Parishioners join along in song during Sunday mass at St. Matthew’s.
Prior to 1863, San Mateo was just an unassuming stretch of land where travelers would make a rest stop on their journey between more prominent Bay cities, such as San Francisco and Monterey.
San Mateo had a history of Catholicism dating back to 1776, when a team of Spanish missionaries led by Juan Bautista de Anza came to the land and held a mass in St. Matthew’s name, creating the city’s namesake in the process. St. Matthew was one of Jesus’ disciples, whose gospel was particularly dedicated to the Jewish community, with many references to the old testament. Before Jesus called him, as the story goes, Matthew was a tax collector suspected of robbing people out of their money.
There are four Catholic churches in San Mateo, more than many other cities of its size. But it wasn’t until 1863 that San Mateo would have its first Catholic parish, St. Matthew, built by Father Denis Dempsey.
Under Father Henry Lyne, a K-8 school was added to the church in 1931 and this attracted families to the city from surrounding areas, making the church and city grow simultaneously. Today, according to the current pastor of nine years, Father Anthony McGuire, the school holds about 600 students and graduates 80 every year. The school stands right beside the church and has two classrooms for every grade, so as the students get out of school for the day they blend in with the people visiting the church.
Due to this growth, the church had to be expanded for a second time and moved from its downtown San Mateo location. Its current building at 1 Notre Dame Ave., off El Camino Real at Ninth Avenue, was completed in 1966. Its former location is where the Walgreens is now.
Carla Peccolo Woodworth has been a member of St. Matthew’s since she was a baby, as her parents were parishioners. In fact, she was married at St. Matthew’s in 1980, she and her husband have run the church carnival for four years, and her children have attended and graduated from the church school. Woodworth has fond memories of the more traditional church building from her childhood — the tall statues and the brick — but loves the modern, round design in place currently because she says it “feels like Jesus is hugging the community.”
While in the early years, the church was a catalyst for growing the city’s population, today St. Matthew’s is bringing people together through mass and special events.
Part of the church’s importance today is unifying the community, McGuire said.
“Smaller communities connect with events such as the carnival,” McGuire said.
Woodworth echoes this sentiment.
“The school now has opened up to serve people outside the parish and the composure of the church reflects the diversity of San Mateo,” she said.
Perhaps it is fitting the church is bringing people from many backgrounds together, because St. Matthew is said to have invited many different people over to his house one night for a big dinner.
Beginning Sept. 29, there will be special celebrations to commemorate the 150-year anniversary of St. Matthew’s. The festivities, which will conclude Oct. 5, include a picnic at San Mateo’s Central Park and a dinner dance at the church itself.
For more information about St. Matthew Catholic Church go to www.stmatthew-parish.org.