The Work of Sam Berger Part II: St. Cecilia

This is the second in my series of posts about the wood carving done by my great-grandfather, Samuel Berger. Sam Berger's work has not been recorded, and this is my attempt to chronicle some of his work in a series of postings. I'm hoping that this will be a helpful resource/reference for my family, as well as anyone interested in California/San Francisco history or wood carving.

This post is a little long (lots of photos), so bear with me as I go through!

Exterior: St. Cecilia Church, San Francisco

My Great-Grandfather, Samuel Berger emigrated to San Francisco in 1904 from Bucharest, Romania, where he learned his trade as a second generation wood carver. I was fortunate enough to have known him; he died in 1970 when I was ten years old. He was the sweetest, most humble man.

Sam's woodcarvings grace some of California's most beautiful public and private buildings. His works can be found in many churches in San Francisco including, Grace Cathedral, Basilica of Mission Dolores, St. Peter and Paul's, Star of the Sea, St. Anne's and St. Brigid's, to name of few. Some of his crowning achievements were at Hearst Castle at San Simeon where he did most of his wood carving. Sam collaborated with the renowned architect, Julia Morgan, on much of his work.

church exterior
Thursday's journey began with a visit to St. Cecilia Catholic Church in San Francisco. My friend Renee and I took the day off, and what a treat it was to see this church in person. It was spectacular! We were greeted by the lovely Mary Scanlan, a longtime staff member, who shared stories with us, such as the altar of the church being a smaller replica of the Basilica of Rome.

St. Cecilia church saw many different locations in San Francisco. The current St. Cecilia, Colonial Spanish in design, is breathtaking in person. Its construction is reinforced concrete and cast-stone trim, with a roof of variegated Spanish tile, random-laid. We were told that much of the church design was influenced by France and Italy.

main church interior

We were introduced to Alvin Martin, Parish Manager, who was so very helpful in showing us around and identifying some of my unidentified old family photos of Sam's work that matched with some of the pieces in the church. Being Jewish, I'm not that familiar with some of the names of the pieces and what they represent or symbolize. Alvin was quite helpful in explaining. The pieces of the puzzle were starting to come together.

It was overwhelming to see and touch the magnificent work that my great-grandfather did. I can't even imagine...all hand carved.

Early photo of Sam Berger next to the crucifix that would later be on the altar at St. Cecilia

Another photo I located of Sam's carving of the Baldacchino (canopy) and crucifix located on the main altar of the church

The magnificent altar. The Baldacchino, crucifix, ceilings and altar railings, all carved by Sam Berger.

These are amazing in person. Such intricate carving.

Sacred Heart of Jesus before being painted
This Sacred Heart of Jesus was in one of my photo albums, among many other random photos of Sam's work. I had no idea that this piece was from St. Cecilia Church.

Sacred Heart of Jesus after completion
Our Blessed Mother before completion

Our Blessed Mother after completion. Isn't she beautiful?

The main altar railings, also carved by Sam Berger
Church pews
notice the detailed carving
The Ambon

He also carved all of the Stations of the Cross

Magnificent confessionals carved by Sam

close-up of confessionals

stained glass windows grace the interior of the church

The Lady's Chapel outside the main chapel - so ornate in person. Sam carved much of the work in the chapel, including the magnificent ceilings...

It's difficult to show just how incredible the carving of these ceilings are in person. It's truly overwhelming.

I can't imagine how many months, years (?) it took my great-grandfather to carve these...

The Baptismal font with Sam's carving on the back wall, and quite possibly on the font itself

Renee and I outside of St. Cecilia

Exterior of St. Cecilia School

There is even an ocean view from the church (can you see it in the background?)

What a glorious day it was at St. Cecilia's. One I'll never forget. Next week we're off to Grace Cathedral to see more of Sam's work. Thanks for joining me on my journey!

St. Cecilia Church
2555 Seventh Avenue
San Francisco, California 94116

photo credits: most photos, Lynn Goldfinger, Ambon & Stations of the Cross: Peg Harrison, black & white photos: family archives


Paris Atelier said…
Lynn, this is just incredible. The thing that is astounding is that it is all handcarved! What an amazing legacy for Sam to have left for his family and his name. I can't imagine the countless hours, days, months, years (??) it took to complete all of this artistry. It's so wonderful that you are documenting this and taking this journey!
Cashon&Co said…
I'm completely speechless! I am so glad you are posting more about your incredibly talented family. Isn't that cool that you have these pictures in an album at home and then you go to the cathedral and see the things he carved in real life! like you said, the puzzle pieces start coming together. That ceiling BLOWS MY MIND. Really, that is fascinating. What an incredible legacy to have in your family. Thank you for sharing!!!
Jonny said…
What an amazing man and talent. He was a true master, his work is incredible and so passionate. To me a master and his work will always be timeless and makes people wonder how can someone do something so beautiful its beyond comprehension. It is wonderful what you are doing. I know I seen somewhere on blog spot that you will be able to order a book of your posts which will be a great treasure for your family.My best to you and your journey. Thank you for sharing. Jonny
Anne said…

Thank you so much for doing this. It is so amazing to see Great Uncle Sam's (Zada's) work. One of these days, I am going to have to go to these churches to see all of it first hand. It is great that you are doing this so that there will be a record of sorts for his work. Thank you again !!! Anne
Wow! That is amazing. You have every right to be so proud of such a great legacy. We've lost so much of that great hand-carved work in today's buildings. I know its out there, but it's an incredible skill. You must have gotten some of your love of beautiful things from him. Thanks for sharing.
FrenchBlue said…
Dear Lynn,

Your Grandfather & Bannie are smiling down on you I just know! This is a BEAUTIFUL tribute you are doing for your family to last an eternity. There is no doubt he had a huge European influence.

I know you are SO PROUD and you deserve to be:)

Thank you for sharing with us and tell that Dear Renee Thank you for being by your side as you are still discovering.

Uh Uh Uh On this day forever and ever!!

Torch Lake Prep said…
This is amazing !! I cannot believe the skill your Great Grandfather possessed. He truly was a gifted artisan and there is no better way to share your talent with the world than honoring God. Amen to Sam and you for sharing this with us.
Sanity Fair said…
Lynn, this is one of the few blog posts I've read that has taken my breath away. This isn't decor - it's ART. Every time I review the pictures, I see yet another detail to appreciate. You are so lucky to have this wonderful artistic heritage, and I really applaud your efforts to create a visual history of his work. Please visit/do a post on San Simeon! I'm dying to see that!
Thank you for sharing these photos of your grandfather's magnificent work. He was a master craftsman and I loved seeing the pictures of his work and legacy.
Tissy said…
My daughter being a blogger, forwarded me the link to your blog. I grew up on 17th Ave in SF, one block from St Cecilia's church. I attended elementary school there, made my confirmation, graduated from high school in the church, was married and both my parents funeral services took place in the church. It holds such a special place in my heart that I can't barely explain it. The pictures are beautiful and your grandfather's work...I'm speechless. I'm so happy you were able to make the visit and what a legacy you have been left. You have made my day. Thank you so much!

Popular Posts