A brief history of the Catholic Community of Palo Alto
The Catholic community has been an integral part of Palo Alto area life even before the city itself was incorporated in 1894. Indeed with continued growth by 1980 the Catholic population reached a point where it was served by four parishes plus the Newman Center, which served the Stanford community.
The seeds of the parish are said to date to 1769 when the first Europeans arrived in the area. This Portola expedition camped by the twin trunks of the now thousand year old redwood tree, El Palo Alto. Franciscan friars accompanied the expedition and reportedly celebrated Mass at the encampment. It was considered as a possible mission site, but when the friars returned a few years later the nearby creek was dry. They moved south to another site and found the Santa Clara Mission (on the Campus of what is now Santa Clara University), about 20 miles (30km) south of Palo Alto. The mission extended its outreach activities to the area to the North. After the Mexican revolution and secularization of the missions (1830s), the Vatican began to define dioceses in these territories. In 1850 Rev. Joseph Alemany was consecrated as bishop for the new diocese of Monterey. He was a Dominican priest, born in Spain, educated in Rome and a naturalized American citizen. In 1853 the Diocese of San Francisco was defined and Alemany was named as Archbishop.
In 1853, St. Denis church was built in the area that is now Menlo Park along Sand Hill Road. Jesuit priests from Santa Clara College, teachers during the week, would offer masses at local mission churches on Sundays. In 1856, St. Denis got its own pastor. But with the new railroad tracks, local towns began to grow and the populations shifted. Catholics in the area of Menlo Park became part of the Church of the Nativity. The Catholics in the town of Mayfield initially celebrated mass in a warehouse next to the railroad station. In 1867, land was donated for a church site along Page Mill road near El Camino Real.
The first Catholic Church in Mayfield was built as a mission church. It was named St. Aloysius, after a Jesuit saint who is the patron saint of youth. The church, a simple wooden structure, initially had windows made of canvas, bare wooden floors, and seating for 148 worshipers. A wood stove was used for heating and coal oil lamps were used for lighting. In 1903 a wooden bell tower was added. The church was a mission church of parishes in San Mateo, Menlo Park and Mountain View before it became its own parish in 1919. In 1920, the new pastor had the church moved to College Avenue and Wellesley Street, a location closer to where the parishioners were living. The church remained there until the winter rains and wind caused such severe damage to the church that it was condemned in 1939. It had served the parish well for 71 years! A new church was built in 1940 at a new location on El Camino and College Avenue in a mission style – reminiscent of the early missionaries that had explored the area.
To serve the new town of Palo Alto, St. Thomas Aquinas parish was formed in 1901. The Catholics in the Palo Alto area were originally part of the Church of the Nativity parish in Menlo Park. As they grew in number they met to celebrate mass in a “white house” at Lytton and Ramona while their new church was being built. St. Thomas Aquinas was an apt name for a parish in a university town where the first archbishop of the diocese had been a Dominican – St. Thomas is the patron saint of students, he was an excellent teacher and student himself and he was a member of the Dominicans. In 1901 the lots were purchased and in the fall the ladies of the parish held a fair to raise the $1500 to pay for the lots. The bishop then released the funds (budgeted at $12,000) to start building the new church. Building started in December of 1901. A Gothic style, similar to its parent church in Menlo Park, was chosen. It was a popular style in areas where lumber was plentiful and skilled carpenters were available. The first mass was celebrated in June 1902 and the full dedication by the Archbishop was in November 1903. The bell for St. Thomas Aquinas church was the second church bell in town.
In 1925 the town of Mayfield merged with Palo Alto and there were two Catholic parishes within the new city’s limits. As the city grew, two Catholic schools were built. St. Thomas Aquinas school opened in 1950 on Channing Avenue and St. Aloysius School opened in 1954 on Cowper Street. St. Ann's Chapel was dedicated in 1951 as a place of worship for Stanford students. With the continued population growth in the area the original churches were both overflowing and masses were being held at the school auditoriums. It was decided to make new parishes and Our Lady of the Rosary parish was created in 1959 and St. Albert the Great parish in 1961. The school sites became associated with the new parishes and were renamed. In 1976, St. Thomas Aquinas church was named as a historic landmark – it is the oldest church in Palo Alto that’s been in continuous use. By the 1970s the school age population in Palo Alto was declining. Several Palo Alto elementary schools were closed. In 1978 the two Catholic elementary schools merged to become St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School on Channing Avenue.
In 1981, the Diocese of San Jose was created and the Palo Alto parishes became the northern most in the diocese. In 1987, the parishes of St. Thomas Aquinas, Our Lady of the Rosary, St. Albert the Great, St. Aloysius, St. Ann's Chapel and the Newman Center were combined into one large parish - under the name of St. Thomas Aquinas. In 1994, St. Aloysius Church was closed, thus reducing the number of churches to four. The seven sacramental stained glass windows were moved from St. Aloysius to Our Lady of the Rosary church, as was the statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe. In 1997, under the title of St. Dominic Parish, the Stanford Catholic Community became a parish of its own and in 1999 St. Ann's Chapel was sold. The Gregorian masses that had been celebrated at St. Ann’s chapel by the St. Ann’s choir since 1963 moved to St. Thomas Aquinas church.
In 2001 the centennial for St. Thomas Aquinas Church was celebrated. In 2004 the 50th anniversary of Our Lady of the Rosary Church was celebrated and in 2005, the interior of Our Lady of the Rosary Church had a major update. In February of 2006, Bishop McGrath celebrated mass in the parish as part of the year long celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Diocese of San Jose. St. Albert the Great Church is celebrating their 50th anniversary in November 2011 with a mass celebrated by Bishop McGrath.