Halfway through the 1992 film Sister Act, actress Whoopi Goldberg leads a group of nuns out of a large church to clean up the neighborhood. The upbeat montage shows the habit-wearing women scrubbing graffiti off the walls of their convent, dancing with sex workers, and fixing beaten-up cars with neighborhood locals.
It’s a turning point in the film. Goldberg — who plays an Atlantic City lounge singer who disguises herself as a nun after witnessing a mob killing — shakes up the nuns’ dull, pious life with a re-energized choir and some good old community building. But the neighborhood where the transformation takes place is far from the low-income, graffiti-filled area the film depicts; it’s Noe Valley, one of the more affluent areas in San Francisco. The formerly working-class neighborhood was already fairly gentrified by the early 1990s, with homes selling for more than a million dollars.
The filming of Sister Act took place from September to December 1991, in and around St. Paul’s Catholic Church on Church and Valley streets. But while the hallowed halls of the old convent and chapel — built in 1911 — provided the perfect backdrop for the film, the neighborhood didn’t. Director Emile Ardolino (also of Dirty Dancing) wanted a grittier scene. With the help of his design team, the area surrounding St. Paul’s was transformed from a quiet, well-to-do residential area to an area rife with strip clubs, porn shops, and junked cars. Nearby storefronts were dressed down, piles of garbage were dropped onto street corners, and extras were brought in to play smoking, drinking neighborhood residents.
Sister Act was a big hit; Goldberg and Maggie Smith drew crowds and it earned $140 million at the box office in North America, making it one of the top-10 movies of 1992 (along with Wayne’s World, A League of Their Own, and Aladdin).
Despite the movie’s wild success, St. Paul’s nearly closed the following year. In 1993, the Archdiocese Planning Commission placed the large church on a list of parishes to be shuttered. In a desperate attempt to save the church, Rev. Father Mario Farana made the tough decision to sell much of the church’s neighboring land, raising $8.5 million to renovate and rebuild the 100-year-old building. More than 50 tons of steel were installed to reshore its walls and ceiling, ADA bathrooms were installed, and in December 2000, a Christmas mass was held in honor of its reopening.
Today, Sister Act is mentioned in St. Paul’s history, tucked in among information about its various renovations and leadership. And while its location isn’t as well-known as, say, the Fairmont Hotel, it does still draw a fair number of tourists each year.