St. Catherine of Siena has been an integral part of the history of Martinez, and California, since the 19th Century. The parish and parishioners have played a strong role in the tradition and growth of our community.
Prior to the California Gold Rush of 1849, Martinez was part of Mexican territory, and was a pastoral valley divided up into Spanish Ranchos. The discovery of gold, and establishment of Statehood, brought a rush of settlers and prospectors to the region. Across the Carquinez Straight, the city of Benicia became the State Capitol in 1853, and was home to the parish of St. Dominics.
It was in 1853 that Dominican fathers began taking the ferry across the bay from Benicia to their “mission territory” in Martinez. Lacking a church building for the congregation, Mass was celebrated in Brown’s Store, one of the earliest structures in Martinez. There was no bridge built yet, and a trip across the straight by ferry was the only transportation connecting St. Dominics to Martinez. This journey limited the Fathers to one trip a month to perform Mass.
Within a few years, the congregation built an adobe church, and then in 1866 a small wooden building that blew over in a gale within two years. In 1868, a steepled wood frame church went up on St. Catherine’s current site at Estudillo and Mellus streets.
Statehood and the Gold Rush drew Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Portugal and around Europe, joining the established residents of Spanish descent. They shared a common Catholic religious culture –and the Latin Mass – which brought the cultures and community together.
The early church rolls list diverse family names that are familiar to many in the region: Pacheco, DiMaggio, Nunes, Russo, Welch, Martinez, Marazzani, Moraga, Sparacino, Briones, and more.
The year 1873 marks the date St. Catherine of Siena became a full-fledged parish with a resident pastor.
Elsewhere around Martinez, Catholics planted roots and made great contributions to our history. In the year 1879, the Bush family homestead property near Vine Hill was purchased for the site of a Roman Catholic college, which was later erected by the Christian Brothers Society of St. Mary’s College and given the name of the De La Salle Institute. This became the birthplace of the world famous Christian Brothers Winery. The winery shipped wine from Martinez from the mid 1880’s until 1932. It all began with 12 acres of grapes that the brothers did not want to go to waste when the land was purchased to build the school (which was instead built in nearby Moraga).
The St. Catherine of Siena cemetery is located overlooking the Carquinez Straights on the old road to Port Costa. It is the final resting place for more than 2,500 local parishoners. The crypts and monuments record the names of many early settlers and prominent families dating back to the 1800s through today. Don Juan Salvio Pacheco co-founder of Concord is buried here as well as Sam (Simon) Rodia who designed and built the famous Watts Towers in Los Angeles to name a couple. Here is a LINK to a list of graves.
The parish parochial school was established in 1949, on the same block as the church. St. Catherine of Siena School has been an academic constant ever since, educating thousands of Martinez students and developing the leaders and contributors that helped make Martinez great.
St. Catherine of Siena is one of the oldest parishes in the Diocese of Oakland and has played a significant role in the history of the diocese as well as the history of the community around it. It has been described as the “mother” church of East Contra Costa County. The city of Martinez and St. Catherine Church grew up together. This synergy is vividly symbolized today by the City Hall building being located adjacent to the Church. In the heart of Martinez.