History of St. Dominic's in Benicia

Overview

For almost 160 years, St. Dominic's has maintained a strong spiritual and academic presence in the once-state-capital town of Benicia, California.

In 1854, the Dominican priest, Fr. Francis Vilarrasa, sailed from Monterey, where he had founded Santo Domingo Monastery, to the thriving city of Benicia. After arriving on March 16, 1854, the Dominican community occupied the property bound by East I and J between 4th and 5th Streets as a Dominican Seminary. In August of the same year, Mother Mary, who had made the first journey with Fr. Vilarrasa from Rome, arrived from Monterey with other Sisters and some resident students to set up school in Benicia. She bought several frame buildings in the hollow at the north end of 1st Street where she founded St. Catherine's School.

The Seminary grew and prospered with the building of St. Dominic's Church, which was dedicated in 1890. In the early 1930's, the Seminary and House of Studies were moved elsewhere. St. Catherine's, however, was in continuous operation for more than a century until 1966, when ten of its buildings were demolished. The Solano shopping center now occupies the site.

St. Dominic's Rectory was built in 1956 and the old Semi- nary dormitory was torn down. In March of 1961, St. Dominic's Parochial School was opened on the corner of 5th and East J Streets. This school is still in operation today. A committed community of parents, teachers, staff, and church congregation support its development. Together, St. Dominic's Church and School provide a strong spiritual and academic presence in a growing Benicia.

 

About Fr. Vilarrasa

Fr. Francis Sadoc Vilarrasa y Costa, O.P. was born August 9, 1814 in Catalonia, Spain. He entered the Dominicans at the age of 15 and was ordained May 16, 1837. After volunteering for the American missions and laboring for five years in the Province of St. Joseph (eastern Province) with Fr. Joseph Alemany, OP, he was invited by the new Bishop Alemany to accompany him to California.vilarrasasadoc

Pope Pius IX had given Fr. Alemany, who attempted to resign as Bishop, a clear mandate:  “You must go to California: there is no alternative, where others are drawn by gold, you must go to carry the Cross. God will assist you.”

On July 18, 1850, the Province of the Holy Name of God was established with Bishop Alemany as first Provincial and Fr. Vilarrasa was assigned to the missions of California.  After establishing the Convent of St. Dominic in Monterey, Fr. Vilarrasa came to Benicia. On March 17, 1854, Fr. Vilarrasa celebrated his first Mass in Benicia. The city had a church built, but it had a debt of two thousand dollars and was not consecrated. The Dominicans moved to Benicia March 31, 1854. In 1855, they built the convent and enlarged it the next year. They incurred a debt of seventeen thousand dollars and paid it off over a period of fourteen years. Finally in 1857, Fr. Vilarrasa had the joy of seeing two of his novices ordained to the priesthood. Fr. Vilarrasa describes the situation in some detail:

“In order that I might the easier provide for the spread of the Order… I transferred the convent of Monterey to Benicia by a letter dated March 31, 1854. Benicia is a small city located on the straits of the Sacramento River which are called Carquinez, and is a distance of twenty-seven English miles from the city of San Francisco. IMG_0079This city was founded in the year 1847 by the Mexican general, Señor Mariano Vallejo, who gave it the name of his wife, Benicia…There already then existed at Benicia a church recently built and intended for a parish but not at all finished and furthermore burdened with a debt of two thousand dollars. This the Archbishop gave to the Order. We built a very humble house without cells, such as we had at Monterey, and for this purpose the Archbishop assisted us with a sum of five hundred dollars. Before the beginning of the year 1859, thanks to the donations of the faithful of the city of Benicia, who, though few in number and destitute of the goods of fortune, nevertheless excel in generosity, the church was completed, a sacristy had been added together with a choir behind the altar, and all the debts were paid. There was then [in 1854] committed to our Brethren the care of the parishes of Benicia and Martinez, which latter is a town situated across the Sacramento River almost opposite Benicia. There was already a small church there under the title of St. Catherine of Siena. Both parishes then embraced a vast territory. The Church of Benicia was solemnly blessed by the Archbishop under the title of our holy Father Dominic on June 18, 1854.”

Why did Fr. Vilarrasa come to Benicia?

In the 1850s, Benicia blossomed from a town to a thriving city. Two major factors in the growth were (1) the establishment of the Benicia Arsenal; and (2) it lay on the direct water route between San Francisco and the gold fields beyond Sacramento. With the presence of the military and their families and the continual influx of “the forty-niners”, the city expanded in population and activity. Because of this, it was for a short time, the capital of the state. Even though the capital moved to Sacramento and the gold fields diminished in favor of the silver mines of Nevada, the completion of the railroads and the success of the Benicia-Martinez Ferry system ensured the continued growth and development of the community. In this way, Benicia was a natural place to locate the missionary and preaching efforts of the Order.

With regard to his person, biographers describe Fr. Vilarrasa as a dark, rather short, man who wore glasses in his later years. In fact, his diminutive stature often required him to use a bench in order to be seen when he read or preached from the lectern. Once when he was reading the Gospel of John, he quoted Jesus: “A little while and you will no longer see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me.” At that precise moment his footing shifted, his center of gravity unbalanced, and he fell off the bench. Demonstration can be a powerful form of sermon!

In the following years, the Dominicans established parishes up and down the California Delta, e.g., Vallejo, Port Costa, Crockett, Antioch, Brentwood and Walnut Creek. With St. Dominic, Benicia as the Mother Church, the Dominicans formed a base from which the holy preaching effectively reached the developing delta area. Fr. Vilarrasa died on March 17, 1888, thirty four years to the day of his first Mass in Benicia, fifty years a priest, fifty-seven years in religious life, and seventy-three years of age.

Fr. Vilarrasa was a different kind of missionary. He realized the importance of friars to be grounded in prayer. As Prior, Superior, or Provincial, he established houses of strict observance. He was a lone friar in a foreign land when he landed with Bishop Alemany and Sr. Mary Goemare. He persevered through many hardships, but saw to it that Dominicans would be in the West to pra

ise, to bless, and to preach.

For almost 160 years, St. Dominic's has maintained a strong spiritual and academic presence in the once-state-capital town of Benicia, California.

In 1854, the Dominican priest, Fr. Francis Vilarrasa, sailed from Monterey, where he had founded Santo Domingo Monastery, to the thriving city of Benicia. After arriving on March 16, 1854, the Dominican community occupied the property bound by East I and J between 4th and 5th Streets as a Dominican Seminary. In August of the same year, Mother Mary, who had made the first journey with Fr. Vilarrasa from Rome, arrived from Monterey with other Sisters and some resident students to set up school in Benicia. She bought several frame buildings in the hollow at the north end of 1st Street where she founded St. Catherine's School.

The Seminary grew and prospered with the building of St. Dominic's Church, which was dedicated in 1890. In the early 1930's, the Seminary and House of Studies were moved elsewhere. St. Catherine's, however, was in continuous operation for more than a century until 1966, when ten of its buildings were demolished. The Solano shopping center now occupies the site.

St. Dominic's Rectory was built in 1956 and the old Semi- nary dormitory was torn down. In March of 1961, St. Dominic's Parochial School was opened on the corner of 5th and East J Streets. This school is still in operation today. A committed community of parents, teachers, staff, and church congregation support its development. Together, St. Dominic's Church and School provide a strong spiritual and academic presence in a growing Benicia.

 

St. Dominic's Historical Trust

A nonprofit, tax exempt trust established to receive, manage, and expend funds exclusively for the restoration, repair, and maintenance of St. Dominic's Church as a historical landmark. St. Dominic's Church has been given landmark status by the City of Benicia, and is listed in the Historic American Buildings Survey. Memorial gifts are welcome, and all gifts to the trust are acknowledged.