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HISTORY OF THE BLESSED SACRAMENT CHURCH
Elk, CA

     Following is a history of the Blessed Sacrament Church.  Unfortunately there is little documentation available concerning the early church as a fire at Saint Anthony's in Mendocino in 1930 destroyed the old records.  However, gleaning information from a variety of sources such as the Archdiocese of San Francisco and  various "old timers" (Flora Buchanan and Ann Daniels and others),  we have done the best we could to capture background information about the church.  In order to save time in loading this history page, we have inserted very few photographs.  However, please check our photo history page that has several pictures of Cuffey's Cove, Greenwood, early parishioners, priests and other items of historical interest.

     The very early priests in Mendocino County had an enormous territory to cover.  According to the Official Service and instruction Book for Mendocino County, California, copyrighted 1911 by Church Publishing Company, "one priest had charge of Fort Bragg, Mendocino, Cuffey's Cove, Point Arena and the whole coast line of Mendocino County."  This territory was covered by horseback in all kinds of weather and was indeed a challenge for the early men of the cloth.

    According to information extracted from the San Francisco Diocese by Mr. John Royce, the original church in the Greenwood/Elk area was established in 1866 as a mission church attached to then Saint Vincent's of Mendocino in the Marysville Diocese.  It was called Saint Patrick's and was erected by Father Vincent Rierra, who resided at Mendocino City.  It was a wooden structure and was 40' x 20' x 14'.  The total cost was $800.00.  The boundaries of this mission extended from the Sonoma County line in the south to the Albion River in the north.  The eastern boundary was the Mountain House to the 'sea highway' (Navarro highway - 128) and territory west of the hills.  The western boundary was the Pacific Ocean highway from Gualala to Albion. The boundaries of this mission remained the same for the Blessed Sacrament Parish when it was established a few years later.  There is no recollection what happened to Saint Patrick's and it is presumed to have been razed.
 
In approximately 1880, Saint Mary's Star of the Sea Catholic Church was constructed at Cuffey's Cove, a small lumber community just north of present day Greenwood / Elk.  The church was built by Father James Sheridan at a cost of $3,000.00 (see Mendocino Beacon, June 30, 1977)  and was situated about 100' inside the gate of present day Cuffey's Cove Catholic Cemetery.  This land for the church and cemetery was donated by James Kenny to the Bishop of Marysville in July of 1879.  The Star of the Sea was a simple gothic wooden structure with an arched ceiling, three aisles in the nave, and three altars in the chancel.  There was a choir gallery inside and above the front entrance.  The dimensions were 76' x 36' x 22' and the spire measured 12' x 12' at the base rising to a peak of 84'.

Photo St. Mary, Star of the Sea, at Cuffey's Cove
St. Mary, Star of the Sea at Cuffey's Cove

    
     Cuffey's Cove was a thriving shipping port community for a number of years with a population in the neighborhood of 300 - 400 people.  A fire, which destroyed much of the town, and the construction of a saw mill and wharf in Greenwood caused most of its residents to move south.
    In 1895 the present day rectory was built to house the resident pastor.  It was erected by Father Walruzel, a French priest.  Evening services and Lenten devotions were held in the rectory in one of the front rooms, while Sunday Mass and funerals continued to be held at St. Mary's Star of the Sea in Cuffey's Cove.

    In 1896 our present Church of the Blessed Sacrament was built on land donated by Michael and Catherine Donahue.  Reverend Father Henry White, an English priest, had the church constructed.  The size of the church is 52'x42'x16'.  The Blessed Sacrament parish was established in this same year and was transferred to the Diocese of San Francisco.  Services continued to be held from time to time at St. Mary Star of the Sea until 1910 after which the building was declared unsafe and a few short years later was torn down.  The bell from the old Saint Mary Star of the Sea, which was purchased in 1880, was brought down to the Blessed Sacrament and used in the bell tower for many years.  Not only did the bell announce Mass, but was also rung to notify the populace in the case of an emergency.  The bell was removed in the early seventies during a renovation project.  Today it is displayed in front of the church and its fine tone resounds throughout the town announcing vigil Mass on Saturday evenings.

    The original Catholic population was largely Irish in the early days with names like Buchanan, Burke, Conway, Cooney, Donahue, Kenney, Rafter, McMaster and so on.  Intrinsically tied to the history of the Catholic Church in the community is the annual Saint Patrick's dinner and dance which began as a grand party thrown by the Native Sons of Little Ireland.  Its history dates back at least as far as 1893 and has become a very important tradition for our little town continuing to this day.  Descendants form some of those early Irish families still reside in Elk, although most have moved out of the area. 

    Although there is not a specific reference to a grand gala celebrating Saint Patrick's in the very early days, the Irish influence in Cuffey's Cove is very clear as evidenced by an excerpt from the CUFFEY'S COVE LETTER, dated March 21, 1878 written by Patt Malloy as it appeared in the Mendocino Beacon.  "On Saint Patrick's Day Mr. O'Connell French, a grandson of the far-famed Daniel O'Connell (O'Connell was called  'The Emancipator'; Irish political leader and MP at O'Connell Westminster in early 19th century)  delivered a lecture here by request.  The lecture was short but very interesting, and delivered in a style and language that indicated that the gentleman is a man of education and refinement."  The same Mr. O'Connell French delivered a lecture on May 1 entitled "An evening in Irish poet-land."  Mr. Malloy had a gift of "blarney" and reflected a bit of the poet himself as shows in his article on Cuffey's Cove to the Mendocino Beacon dated May 10, 1978.  He wrote "On Tuesday morning the sun arose on a happy day in the lives of at least two of our number.  My prophecy proved true, for one bachelor has left our ranks.  Mr. Jerome Rafter and Miss Frankie Brien were married on the 7th by Rev. Father Sheridan. Both bride and bridegroom have been long and favorably known on the coast.  They have gone to San Francisco to spend their honeymoon, and they take with them the best wishes of many friends.  We predict a long and happy life for them.
                                             May heaven always smile on them,
                                                        May treasures bless their home;
                                                        May all the joys of life remain
                                                        with Frankie and Jerome."


     In the 1890s and the early part of the 20th century, a large Italian population settled in the area adding to the color and personality of the community -- the Baccis, Nonellas, Valentis, Baldecchis, Gallettis, Luzzis, etc.   As with the Irish, most of the original families have moved elsewhere though some descendants are still in the area.

    The Catholic community along the Mendocino Coast was under the care of the Secular clergy from its inception in 1866 until September 1903 when the Franciscan Capuchin Fathers took charge of the coastal missions.  The first Capuchins were English, Fathers Marianus Fiege and John Mary Finnigan coming to the United States from Liverpool in 1897 to engage in missionary work.  They were later joined by Fathers Sebastian Brennan and Laurence Blanderfield who continued to move West eventually ending up in California in 1903 being invited by the Archbishop of San Francisco. They took charge of the missions in the coast section of Mendocino County residing in Mendocino. The last of the secular fathers was Reverend Father White under whose direction the Blessed Sacrament Church was constructed in 1896.  By 1907 the spiritual care of all of Mendocino County Catholics was handed over to the English Franciscan Capuchins. That same year, Father Marianus who headed the Capuchins in the area was stricken with paralysis, and Father Sebastian Brennan took charge of affairs eventually becoming Superior of the California Mission.

    In 1920 the Irish Friars Minor Capuchins took over responsibility for the mission. Father Sebastian Brennan, the Superior over the English Capuchins, decided to stay in Mendocino County with the Irish Capuchins and moved to Elk at that time. The Irish Capuchins remained until 1968, the last being Rev. Fr. Eunan Buckley, O.F.M. Cap.  Until the early 1950's the priests resided at the rectory in Elk. When the town was in its hey day, as many as forty to fifty worshippers regularly attended services at the Blessed Sacrament. But dwindling population as a result of declining lumber industry resulted in only a handful of regulars by the late forties and early fifties. Point Arena had many more parishioners, so in the early 1950's, Rev. Fr. Antonine Keating moved to the newly constructed rectory at Saint Aloysius, our neighbor to the south. Saint Aloysius, which had become a mission church attached to the Blessed Sacrament in 1897, then became the head of the Parish.

     The Blessed Sacrament Church and Rectory declined into a state of disrepair by the late 60's. There was some fear that the buildings might be sold by the Diocese, but thank the Lord this did not materialize. In 1970 a major restoration project was undertaken. Fund-raisers, such as the Saint Patrick's Dinner and Dance successfully raised some of the financing to give the Blessed Sacrament a much needed face lift. However, the church will be forever indebted to Edmund Giusti who donated an initial $25,000.00 toward the restoration effort. As funds ran low to accomplish critical projects, Mr. Giusti generously continued to add several thousand dollars until the effort was completed. The bell tower, which was leaking and leaning due to the weight of the bell, was repaired. It was at this time that the bell was removed and placed on the church lawn. The foundation was repaired and, in some places replaced. A new paint job was undertaken.

     During this time of renovation, there was some pressure to modernize the interior of the Blessed Sacrament to be in line with the new styles following the changes of Vatican II. This was met with considerable resistance, and when one steps into the church it is easy to see who prevailed. The only concessions to change were removal of the linens at the altar rail, and the placing of an altar so the priest could face the congregation just inside the gate of the rail. Other than that, the Blessed Sacrament is basically traditional appearing much the same as when it was first constructed.

     In the early 90's Mgsr. James Walsh, a retired priest, wished to move to Elk and make the rectory his home. It was in rather abysmal condition, totally unsuitable for permanent habitation, so the Diocese stepped up and financed the project. Unfortunately, after residing in the rectory slightly less than one year, our beloved Mgsr. Walsh, who had endeared himself to all the residents of the community of Elk, died of a heart attack. In addition to being used as a meeting place and hosting an occasional reception, the rectory is now used as a refuge for priests, religious as a 'retreat' location to spend time in quietude and relax.

     This little poem, written by one of the members of the Elk Altar Society, welcomes visitors.

We hope you enjoy your visit
To our rectory by the sea.
A peaceful place to meditate
Ponder, pray and Be.
To view the splendid painted sky
As the sun sinks in the West.
To feel the cool, gray swirling fog
Embrace you in her mist.
To hear the thunder of the sea
Against the rugged, craggy hill.
And perhaps ... just perhaps
... to sense the whisper
Of voices that now are still.

     The responsibility for maintaining the Church of the Blessed Sacrament and the rectory rests in the hands of the tiny (about 10 people), but very active, Elk Altar Society. This group, out of love for this little historical church and out of respect for the generations of priests and members of the congregation over the decades past, work very hard to maintain the premises. Several fund-raisers are undertaken each year in order to take care of the basics, i.e. new roof, repair termite and beetle damage, paint the exterior, and a host of all those things necessary to keep up any building. The voices of our forefathers and mothers are still speaking to us to preserve this lovely place.

     The Blessed Sacrament is a very warm and welcoming little church, as is its tiny community. This writer has been in several of the world's great cathedrals and basilicas, i.e. Saint Peter's in Rome, Notre Dame de Chartres, Notre Dame de Paris, and many of the more modern structures in the States, but none provided me the personal comfort and feeling of prayerfulness of the church in my home town. Perhaps this verse reflects some of that sense:

Oh my Blessed Sacrament
Within Your walls I feel a comfort.
A peace so full and strong
So great none ever could compare.
For one hundred years you've stood.
With you we've shared our joys and sorrows.
Within this dwelling we have prayed
And refreshed our labored souls.

 It is our fervent hope that we will be a welcoming place for those in need and an arm outstretched to the community.

 

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