The Missing Cross

Chelsea - beach cross

But all things should be done decently and in order.                                                         ———Corinthians 14:40

Waiting Out the Flood

God really does work in strange ways.

I had been struggling with writer’s block the past few weeks, when Sonoma and Mendocino County’s Russian River decided to flood.  My wife Chrissy and I moved next door to our neighbor’s home which is a few feet higher than ours while we waited out the storm.  Fortunately, the flood abated about ½ inch from our front door and disaster was averted—at least for us.  Many neighbors weren’t so lucky.

With no TV, phone or internet for a while, we sat around, drank wine and talked—an art somewhat lost in this day and age.   We kept looking out the window, watching the creeping water as it ominously approached the street, the driveway and then the house.  Our apprehension was compounded when the internet and cable went down and we were unable to get any news about the flood.

A Neighbor’s Revelation

Our neighbor knows that I write.  He nonchalantly told me he wanted to show me something.  He walked into another room and came out with a framed picture of San Francisco’s Mission Dolores.  He asked if I recognized the building, and as a native San Franciscan, I said of course.  He then turned the frame around and showed me two telephone book covers depicting the same picture of Mission Dolores.  However, I immediately noticed that the cross on top of the mission was missing on one of the cover pictures!  One had a cross and the other didn’t.

Telecommunications During the Mid-1900s

It turns out that Lee’s dad, Tom Edwards, was the Yellow Pages Vice President for Pacific Telephone—then a subsidiary of A T & T.   Tom approved all telephone book covers for Pacific Telephone, and that year he authorized a beautiful picture of Mission Dolores for the cover of San Francisco’s book. 

Those of us who can remember old San Francisco sometimes reflect on the way it was in the days before cell phones, the internet and cable television.  Everyone’s telephone then was black with a rotary dial which had both the alphabet and numbers 0 through 9 on the dial.  Black was the only color available then, too.  Phone numbers, in those days, had prefixes like Lombard, or Montrose or Excelsior.  So when you dialed say Lombard 4-3035 you dialed “LO” first followed by the five numbers.

Those were crazy times—in San Francisco’s Chinatown, telephone operators had to memorize customer’s names well into the 1940s because it was considered irreverent to refer to Chinese customers by a number (see also: Chinatown Ignores Telephone Numbers).  Instead of dialing, one called the operator and asked the operator to connect him or her with the party desired. 

At the turn of the 20th Century, Chinese operators furnished tea and cigarettes to customers waiting to use public phones, according to an item in the New York Tribune (see column second to last story).  At the time there where about 5,000 people living in Chinatown.  

The Era of Phone Books

With no internet in those days,the only way to locate a phone number was with a telephone book. Phone books were comprised of white pages (the residential listings) and yellow pages (business listings).  Businesses could opt to place an advertisement in the yellow pages to enhance their exposure for which they paid extra to the telephone company. 

Yellow pages in those days were a huge revenue source for telephone companies.  Probably four-fifths of those books were comprised of the yellow pages. Phone books then were big bulky affairs—not at all like the slim, chintzy things called phone books distributed nowadays. 

It was the custom then for all regional telephone companies (at least the subsidiaries of A T & T) to depict on the cover a picture of something historical related to the local service area.  And so it was Tom Edwards’ choice in 1963 was to depict Mission Dolores on the front cover.  

The California Mission Idea

The mission is the oldest standing structure in San Francisco having been built in 1776—the same year the Declaration of Independence was written and adopted.  It was the sixth mission of twenty-one founded by the Franciscan’s initially started by St. Junipero Serra. 

Serra was responsible for nine of the twenty-one before his death in 1784.  The goal laid out by the Royal Spanish Court (which had colonized California) was for the missions to convert the native Californians to Catholicism under the direction of the Franciscan Padres.  

The Indians were to be housed and converted at the mission and trained in various occupations—blacksmith, bakers, farmers, etc. Eventually the mission would become a parish church and the mission lands would be divided into villages for the converted Indians who would become Spanish citizens.  

That was the idea before Mexico revolted against Spain, gained its independence and then secularized the missions and their lands.   Mexican California was in turn conquered and annexed to the United States at the end of the Mexican-American War.  The Gold Rush finished any idea of taking care of California’s indigenous people.

Replacing the Cross

When the phone books finally arrived from the publishers, Tom immediately discovered the mission didn’t have its cross.  He was flabbergasted!  Unbeknownst to Tom, his boss, who recently arrived from New York, had ordered the cross removed in the picture of Mission Delores!  Tom realized releasing them to the public would cause an uproar in the then predominantly Catholic San Francisco.  What to do?  The cost of republishing hundreds of thousands of telephone books would be very expensive. What to do?  THE RIGHT THING!

The creative Tom Edwards decided to literally send all of the covers back through the press to stamp the cross in its proper location atop Mission Delores.  It worked and no one was ever the wiser.  The attached pictures are the only known ones to be in existence.    Tom waited until after he had distributed the phone books to tell his boss’ boss, the President of Pacific Telephone, about the problem and what he had done.  The president, according to Lee, was an old cigar-chomping brusque kind of guy.   He looked up at Tom and simply said “Good job!”

So why did Tom’s boss opt not to include the cross on the mission? No one really knows. However, one might speculate that at the time people began to criticize how the Franciscans treated the Indians. Nevertheless, there are certain things that just go together: The Fourth of July and fireworks; George Washington’s Birthday and cherry pie; bacon and eggs; peanut butter and jelly; liver and onions, and; missions and crosses. Despite the misgivings of those who would rewrite history, the California missions attest to the many good works done by the Catholic padres, priests who had the best interests of California’s native people at heart.

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