempsey moved to San Mateo he stopped at the Peter Casey Ranch, at Beresford. The nonagenarian; Mr. Casey is still alive and a pillar of St. Catherine’s Church at Burlingame. He loves to tell how he and the priests began the work at San Mateo how they hitched the mare and called on the McNamaras and Morgans and Mees and Caseys and Burns and Claffeys and Torpeys and Trowells and O’Callaghans and Gainors and Peytons and Dolans. Many of these families lived in the Canada; their ranches being bought subsequently by the Spring Valley Water Company. The Church and cottage at San Mateo were finished in 1860 and Father Dempsey set to work at once in the Sand Hills, as Colma was called. We are familiar with the names of the pioneers at Colma. Their sons and grandsons are still residents there-the McMahons, the Rileys, the Caseys, the Thorntons, the Knowles, the Brooks, the Dolans, the Codys, the Casserlys, the Devlins and the Castles.
With two out missions and the station at Spanishtown, Father Dempsey needed an assistant priest. One was sent in 1861 in the person of W. Briody, a young Irishman who hoped, all in vain, that the climate of California would save him from tuberculosis. He died in a year or so and was succeeded by Father Bowman who labored on with his pastor till the Master of the Vineyard called both away in 1881. Father Cooper succeeded Father Bowman as assistant, and was a genial and beloved figure in San Mateo for a quarter of a century. He became pastor of Ocean View and Colma in 1897.
Spanishtown dates from the days of the rancheros but there was no chapel until the early fifties. It was an outlying district visited by the Franciscans from Santa Clara and later by Father Piccardo. Indeed the Jesuit missionary continued his ministrations after Father Dempsey arrived and was of great assistance in dealing with the Spanish people. Mass was said on the Vasquez ranch, where Vasquez gave land about 1850 for a chapel and cemetery. The latter is still in use and is a familiar object as one approaches the town from the east. Vasquez’s grave marks the sight of the first chapel. When the town of Halfmoon Bay assumed some proportions, the chapel was found to be too small and too far away. A new one was built which still serves as a parish hall adjoining the pretentious structure erected in 1883 by Father Santandreu who was appointed pastor in the seventies when the parish passed out of Father Dempsey’s jurisdiction.
The indefatigable Father Dempsey built six churches. The fourth scene of his labors was Redwood City, where there was a colony of Irish immigrants. This city was a seaport of some pretentions until the railroad came. When the city fathers of San Francisco cut San Francisco County in two, thereby creating San Mateo County, Redwood, after a heroic struggle with San Mateo, became the seat of county government. The Church followed the people into the booming town, and in 1863 could boast of a chapel of its own. The little edifice still opens its portals to the congregation, as the original building is the front half of the present Mount Carmel. Redwood parish boasts of a parochial school conducted by the Notre Dame Sisters and attended by over two hundred children. A resident pastor was sent there in 1887 in the person of Father Dan O’Sullivan.
Menlo Park was an aftermath of the railroad. When some sort of transportation facilities were accorded, many of the successful pioneers were attracted by the climate and the oaks to this spot where they built summer homes. A village naturally grew up around the depot. For the accommodation of the Catholics, Father Dempsey in the seventies, built a church among them. In 1880 Father Spreckels was made pastor there with Redwood and Hayfield as out missions. He was succeeded subsequently by Fathers Riordan, Brennan, McKinnon, Lyons, and Hannigan, the present incumbent. Father McKinnon was appointed in 1905 and his first work was to open missions at Portola and Palo Alto.
Menlo Park occupied a prominent place in the archdiocese owing to the presence of St. Patrick’s Seminary. The seminary is, in a sense, the very heart of Catholic life in the diocese, for it is there that young men are prepared for the priesthood. There are one hundred and forty there at present in the various classes of the twelve-year course. The parish is also the site of the Academy of the Sacred Heart, which is attended in particular by the daughters of the wealthy. A parochial school is also conducted under Catholic auspices.
When Menlo, Redwood and Mayfield were cut off, the parish of San Mateo comprised only the north end of the county and the mission of Ocean View in San Francisco. It was administered by Fathers Dempsey and Bowman until their death in 1881 when .Fathers Birmingham as pastor and Cooper as assistant arrived on the scene.
In the course of a few years Father Birmingham was transferred by Archbishop Riordan to San Francisco; since then it has been the privilege of San Mateo to enjoy the gentle rule of Father Callaghan. From the eighties until 1906 there was no growth in the county. In that year the opening of the Bay Shore Tunnels offered easy communication with the city and the great conflagration precipitated matters. Very soon the county doubled her population. Many of the refugees became permanent residents and with the influx of many families there came new parishes.
St. Catherine’s at Burlingame was organized in 1908 with San Bruno and Millbrae as missions; and in 1913 San Bruno became a parish by itself with Millbrae as a mission. In 1914 two more parishes were organized; one at South City and one at Colma. In all there are now in the county eight parishes-Colma, South San Francisco, San Bruno, Burlingame, San Mateo, Redwood City, Halfmoon Bay. and Menlo Park. There are missions with churches at Millbrae, Portola, San Gregorio and Pescadero. Beside the parochial organizations, there are two large institutions,-the seminary and academy at Menlo and parochial schools at Menlo and Redwood City.