Nestled in the heart of downtown ..." /> San Francisco’s Notre Dame des Victoires — 160 Years of Good Faith – French Quarter Magazine

Art & Culture

Published on July 4th, 2016 | by Kirsten King


San Francisco’s Notre Dame des Victoires — 160 Years of Good Faith

Nestled in the heart of downtown San Francisco rests an unassuming gem of a church — the Église Notre Dame des Victoires. Less than a block away from Chinatown’s Dragon’s Gate entrance and flanked by the Financial District’s lofty buildings, pedestrians can easily blink and miss beautiful but unimposing building amid the crowded cityscape. Its modest and comparatively modern façade can be deceptive, for like the city it serves, Notre Dame des Victoires boasts a rich and full history.

Our Lady of Victories

Our Lady of Victories

Among the first of the Golden City’s ethnic congregations, Notre Dame des Victoires dates back to 1848 with the arrival of French priest Père Langlois who, with a group of French Canadian trappers working for the Hudson Bay Company, set out on an expedition to Oregon six years earlier. Père Langlois celebrated Mass in St. Francis Church (at that time an army chapel) and delivered his homilies in Romance languages. A man named Gustav Touchard purchased the Baptist church that would become the Église Notre Dame des Victoires in 1856, founded to serve French Catholics who had immigrated to San Francisco during the California Gold Rush. Under papal decree, Notre Dames des Victoires was designated as a French National Church in 1887 and entrusted to the Marist order (who will celebrate its bicentennial this summer) “for perpetuity.” The Society of Mary (Marists) had formed just 40 years earlier in Lyon, where the day following their ordination, twelve priests ascended the sharp slope of Fourvière Hill—locally known as “the hill that prays”—and, at her shrine, vowed to devote their lives serving others “in the spirit of Mary.”

The Notre Dame des Victoires managed to withstand some serious trials, its background quite literally filled with ups and downs. Like much of the city, Notre Dame des Victoires was destroyed in San Francisco’s Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906. Following the devastation of the disaster, a reconstruction of the church emerged from the rubble and ash in 1913. The Romanesque building, which now resides on Bush Street, was fittingly modeled after the Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière in Lyon and designed by Louis Brochoud. It was rededicated in 1915. The centenary of the church’s original founding was celebrated in 1956 when the Notre Dame des Victoires received a commemorative plaque from the Republic of France. It was acknowledged as a historical landmark by the city of San Francisco in 1984. Five years later, the church was damaged by another earthquake and had to undergo retrofitting. Just over a hundred years since the completion of its second incarnation, Notre Dame des Victoires now stands almost dwarfed by the sights that have grown up around it during the near-century interval.

Fr. LeBihan and Fr. Girard

Fr. LeBihan and Fr. Girard

Today, the church is also known for its parochial school, École Notre Dame des Victoires. Established in 1924 by Pères Henri Gerard and Louis LeBihan, the school’s faculty was, for many years, wholly staffed by Catholic nuns, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange—a religious congregation started around 1650 in the area of Le Puy, France. “The Little French School Downtown” remains a conduit for French culture, unique in its daily teaching of French language, customs, ideas, and values to all its students. With some of its graduates going on to win prestigious awards, the École Notre Dame des Victoires is well-regarded as an educational institution, one that encourages “an inclusive and compassionate world vision.” Both the parish and school are active in social leadership, raising awareness about important issues and aiding the local community through charity work and petitioning volunteers to participate in various outreach programs. Église Notre Dame des Victoires has partnered with St. Vincent de Paul in its regular deliveries of fruit to shelters around San Francisco. For the last ten years or so, Notre Dame des Victoires has worked with an interdenominational group in supporting Toiletries for the Tenderloin—a campaign to provide toiletries for tenement hotels in nearby districts. Notre Dame des Victoires also assists the Gubbio Project—one of the city’s only locations at which its homeless can find shelter during the day—in making breakfast and promoting a safe, family-like atmosphere. On a global scale, Notre Dame des Victoires recently hosted Movements for Migrants, a benefit concert for Syrian refugees.

Église Notre Dames des Victoires_Interior

Interior of Notre Dames des Victoires church

Notre Dame des Victoires has made a lasting place for itself in the Paris of the West, offering traditional Catholic services as well as more universally Christian forms of worship such as Taizé Prayer, which has an intriguing history of its own. The Taizé community began in the 1940s with Roger Louis Schütz-Marsauche, its Swiss founder more commonly known as Brother Roger. Compelled to comfort and heal those suffering at the outbreak of the Second World War, the monastic leader set up a place of refuge in Taizé, a small French town which was then unoccupied by Nazi troops. After converting an abandoned farmhouse he had bought, Brother Roger used the safe haven to hide children orphaned during the conflict and those hunted by the Gestapo. It was here in this unofficial religious community that its members escaped some of the horrors of war, largely through prayer—in all its different forms—and during the postwar years cultivated a “unique type of public religious service…drawn from an eclectic mix of Eastern Orthodox worship, Buddhist/Hindu meditation, and ancient monastic traditions of chanting centered prayer.” Brother Roger was stabbed to death at such a service in 2005, but his work has grown into an “international phenomenon.”

Sisters of Orange

Sisters of Orange

Notre Dame des Victoires has been praised for its likewise versatile approaches to celebrating Mass, as well as for its range of music which “reflects the diverse needs and tastes of [its] congregation.” Genres including African-American spirituals, Southern Harmony hymns, Anglo-Catholic organ improvisation, Gregorian chant, as well as contemporary styles can be heard. The pastors at Notre Dame des Victoires have been commended as welcoming and their sermons deemed accessible—probably not surprising in a place as multi-faceted and open-armed as this bay city. Whether by someone with a penchant for church doors or simply a curious passerby, Notre Dame des Victoires merits a visit (or at the very least a look-in) from anyone in the French Quarter. The atmosphere of the church and its story has much to offer anybody ready for a break from Victorian houses and cable car bells. It provides a little peace and reflection for those willing to give one of the city’s smaller attractions a chance. Should the spirit move you the next time you find yourself strolling the streets of San Francisco, take a moment to experience and appreciate this sanctuary that has survived so much—it has clearly been preserved for a reason.

“Notre Dame des Victoires” is an epithet of the Virgin Mary which recalls the Catholic naval victory over Ottoman forces at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Pope Pius V had urged all Christians to pray the Rosary for the success of the Holy League in this sea battle and declared Mary “Our Lady of Victory” in honor of the triumph.

This article was translated in French by Anne-Cécile Baer Porter.

About the Author


is a keen traveler, currently interested in cultural studies. She has been teaching locally and abroad since 2006. Participating in French Quarter Magazine allows her to contribute to the sharing of culture and knowledge between our two countries - a joyful and exciting adventure.

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