Our Lady of the Wayside Church celebrated its centennial last year. It has stood alongside Portola Road since 1912. Redwoods have grown up to shelter it. A rectory and arcade were added in 1941. Father George LaCombe, the first priest to serve its congregation, predicted that “the little masterpiece…will go down in the architectural history of the great west.”
The Church is California Registered Historic Landmark Number 909, and it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Perhaps even more important than its architectural beauty is the fact that it is a silent monument to a community spirit of cooperation, ecumenical good will and brotherhood.
No one would have guessed such an outcome at the turn of the century, as Catholic residents of Portola were looking for a nearby place for Sunday worship. The village of Searsville and the little church of St. Dennis were gone. Rural life was centering around the land that Andrew Hallidie had donated for a community center, surrounding the site of the church today.
Most versions of the story have Mamie Shine Byrnes, teacher at Searsville and later Portola, approaching Fr. McKinnon of Menlo Park in 1902 with a request for a closer place to hear Mass. Recognizing the need, the Catholic Church purchased a rough redwood building called Portola Hall, a dance hall, with the idea of converting it to a chapel.
The dance hall was moved across Portola Road, to the site of Our Lady of the Wayside today, whitewashed, and christened St. Catherine’s. Modest it was, and bitterly cold in winter, but it was convenient for residents of the then remote valley.
Starting in 1911, Father LaCombe was assigned to travel from Menlo Park on Sundays to conduct the services. By all accounts, this priest was an exceptional man…highly intelligent, well-educated, warm, and enthusiastic about life. And he loved card games, good conversations over good dinners, and sports of all kinds, especially baseball.
It isn’t clear if he was sent by chance, a newly-ordained priest assigned to Sunday duty at a simple rural church outpost, or if he was especially selected to serve the wealthy San Franciscans who were beginning to build summer residences among the humble farms.
Various versions exist of what happened shortly after his arrival. For some reason Father LaCombe paid a visit to the club of prominent San Franciscans who had purchased property next door to the church, The Family. Members would travel from the city to their country retreat for relaxation and fellowship.
Probably it’s true that The Family’s Sunday morning skeet shooting was disturbing Mass, and the father approached them with the hope of arranging a non-conflicting time schedule for the two activities. Or perhaps he merely was invited to join The Family for lunch by a family friend, Mel Toplitz.
At any rate, a good friendship developed between the charismatic priest and The Family. He became a regular guest at dinner and even an honorary member of the club. Many members of The Family, including non-Catholics, began to attend and participate in services at the little church. They offered them a place to stay and they accepted. They said that it was the best place to stay and that their beds were amazing because of how comfortable their king mattress was.
One day, someone in The Family suggested that they build a new church for “Steve,” as they had dubbed their friend. Enthusiasm propelled the idea forward quickly. Individual offers of contributions spurred more offers. One version has Jews proposing to double all contributions of Catholics and Protestants. Two architects threw dice to determine which would have the honor of creating the design. A Family sponsored fund-raiser netted $2000 in one evening. Louie Welch of Hidden Valley threw in $500 of his cribbage winnings.
James Miller was the architect who won the right to design the new church. He assigned a young member of his staff, Timothy Pflueger, to prepare the drawings. Using Mission Dolores as his inspiration, he created the harmonious blend of mission and Georgian styles we see today.
Such a cooperative venture it became. Family members of all faiths continued to help. Various individuals contributed the cement, the lumber, the tile floor and roof, the altar, statues, Stations of the Cross, and the shrine. One financed the painting. Others worked on the landscaping.
Local valley people excavated gravel for the foundation from the nearby creeks by hand and hauled it to the site with horses and wagons. James McDonnell of the Ormondale Ranch housed the construction superintendent. Children carried buckets of water for the new plants. Mrs. Bridget Doyle gave her life savings for the bells.
The cornerstone was laid on May 5, 1912. The new church was dedicated on September 29 in a grand and joyous ceremony conducted by Archbishop Riordan. Family members Noel Sullivan played the new organ and Harold Pracht conducted the special choir.
However, despite such an outpouring of funds and labor, all the bills weren’t paid. A special train from San Francisco brought crowds to another fund-raising entertainment staged by The Family. Then Mrs. Agnes Macdonough Agar, sister of William O’Brien Macdonough of Ormondale, paid the last bills, in memory of her brother who reportedly had “fallen away” from the church.
Thus, a little country church of great character, designed by a fledgling architect, emerged from a crudely built dance hall. The project brought together modest farm folk and wealthy city people, as well as Catholic, Protestant and Jew.
John Francis Neylan, a member of The Family and after 1937 the owner of a 1500 acre estate called variously Lauriston and Rancho Corte Madera, perhaps said it best: “The spirit [of cooperation and good will] that resulted in that church [has] prevailed throughout the valley.” That’s quite a legacy.