The Savior Down the Street: Immaculate Conception Chapel

I grew up Catholic, and as far as I know, it is not normal to be passed notes during Mass. But near the tail end of services on Sunday at the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception, the well-dressed middle-aged woman sitting in the pew in front of me handed me a business card.

On one side was printed the question: “Do you have Supernatural FAITH?” On the other, written in black ink in her hand, was a direction: “ASK THE FATHER ABOUT THE MYSTERIOUS GREEN CROSS THAT APPEARED IN THE KITCHEN WINDOW.”

There is a certain amount of mysticism — what many might call “hocus pocus” — in any Catholic Mass. With the wave of a priest's hand, bread and wine become the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.

At this tiny, colorful, and low-ceilinged chapel on the north slope of Bernal Heights, odd phenomenon even church theologians cannot explain are normal.

It was here, 20 years ago, that a parishioner first observed a Marian apparition. One day after services, someone noticed something on the copper-topped gables of the church roof — an image of the Virgin Mary. Frequent scrubbings could not remove it. Word spread, and eventually, so many people came up Folsom Street to see the “miracle” that police had to close the street.

At the center of this house of the unexplained is a quiet man in his 80s who is so small in stature that, when celebrating Mass, he barely peeks above the altar. Mystery and coincidence have followed Immaculate Conception's Father Guglielmo “William” Lauriola his entire life. As a boy in Italy, he was an altar boy for Pio of Pietrelcina, the Franciscan friar (and current Catholic saint, also known as Padre Pio) on whose body the stigmata appeared. When Lauriola was ordained in 1952, he met an older priest who, when asked, told Lauriola that he had served “at the edge of the world.” In 1969, when Lauriola arrived in San Francisco to become Immaculate Conception's pastor, he discovered that the older priest was one of his predecessors, the very first priest to serve at the chapel when it was built in 1912.

If you visit Immaculate Conception, Lauriola, who holds a Ph.D. in theology, will tell you about the apparition, about the green cross that supposedly appeared in the kitchen window earlier this year, and about his work as an exorcist — the only one active in the Archdiocese of San Francisco today. And he will tell you, calmly and plainly, in the same voice in which he offers you an espresso and blesses you for visiting his church, that he will pray for you.

The Savior Down the Street

THE TRADITION, Mission Minyan

THE VISION, Shri Swaminarayan Mandir

THE REVIVAL, Rock of Ages Baptist Church

THE CHANTING, Hokke-shu Buddhist Church

Related Stories