The Battle of La Porziuncola

The new location of the Knights of Saint Francis' new bookstore, around the corner at 1318 Grant Avenue.

The new location of the Knights of Saint Francis' new bookstore, around the corner at 1318 Grant Avenue.

 

Former San Francisco Supervisor and mayoral daughter Angela Alioto is preparing for battle.  The bigger-than-life North Beach attorney has been fighting the powerful in defense of the powerless for most of her adult life.  But this time it’s different.  This time it’s personal.
 
A devout Roman Catholic and life-long devotee of The City’s patron saint, Francis of Assisi, Angela Alioto is not just another “in name only” daughter of the Church.  She is the real thing.  In spite of her near-celebrity status as the offspring of the venerable former Mayor Joseph Alioto—or perhaps because of it—she is one of those rare people who can street fight with the best of them, and then do God’s work with grace and humility. 
  A sign re-directing visitors to the bookstore was removed from the front of the now-closed former location.  This sign was subsequently removed after an anonymous tip to the City

  A sign re-directing visitors to the bookstore was removed from the front of the now-closed former location.  This sign was subsequently removed after an anonymous tip to the City

 
 After serving eight years on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, including a two-year stint as its President, she opened her own law firm specializing in anti-discrimination law.  She won the largest civil rights verdict in the history of the United States in 2001, against IBC/Wonderbread, for 135 million dollars, and has won a number of cases against major corporations, including several multi-million dollar verdicts throughout the nation.
She is not a person to be trifled with.
***
 
But her defense of the defenseless is fueled primarily by her religious devotion.  Most everyone in North Beach has heard the story of how La Porziuncola Nuova came to be.  While on a pilgrimage to Saint Francis’ home town of Assisi, Angela Alioto had the idea to duplicate the saint’s little church.  She wanted it to be an exact replica, so she pulled out her camera, but she was told that photography was not allowed.
 
 So she and a friend got on their hands and knees, and while pretending to pray, used dental floss to measure every stone.  They were caught, and when brought before the church leaders, they explained their devotion to the Saint, and their desire to re-create the shrine in San Francisco.  The Franciscan leadership liked the idea, and gave her permission to measure and photograph to her heart’s content.
   Padlocks and bars greet pilgrims to La Porziuncola Nuova.

   Padlocks and bars greet pilgrims to La Porziuncola Nuova.

 
She returned to San Francisco and received the blessing of Archbishop Levada to form the Knights of Saint Francis and to spearhead the new project.  Shortly thereafter, Levada was tapped by the new Pope Benedict XVI to take his own old job in the Curia, and eventually was created a Cardinal of the Church. 
 
Angela Alioto raised a ton of money to fund the project, and began to collect authentic materials, as well as the best artisans in the world to complete the project.  She put her law practice on hold for a year so she could work on La Porziuncola Nuova full time.  In 2008, the work was completed, and a dedication ceremony was held, complete with a who’s who of civic and church leaders in attendance.  Since that time, La Porziuncola Nuova has served as a prime San Francisco tourist attraction, as well as a spiritual destination for devotees of Saint Francis from around the world.
 
Then the unthinkable happened.
When Father James Tarantino of Saint Hillary Catholic Church in Tiburon was given the honorary title of “monsignor”  everything changed.  The Marin County pastor, known for his weekly sermons that some referred to as his “Vegas lounge act,” went on sabbatical with his new title.  After the appointment of San Francisco’s new Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, he emerged as the Vicar General of the Archdiocese.
  A sign indicating that La Porziuncola Nuova was closed greeted visitors.

  A sign indicating that La Porziuncola Nuova was closed greeted visitors.

 
 His newly-discovered power, combined with his well-known love for the limelight, began to manifest itself in a number of ways that drew criticism.  He terminated the employment of a beloved thirty-five year employee of the Archdiocese.  He juggled the leadership of the Archdiocese’s seminary, removing the beloved leader with practically no notice or explanation. 
 
Perhaps most scandalous of all, sources say that he used the rectory at the Shrine of Saint Francis—the saint whose entire life example demonstrated the virtues of poverty and simplicity—to create a palatial residence for himself at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars. 
 
 Meanwhile, Angela Alioto and the Knights of Saint Francis continued to do their work at the Shrine.  They continued to operate their bookstore in the basement of the building, donating their profits directly to the Shrine.  The Knights continued to give tours of La Porziuncola Nuova, and most admirable of all, they continued to “stand guard” at the little chapel, praying in shifts for hours at a time.
 
 Then one day, it was announced that the Shrine was going to create a pet cemetery, so that the cremated ashes of San Francisco’s deceased animals would have a place to be interred—for a hefty fee.  The idea drew criticism from most San Franciscans, including from Angela Alioto.  And though nobody outside the clergy was really pushing for this project, there was money to be made, and that was that. 
 
The Knights of Saint Francis were told that they had to vacate the basement to make way for the ill-advised project.  They moved around the corner, and now pay rent on a small storefront shop, where they continue their ministry, and continue to donate their profits to the Shrine of Saint Francis—less the cost of the rent they are now forced to pay.  When they put a sign in front of the doors of the former location, it was removed and the Knights were told that they couldn’t put a sign there because it was “touching the building.” When they moved the sign across the sidewalk and leaned it against a public tree, the City was called to have it removed.
 
Angela Alioto was vocal in her criticism of the new leadership and their money-making schemes.  Saint Francis’ love of animals was legendary, but nobody ever implied that he buried them in the basement of his little church.  Everyone wondered where this was all going.  It didn’t take long to find out.
 
As one of the elderly Knights of Saint Francis was praying in La Porziuncola Nuova, she was approached by a person known to be Monsignor Tarantino’s right-hand man.  The frail woman, who had continued to pray and “guard” the little chapel throughout her recent cancer treatment, was startled when she was asked what she was doing.  According to Alioto, the woman explained who she was and what she was doing, but was told by the man that she was trespassing.  He allegedly kicked the woman and ordered her to leave immediately. 
 
“It’s a good thing for him that I was in Italy at the time,” said Angela Alioto in a recent interview.  “Everything I do is about protecting the powerless from the abuses of the powerful, and this was the exactly what was happening.” Angela became vocal in her opposition to the new regime, naming Monsignor Tarantino and leveling her criticism against him directly.  In an e-mail to him, she suggested that he publicly ask for God’s forgiveness for his trespasses.  She publicly called for his resignation.
 
The response from the Shrine was swift.  Angela Alioto and her Knights of Saint Francis were told that they were no longer allowed to enter La Porziuncola Nuova to pray and guard the very sacred space that they had conceived, raised money for, and built with nothing more from the Church than a blessing.  The doors were padlocked and a sign was posted indicating that renovations were the reason for the abrupt closure.  A gardener inside the gates (but outside the chapel) saw the sign and told L’Italo-Americano that there were no renovations going on, and that he had no idea why everything was in lock-down.
 
Soon afterward, the Shrine bulletin announced that applications were being sought for “docents” to be trained by the Shrine to give tours of La Porziuncola Nuova and the main church.  Everyone was invited to apply.  The Knights of Saint Francis—who had been doing this work since they themselves opened La Porziuncola Nuova—were told that they would have to be re-trained if they wanted to be a docent.  On behalf of the Knights, Angela Alioto declined.
 
Monsignor Tarantino was contacted by L’Italo-Americano to request an interview.  By press time more than ten days later, he had not responded to the request.  The Shrine bulletin did have a full-page announcement, however.  Beginning on November 3rd, Monsignor Tarantino will be celebrating a regular 5:00 p.m. Mass at the Shrine, where he intends to continue what he believes to be his much-loved homilies.  It will be interesting to see who will show up to hear him.
It will be even more interesting to see who shows up to protest in front of the Shrine.
 

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