The Reverend Charles E. O'Neile, the first pastor of Our lady of Loretto Church, sat down at his desk and made an entry in the parish baptismal record book. In the elegant penmanship of the era, he wrote, in Latin, that Francesca Henrietta Clarke, born February 21, 1892, was baptized into the Catholic faith on March of the same year.
Young Miss Clarke was blissfully unaware she had acquired a niche in history as the principal in her new parish’s first recorded baptism. It took place in a frame church erected two years before, on land donated by the Connell family, when Novato was still designated as a mission of St. Vincent de Paul parish in Petaluma. (Novato traces its name to a chief of the Chokeche Indians, who, when he was baptized by the San Rafael mission fathers, took the name from St. Novatus. The parish name was recommended by parishioners who had a deep devotion to The Blessed mother, to whom there is a shrine in Loreto, Italy.)
The church of Francesca’s christening was located on what was then Nave Drive and is now South Novato Boulevard. It was the scene of hundreds of masses, confessions, communions, confirmations, weddings and funerals for 43 years, under the stewardship of 12 pastors, until it was destroyed by fire in 1935. Two years later, during the pastorate of Rev. Martin O’Fahey, it was replaced by a new edifice on Grant Avenue. That structure, fondly remembered by many of today’s parishioners, still stands. Its main alter had its own special history, having been used on the high seas by church dignitaries enroute to an International Eucharistic pilgrimage in Manila, Philippine Islands.
In all, 17 pastors and hundreds of other dedicated priests, nuns, and members of the laity have served the people of Our Lady of Loretto in the 20th Century. They have witnessed and been part of much of the history of the United States: two world wars and numerous other armed conflicts, the rise and fall of several nations, scores of economic ups and downs and an explosion of technological advances.
But it was an explosion of another type that rocked Marin County, Novato and Our Lady of Loretto parish following World War II. It was the postwar population boom. By the end of the 1950’s it became evident to pastor Rev. Charles Farrell, who had overseen the opening of a parochial school in 1955, that the Grant Avenue church could no longer meet the needs of his burgeoning flock. It had grown from 500 Catholic families in 1956 to 1,100 in 1960. And so, in the culmination of five years of prayer, planning and effort by many people, the Most Rev. Joseph T. McGucken, Archbishop of San Francisco, formally dedicated the present church at 1806 Novato Boulevard on Sunday, April 21, 1963, 71 years after the baptism of Francesca Henrietta Clarke.
One hundred years after he started it all, Father O’Neile would be pleased at the fruit of his labors.