Churches that make the silver screen

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

An unusual area of interest for me has been studying movie scenes where churches are shown and then wondering if I would be fortunate enough to visit the featured property.

One traveller’s tale uncovered along the way was the Church of Sts Mary and Patrick in the small town of Avoca in County Wicklow, Ireland, which was important to many episodes of the television series Ballykissangel.

Church locations used for films are often difficult to track down because they may appear only briefly and movies don’t continue week to week or through several series as is the case with TV shows.

An example of one brief appearance was a shot of the exterior of the Church of St Teresa of Avila which serves the Catholic community of Bodega Bay in northern California and was featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 production of The Birds, based on a story written by Daphne du Maurier a decade earlier.

I stumbled across the church and was able to attend Mass there just over a year ago.

More than half a century after its cinematic debut, the coming of Hollywood continues to be noted both on the Mass timetable hoarding outside the building and on small brochures which outline historical details of the church.

Alfred Hitchcock is noted in the brochure as having attended Mass during the filming of his suspenseful saga which was mostly set in the town, about 7km from the church.

Technology has made for easier access to Mass times in holiday locations, with mobile phones and computers now able to deliver this information through their links to church websites.

Being one who can be something of a relic from an earlier generation, I hadn’t bothered using my phone while spending time in the centre of the town overlooking a beautiful bay before beginning to search for the church. Of course, being a male I also failed to ask for directions.

But, as we moved on to accommodation in the nearby town of Sebastopol, the church was something of a standout perched as it is high above a main road, with a white exterior and towering steeple – and that sign detailing information about its movie appearance.

Good news continued to unfold in discovering that the Saturday evening Vigil Mass, one of only four Eucharistic celebrations offered there each week, was set for 5pm, which was just 20 minutes away.

This allowed for a few external pictures to be taken, and viewing them at home a few weeks later prompted me to re-visit the film to further appreciate the experience.

Movie stardom for the church was merely to appear as a background to what the story called the Potter School; even so, it was good to be there and to become immersed in its history and think about the time when it was bathed by lights, captured by cameras, and was then seen around the world.

On an earlier visit to California I had stayed at a hotel on O’Farrell St in San Francisco, and the visit to Bodega Bay revealed that Jasper O’Farrell, after whom that road is named, had donated redwood lumber for the exterior of the Church of St Teresa, which was constructed by shipbuilding carpenters.

O’Farrell’s wood came from his Mexican Land Grant of 1843 and his brother John later gifted the church to Archbishop Alemany of San Francisco who dedicated the building on 2 June, 1862, to St Teresa de Avila, who had been adopted as the patron saint of Jasper’s sister.

As is the way with churches that stand the test of time, it was expanded due to Irish arrivals soon after its dedication and has been refurbished.

It also was dedicated as a California Historic Landmark in 1968.

The visit provided an opportunity to consider the generosity of people who contribute to opportunities for developing the faith through donations like that one to the community of St Teresa of Avila.

Those who haven’t had the financial backing to provide such large bequests often give of their time and talents to develop parishes – helping to serve local needs and the needs of travellers.