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About Our Parish

St. John's Cathedral History

St. John’s Cathedral is the mother church of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno California. The parish was established in 1882. In 1878, Catholic settlers in the area recognized the need for a church and began to raise funds. The Central Pacific Railroad donated two lots and Bishop Francisco Mora Borrell of the Diocese of Monterey-Los Angeles who purchased two adjacent lots. Construction on the sanctuary began early in 1880 and the structure was completed in November. Bishop Mora dedicated the church to St. John the Baptist in May 21, 1882. It was a brick structure with a 90 ft (27 m) steeple and served the five Catholic families in the area.

By 1902, the congregation outgrew its home and began plans for a larger building. After Easter services on March 30, workers began to demolish the old building with the intent of constructing a new church on the same site. However, the pastor insisted on a new site at Mariposa and R Streets. Although parishioners complained that the proposed site was beyond the edge of town, the pastor prevailed. The cornerstone was laid August 3, 1902 and Archbishop George Montgomery dedicated the new sanctuary June 7, 1903.

The church was designed in a Gothic-Romanesque style by Thomas Bermingham and constructed of red brick. The facade features a triple entry framed by two square towers with spires. Above the entry is a small rose window.

When the Diocese of Monterey-Fresno was split from the Diocese of Los Angeles-San Diego in 1922, St. John’s was selected as the Cathedral for the new Diocese. When Monterey and Fresno were further split in 1967, St. John’s became the seat of the new Bishop of Fresno.

Looking to the Future

Looking back at significant dates in the history of Saint John's Cathedral is important and elightening as we plan for its future. While our past is rich in both innovation and tradition, there are some fascinating, little-known facts about the Cathedral, its leaders and parishioners that demonstrate the strong faith and undaunting spirit of those who have always supported and been a part of this magnificent Cathedral. 

The first St. John’s Church in 1882 view of Fresno.

Photo from "Pop Laval Foundation"  Original St. John's Cathedral behide buildings single tower.




The first Mass in Fresno County was celebrated at Millerton in the spring of 1863 in the Old Courthouse, with the entire population attending. The Fresno Weekly Expositor for December 28, 1870 reminded the faithful that Father Dade would celebrate Mass at the Millerton Courthouse on Friday next, with the public cordially invited to attend.


The October 21, 1873 baptismal entry of Johanna Ryan, daughter of Jerry Ryan and his wife, Kate Neary, is the earliest recorded religious service in what is now Fresno. Father Dade was the "precursor of the faith" in the desert that was to be Fresno and his followers raised a House of God, dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, in the same wasteland of sand dunes and sagebrush that has become a city of trees. When the church was being built (in 1880), the site selected for the church on M and Fresno Streets was way out in the country. At that time, everything was being built on Front Street. Building costs for the church totalled $17,000, not including the site.


At the time the church was built in 1880, there were only five Catholic families in Fresno and no resident Priest. Mrs. John Gearhart, mother of Congressman Btid W. Gearhart and Clara Williams, was the capable and faithful organist in the first church for many years. Mr. W.R. Price, a non-Catholic and father of Mrs. Russell Giffen, directed Saint John's choir with great efficiency in the early years of the parish. On March 18, 1885, Father Dempflin, a Dominican Missionary, made his first converts among the Indians of Table Mountain in the Friant district.


The first Holy Cross Sisters came to Fresno on November 12, 1893. Less than one year later, they opened a select school called Saint Augustine's Academy. On October 24, 1894, the fair at Kutner Hall raised funds for the Sisters of the Holy Cross. Among those in charge of booths were Mesdames George St. Louis, Colin Chisholm, Frank Rowell, J. Weaver, J.W. Gearhart, John C. Hoxie, M. Norton, N.P. Justy, Rose Kennedy, Lizzie Dwyer, Hattie McDonald, Rose Bonitas, Hattie and Mary St. Louis, Josie Ryan, Susie Hill, Leonie Duquesne and Lillie Folin.


Father McCarthy was convinced that the old location on M and Fresno Streets was no longer a suitable and fitting place to build the new and larger church, which was required due to the city's growth and development as well as future parish need.


In 1902 the property on Rand Mariposa Streets opposite the Sisters' School was purchased. Despite opposition from parishioners who felt the site was too far away from the center of town, the first brick was laid on July 16, 1902. In 1903 the Sisters bought the convent academy from the parish for $5,500. This site is now the offices of architect William Patnaude. Our first Bishop was the Most Rev. John B. Mac Ginley. He was installed in July 1924. A serious cardiac condition caused him to resign in May 1932 and return to his native island where he died October 19, 1969. His vicar-general, then the Rt. Rev. Philip Scher, was consecrated Bishop of Monterey-Fresno on April 28, 1933. In 1924 there were 42  parishes, 22 missions, 11 parochial schools, two hospitals, 60 Priests and a Catholic population estimated at 50,000.


In 1933 there were 54 parishes, 25 missions, 17 parochial elementary schools, four high schools, three hospitals, 99 Priests and a Catholic population of 78,889.


In 1947 there were 65 parishes, 43 missions, 21 Mass stations, 40 chapels, 20 parochial elementary schools, seven high schools, five hospitals, 130 Priests, 14 Brothers and 343 Sisters. The Catholic population had grown to 167,367.


In 1955 there were 99 parishes, 51 missions, 17 Mass stations, 75 chapels, 40 parochial and three private elementary schools, nine Catholic high schools, seven hospitals, 220 Priests, 60 Brothers, 480 Sisters and a total Catholic population of 300,788.


In 1967 the Diocese of Monterey-Fresno was divided into two separate Dioceses. Bishop Timothy Manning, later the Cardinal Archbishop of Los Angeles, was the first Bishop of the Diocese of Fresno. His successors, Bishop Donohoe, Bishop Madera and Bishop Steinbock have kept the historic Saint John's Church as their Cathedral.

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