Welcome to St. Denis Parish
St. Denis Catholic Church and Our Lady of the Wayside Catholic Church are two vibrant, caring, and welcoming communities.
We gather together to worship and to celebrate. As a community we reach out to the people around us in friendship and in charity and thus try to transform the world around us.
If you are visiting the area or are new to the area, we welcome you to our faith communities. Feel free to contact us and let us know how we can serve you.
Rev. Paul O'Dell, pastor
The present St. Denis Parish was formed in 1995 by joining two parishes: Our Lady of the Wayside in Portola Valley and St. Denis in Menlo Park. Hence any history must go back to the origins of each of these two original parishes.
A history of the Parish was written in 1978 for the 125th anniversary of the Parish by Jane Knoerle. Supposedly there are some mistakes in this story – or so say some of the old-timers. If anyone reading this has corrections, comments, or embellishments – especially old photographs, please contact us.
A limestone and bronze marker stands just off Sand Hill Road, accessible from the entrance to 3000 Sand Hill Road, nearly hidden by Monterey Pine trees. It is a remembrance of times past, of the first church in San Mateo County built by a young Irish immigrant in 1853. That church is gone, but only a mile away in Sharon Heights stands the handsome, contemporary St. Denis Church built in 1963, the namesake of that little Catholic Church built so long ago by Dennis Martin.
Perhaps no contemporary church in the archdiocese has such a fascinating background as St. Denis. The saga of the pioneer was written some years ago by the Rev. John S. Cummins, now Emeritus Bishop of Oakland, who recounts the story of Dennis Martin, born in Ireland in 1821, who in 1844, joined his father, brother-in-law and a group of Irish pioneers crossing the country to California. They followed a trail that two years later was to claim the lives of the Donner party. The Murphy-Miller-Martin party, said Bishop Cummins, is on record as the first wagon train to cross the Sierra. "Among its members were the first white men to gaze upon Lake Tahoe," he said.
Dennis Martin, after working as a laborer for John Sutter at his fort, later came to San Mateo County to what was known as "Peralta's Redwoods," really the Searsville-Portola area beyond the present Stanford University and Menlo Park.
The lumber industry was booming, felling the many redwood trees that grew in the area. The young man went to work as a lumberman after a foray into the gold fields and soon earned enough to buy, in 1850, 1,000 acres of land from John Copinger, who had acquired the 12,000 acre Rancho Cañada de Raymundo from Governor Alvarado in 1840. There were stands of redwoods on the property, an area of one-and-one-half square miles roughly between Searsville Lake and Menlo Park.
Dennis Martin continued in the lumber business and a few years later married the daughter of an Irish immigrant, Bridget O'Neil, at Mission Dolores. Although the first mill he built on his property was destroyed by fire, others were built and Mr. Martin purchased a schooner, the "Mary Martin", to ship lumber to San Francisco. He became a wealthy man.
A good Catholic always, he went to Mass on Sundays, when he could, at Santa Clara, and invited missionary priests to stop over and say Mass in his home as there was no Catholic Church between Mission Dolores in San Francisco and Mission Santa Clara. He decided to build a church for his family, neighbors and his employees who included many French-Canadians.
He took a redwood building first used as a schoolhouse and enlarged it into the shape of a cross. Bishop Cummins describes it thus: "The altar was richly draped and adorned with six silver candlesticks and a crucifix handwrought in France, then taken to Rome, where legend has it they were blessed by Pope Pius IX." The candlesticks and crucifix may be seen today on the altar of the Church of the Nativity, Menlo Park. When St. Denis Church was abandoned, the Joseph Donohue family took them into safekeeping and later presented them to Nativity.
On June 8, 1856, Archbishop Joseph S. Alemany, 0.P., dedicated the little church and named it in honor of the patron saint of Dennis Martin. It was served by the Jesuit priests of Mission Santa Clara, including the Rev. John Nobili, founder of the University of Santa Clara. The Rev. Joseph Bixio, S.J., was appointed the first pastor of the church, serving from 1856 to 1859.
Each Sunday families gathered in the rustic pews of the rural church. Records of pew rents show the regular attendance of 50 families, many of whom walked from as far as Redwood City. Feast days were colorful, In those times the Spanish led their Mexican, Irish and other neighbors in celebrating fiestas. People would camp near the church for a few days and there would be dancing, singing, and feasting. Horse racing and trading were also pastimes.
On a hill about 300 feet from the church, the St. Denis cemetery was laid out. The first burial was that of Patrick Martin, 86, father of Dennis.
Hard times soon came for Dennis Martin. Shortly after the church was built, a court decision said that the 1,000 acres he occupied were not his own. He was dispossessed and broken by the decision. He was forced to give up his home, his mills, orchards and barns, as well as the church he had built.
The Martins moved to their remaining 250 acres at El Corte Madera. There were now nine young children as well as his wife Bridget, who died six years later.
Dennis Martin 's prosperity faded quickly and, likewise, that of his church. As the redwood forests dwindled, the lumber mills began closing one by one and workers drifted on to other jobs. The population began shifting to the new towns springing up along the tracks of the recently built San Francisco-San Jose Railroad.
Care of the church passed from the hands of the Jesuits to the Rev. Denis F. Dempsey, newly appointed pastor of San Mateo with missions at Colma, Redwood City and St. Denis. With the founding of the Church of the Nativity in 1872, the little church was abandoned. A writer of the San Mateo Times and Gazette described it in the 1880's as "grim and deserted in the midst of green fields, its walls weather-beaten and bare from the storms. The altar, once decorated with the handsomest of drapes and flowers is soiled and stained by rain. Though the place is neglected and the doors always open, no one has disturbed a single article in the church."
In 1882, Dennis Martin moved to San Francisco where he lived until his death in 1890 at the age of 69. After a funeral Mass in the Church of the Nativity, he was buried in St. Denis Cemetery. Within a dozen years the church building was torn down to build straw sheds and the cemetery lay neglected.
When Senator Leland Stanford acquired the Martin property, he ordered that the cemetery be maintained but his orders were forgotten. In 1953, the remains of 24 California pioneers were exhumed from the cemetery and re-buried in Holy Cross Cemetery, Menlo Park. Only 24 graves yielded traces of the dead, although records show 174 graves were found. The grave of Dennis Martin was never determined.
In 1953, Stanford University, in cooperation with the San Mateo County Historical Association and the Church of the Nativity, erected a bronze and limestone marker on Sand Hill Road noting "one-half mile south of this site stood the first church in San Mateo County. Dedicated in 1853 by Archbishop Joseph S. Alemany, he named it St. Denis to honor the founder, Dennis Martin, pioneer lumberman and farmer, who also established a cemetery nearby. Worshipers knelt here until the 1870's when a church was erected in Menlo Park."
The marker was later moved to Sand Hill Circle Road when the Stanford Linear Accelerator was built.
A second life for St. Denis Church began in 1959 when the Archdiocese of San Francisco purchased a 14 acre site in Sharon Heights, the former Frederick Sharon estate, for about $231,000. Plans were made for a church and elementary school to serve the many families who were to move into Sharon Heights and Stanford Hills. Hopes were high in those days and it was predicted that 1,000 families would move into the Stanford Hills development that was to extend to Searsville Lake, the very site where Dennis Martin's farm and mills once stood.
The new St. Denis was established as a parish by Archbishop Mitty in 1961 and Father Thomas I. Kennedy, then principal of Serra High School, San Mateo, was named its first pastor
Father Kennedy came to Menlo Park in June, 1961. He resided for a few months with Msgr. Edwin Kennedy at St. Raymond's Parish. In July he said his first Mass on the porch of the historic Sharon Mansion overlooking all of Sharon Heights.
On the Feast of St. Denis, October 9, Father Kennedy moved into the mansion with his dog, Rua (Irish for red). They lived in two rooms of the 28 room mansion that had no heat, no water. When winter came, Father Kennedy said Mass in the ballroom decorated with fanciful Japanese lights.
Father Kennedy had a mixed blessing. As he tells it, he was the last member of his class to get a parish and that parish was one of 138 families, the smallest in the archdiocese and the smallest ever created in the archdiocese. Stanford University decided to build the Linear Accelerator on its land instead of the predicted 1,000 homes and parish growth was severely restricted.
Along with the problems of founding a new parish, many good times abounded. Friends were quickly made in the little parish and the historic mansion was the scene of many festivities including a New Year's reception, barbeques and a costume party. Soon all the parish family was pitching in and the School of Religion and the St. Denis Guild were founded that first winter. Father also loaned the mansion to the women's auxiliary of the Woodside Priory to hold their first Christmas boutique.
In June, 1963, the new St. Denis Church, 2250 Avy Avenue, was dedicated. The church was the design of Robert W. Hagman, of Hagman and Meyer Architects, a Sharon Heights resident and parishioner. The building contractor was W. A. Moroney, Inc., of Burlingame.
The Most Rev. Joseph T. McGucken, Archbishop of San Francisco, presided at the dedication ceremonies. The Solemn High Mass was celebrated by the Very Rev. John F. X. Connolly, S.J., and eight other priests also took part in the official dedication. Father Kennedy was the deacon of the Mass and preached the sermon. Immediately after the dedication, Confirmation was conferred.
St. Denis' growth has continued since those early days. In 1965, Father Kennedy was named the pastor of St. Raphael Parish, San Rafael. The Rev. Daniel M. Lynch became the new pastor of St. Denis and during his residence a new rectory was built in 1967, as well as an addition to the church for Confraternity of Christian Doctrine Classes. In 1970, Father Lynch was transferred to St. Robert's Parish, San Bruno. The Rev. Eugene Duggan came in 1970. Under his care, the parish grew to 375 families. The St. Denis Guild continued to be the heart of most parish functions. It had for its principal fund-raising activities a Spring rummage sale and a Christmas bazaar. An annual dinner-dance highlighted the social activities.
For many years the School of Religion was under the direction of Sister Virginia, a Holy Family Sister. After her came Sister Elizabeth, a Daughter of Mary and Joseph. There was a teen group that planed activities for the high school students.
In commemoration of the 125th anniversary, several improvements were made, including the addition of a brick patio, painting the exterior and resurfacing the parking area. Future plans include redecorating the church interior.
In 1983, Fr. John Diez became pastor. He worked on renewal of the liturgy, moved the religious education program to Sunday morning, started every-week "coffee and donuts" after the 9:30am Sunday Mass, and set up the Parish Council and Finance Committee. During his tenure, the pipe organ, a generous gift of a parishioner, was installed and dedicated.
Fr. James O'Shaughnessy served as pastor from 1986 until his death in 6 years later. He arranged for the refurbishment of the church in which the wall behind the altar was removed and replaced with the large picture windows overlooking the eucalyptus grove outside. He also oversaw the construction of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel.
While Fr. O'Shaughnessy was pastor, the Sunday religious education program expanded to the point where it completely outgrew the large multi-purpose room built in 1967, even though there was no new residential development in the area. The parish was fortunate that Phillips Brooks School was located right across the street; they let the parish use their classrooms on Sunday Morning for the religious education program.
Upon Fr. O'Shaughnessy's death in August, 1992, Msgr. John F. Rodriguez became Administrator and then Pastor.
The Original Our Lady of the Wayside
Our Lady of the Wayside Church was modeled after Mission Dolores in San Francisco. Its graceful structure was built in 1912 and remained a mission until 1941, when the rectory was built and our Lady of the Wayside became a parish. St. Marcella's, a mission in Woodside. was also part of this parish.
Fr. George Thomas was ordained in 1948 in San Francisco and became pastor at Our Lady of the Wayside in 1972. The church was designated a California Registered Historical Landmark in 1977.
In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake literally shook the church building to its foundations. Due to obvious structural damage, the Archdiocese was forced to close the church immediately. The structural engineers who assessed the severity of the damage came back with a devastating report. They strongly recommended tearing down the existing building and replacing it with a new structure. A lot of the damage resulted from the very poor concrete used in the original construction.
The parish community felt otherwise; for instead it raised $600,000 required to retrofit and repair this beloved church.
The 1995 Merger
In 1995, the Archdiocese, as part of its pastoral plan, decided to merge St. Denis Parish and Our Lady of the Wayside Parish into one. This merged parish would be called St. Denis Parish and would have two churches: Our Lady of the Wayside Church and St. Denis Church. As part of the merger, the Archdiocese also decided to sell the land on which St. Marcella's Mission was located. Msgr. Rodriguez became pastor of this merged parish; Fr. Thomas became the parochial vicar at Our Lady of the Wayside.
1995 was a time of spectacular growth for Silicon Valley, Menlo Park, and the newly combined St. Denis Parish. Growth meant children, and children needed schools. The Las Lomitas Public School District, which owned the land where Phillips Brooks School was located, was beginning to feel the pinch. They notified Phillips Brooks that they were not going to renew their lease, which expired in a couple of years. This meant that St. Denis would not be able to use Phillips Brooks' classrooms on Sunday morning once their lease expired and the facility reverted to the Public School District.
Fortunately, St. Denis Church still owned four of the original fourteen acres, providing lots of room for building and expansion. So the decision was made to raise the money for a Parish Center that would both become the home to the booming religious education program, whose enrollment by now was fast approaching 400 children, and be a multipurpose facility for parish activities.
Construction commenced in the Fall of 1996. The facility was completed and ready for use in a Fall of 1997, a year later. It had cost a little more than $1,000,000. But thanks to the generosity of the parishioners, it was paid for by the time it became completed. The landscaping was added by the end of 1998. The facility was fully utilized from the very beginning for the parish's religious education program, parish dinners, and a place for meetings for various organizations.
Part of the landscaping for the Parish Center consisted of a new brick patio between the Parish Center and the entrance to St. Denis Church. It contained 1,005 bricks engraved with the names of many who participated in the formation of St. Denis Parish. The bricks are arranged in the form of a Cross Crosslet, also known as Holy Cross or German Cross. Four Latin Crosses, so arranged that their bases overlap, form this cross. It symbolizes the spread of the Gospel to the "four corners" of the earth; it is very appropriate for St. Denis since everyone came together here from different places to form this parish.
Before his retirement to his native Spain in 2004, Monsignor Rodriguez was responsible for the refurbishing of the original patio outside of the Parish offices. This improvement has provided a beautiful space for "coffee and donuts" and other after Mass socializing.
On July 1, 2004, Father Vincent D. Ring, former Pastor of St. Robert's Parish in San Bruno, was appointed Pastor by Archbishop William Levada.