Van Ness and Broadway

St. Brigid's Church, Van Ness and Broadway

Photo: Daniel Gradel

St. Brigid’s Church at the corner of Van Ness and Broadway has been around for over a hundred years. Not quite that long ago, I attended St Brigid’s grammar school from first through eighth grade.  We spent a lot of time in the church and in the cavernous room below it, which had been converted into the school’s gymnasium. The gym was used by the basketball and volleyball teams and for church bazaar rummage sales. It also had a large stage where we performed our annual Christmas plays. I wasn’t a very athletic kid, so I enjoyed rainy days when we got played parachute games in the gym for P.E. instead exercising outside in the barren asphalt yard that was our playground.

Peter D's restaurant, Broadway and Van Ness

Peter D’s–still serving up tasty diner food after all these years.

When I was in sixth grade, my mother decided that I should get involved with school sports. My mom loved playing volleyball so I’m sure that influenced my ending up on that team. While this helped me transition from pre-adolescent chunkiness to a more svelte physique, I never really enjoyed my three years on the team. I didn’t mind the practice sessions but I did not like the tension of competition. Our team was one of the best in our league but this status was not due to my contributions since I was one of the weakest players. (A high school friend who played on a rival volleyball team once confided that their coach would instruct them to hit the ball my direction.) I never mastered the powerful overhand serves that the star members of our team slammed over the net but my underhand lob worked well with the vaulted ceiling of the church basement gymnasium. Our gym provided a real home-field advantage—the low ceiling was the visiting volleyball teams’ nemesis. My favorite thing about games on our home turf was having dinner with my mom afterwards at Peter D’s—a diner-style restaurant attached to one of the motels lining Van Ness Avenue. I didn’t develop an adventurous palate until much later in life so I was more than happy with a burger, fries, and milkshake. I enjoyed these dinners  far more than the taste of victory.

There was one event that took place in St Brigid’s gym that changed the course of my adolescent existence. One of my classmates, Torre, somehow convinced the strict Spanish nuns that ran the school to let his fledgling death metal band, DEATH TRAP, perform for our class on the gym’s stage. He had transferred into our class in sixth grade and now was the school’s Token Metal Guy. I was the Token Metal Girl but I was still listening to “poser” bands like Mötley Crüe. I tried to covertly educate myself about this heavier breed of “thrash” metal music by sneaking peeks at the band names doodled on his notebooks—Mercyful Fate, Exodus—groups not featured in the mainstream hard rock mags.

I was probably the only person really excited to be shepherded into the gym for the musical program that day. The sounds that emanated from their three-piece outfit and echoed around the cavernous gym were a far cry from the 80s hair bands that I was familiar with. Guttural growls, angry guitars, and songs that didn’t seem to follow a verse-chorus-verse structure.

The Exodus attack! Photo: Metal Forces Magazine

The Exodus attack! Photo: Metal Forces Magazine

This was edgy and exciting music! Even more exciting was the presence of guys whose hair length was not constrained by Catholic school dress codes. And then something that I could not have foreseen happening—I recognized one of the songs. They played a version of Exodus’ “Piranha” a blistering thrash ode to carnivorous fish. I’d recently heard a brief clip of Exodus playing this song (including the infamous “This one ain’t about no goldfish!” intro) on a  PBS Channel 9 program about violence and music. Overjoyed to actually recognize a song (or at least the goldfish part), I did what I knew was required in such a situation from all of my covert thrash metal research. I did my best to headbang from my seated position on the gym floor.

The heaviest band to play St. Brigid's.

The heaviest band to play St. Brigid’s. Mark on drums, Chris on bass/vocals, and Torre on guitar.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my hair-shaking efforts did not go unnoticed. My obvious interest and appropriate response to the music contrasted with the rest of the audience (like the boys who were playing chess games during the set). A couple of days later, one of my classmates approached me and said that the bass player had asked about me and wanted my phone number. That was how I met Chris, who soon became my first boyfriend. Even after we stopped dating, we remained close friends for a very long time. He influenced my life in many wonderful ways and music was always a special bond between us.

The diocese closed St. Brigid’s church in 1994 despite great protest by local parishioners. They cited decreased attendance and financial obstacles for the retrofitting the building after the Loma Prieta quake. In 2005 the Academy of Art purchased the church and the gymnasium, which would be used for their new athletic program.I wonder if the stage still exists, and if they’ve used it for any musical performances. I think it’s still a safe bet that DEATH TRAP was the first and only metal band to play there.

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9 comments

  1. I love reading your memories Shoshannah. I feel like I was a metal kid in SF back then even though I was half a world away at the time and anything but a metal kid.

  2. That’s quite a compliment! Thank you.

  3. Great writing! This line made me laugh: “I enjoyed these dinners far more than the taste of victory.” I could see you in this: “I did my best to headbang from my seated position on the gym floor.” Such strong contrast, trying to headbang while sitting on the gym floor of a church!

  4. As always, my darling clever niece, you had me from the very first word and I didn’t stop to breathe till the very last word. Your mamma would be so proud of you, well she always was. I look forward with glee and great anticipation (the spelling again?) for the next installment.

  5. Heather–thanks for the kind words and I hope you have recovered from the lack of oxygen! 🙂 Gen–glad you enjoyed the words and visuals.

  6. it’s great to be able to read about your Catholic school experience-sometimes it really mirrors my own. I played volleyball too, and hated it. We had so few people in my school that you bascially had to play on every team except tennis (some of the girls at Convent had private tennis coaches, it was the only team that did well for the school). I did love playing basketball however. And we did play St. Bridgid’s. but I don’t remember the low ceiling. Both your schools got axed by the earthquake! It’s kinda weird that the art students play sports- I see their track team down at Kezar.

  7. Private tennis coaches/ Whoa!You’re lucky you didn’t have to join the jai ali team at Convent. Oh wait–that was probably at Hamlin 🙂 Actually St. Brigid’s the school is actually still thriving–just the church/gym closed. They changed the uniforms though–no more plaid. Now they are plain grey skirts–like Convent!

  8. […] for St. Brigid’s students—especially for those of us who played sports after school in the gym beneath the church. Some kids even got to start their day with hot, sugary goodness, but my mom was very health […]

  9. […] closer to where my boyfriend lived. We’d meet at a phone booth right outside the gym under St. Brigid’s church. Whoever got there first had a place to take shelter and duck in to hide if a cop car cruised by […]

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