St. Columba Catholic Church was founded in 1898, a collaborative result between Sacred Heart Church, Oakland and St. Joseph the Worker Church in Berkeley. The founding pastor was Father Martin Whyte (1898-1900), who was the Assistant Pastor of Sacred Heart. During this time, Fr. Whyte rented a five-room cottage at 63rd Street and San Pablo Avenue, where he lived and worked. The present rectory was built in 1903 under the pastorship of father Patrick Heslin.
The original population of St. Columba Catholic Church consisted of some 100 families, with the majority being Irish. Following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, many Italians moved to Oakland, and in time the parish became 35% Italian, while the Irish population decreased to 20%. Within the two decades following the 1906 earthquake, the number of African American parishioners grew significantly.
In June 1904, Father Patrick McHugh replaced Fr. Heslin; two months later, Father John A. Butler became pastor. During his tenure, the church building was enlarged to twice its former size. Father Martin Scalon replaced Fr. Butler as pastor in 1914, and served until April 1916. Father Joseph F. Byrne served as pastor from May 1916 to 1919.
Father Barnabas J. Cantillon was appointed pastor in 1919, and served for 35 years. During his tenure, he purchased property on Alcatraz Avenue and Herzog Street, and built the elementary school in 1925. Father James J. Wade, an assistant pastor at St. Columba since the early 1940’s, became pastor in 1954 upon the retirement of Fr. Cantillon, who remained as pastor emeritus.
Under Fr. Wade, the elementary school, staffed by the Presentation Sisters, was enlarged and modernized. A new church with a seating capacity of 650 was completed in 1960, with the first mass celebrated at Christmas Midnight in 1960. Fr. Wade remained until 1962, when Father Bob Adams was appointed pastor; he served for two years and was replaced by Monsignor Michael O’Brien. In 1967, Msgr. O’Brien was appointed pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Oakland, and was replaced by Father Arthur Ribiero, who remained until 1970 when Father Kenneth Cabral was appointed pastor. Fr. Cabral served for two years until January 1972, when he was replaced by Father William Kennedy, who at that time was the youngest priest in the Diocese of Oakland. Father James O’Connor, who had recently been ordained, was the associate pastor, and was the first and only priest ordained at St. Columba Church.
In August 1972, Father Richard Mangini and Father Dan Danielson came to live at St. Columba, and Father Jay Matthews served as a deacon here during that time. Throughout that period, St. Columba experienced considerable growth in the number of lay ministries as a response to Vatican II, including the beginning of the Gospel Choir, under the direction of Cynthia LeBlanc. Fr. Kennedy remained with St. Columba until 1978, when Father Michael Norkett was appointed pastor. Until his departure in 1981, Fr. Norkett began much-needed repairs on the parish rectory and the church, as well as acquiring property on the corner of Alcatraz and San Pablo Avenue.
On September 1, 1981, Father Paul Ross Vassar was assigned as pastor. His 13-year tenure was highlighted with a vision for liturgy that reflected the African American Catholic experience. Fr. Vassar initiated the St. Columba Annual African American Celebration, in conjunction with African American History Month (February), drawing nationally renowned African American speakers. Part of that celebration was – and continues to be—the Rawn Harbor Workshop Choir Experience; noted Catholic Liturgist Rawn Harbor would present a week-long workshop for choirs and singers from throughout the diocese.
In 1991, Fr. Vassar spearheaded the development and construction of the Sister Thea Bowman Senior Manor, establishing affordable senior housing for the North Oakland area. Also during this time, he helped coordinate the building of a parish hall adjacent to the current church. In 1994, Fr. Vassar left St. Columba to become the Vicar General for the Diocese of Oakland. Mrs. Clemmie Martin assumed responsibility as Parochial Administrator until January 1995, when Father Tom Edwards was assigned as administrator. In April 1995, Father Mario Borges was appointed pastor; his tenure was noted for reducing a significant debt that remained from the construction of the parish hall, while providing much-needed improvements on the physical plant. It was under Fr. Borges that the parish celebrated its 100th anniversary, with a gala dinner/dance at the Greek Orthodox Center in Oakland. In July 1998, Father Tony Hererra was appointed pastor of St. Columba, remaining until May 1999, when Deacon Frank Beville was assigned as Parochial Administrator.
In August 1999, Father Jayson Jerome Landeza was appointed pastor of St. Columba. Under Fr. Jayson’s tenure, the elementary school was renovated to accommodate the East Bay Conservation Corps Charter School; St.Martin de Porres School became the regional school for St. Columba; a grand piano was added to the music repertoire; noted liturgist Rawn Harbor was hired as Liturgy Director; and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development with the City of Oakland approved funding of eight million ($8 million) dollars for the construction of the Percy Abram Jr. Senior Apartments. The apartments – built on land owned by St. Columba/Diocese of Oakland– comprise of 44 units of affordable housing adjacent to the present Sr. Thea Bowman Senior Manor. Additionally, Fr. Jayson oversaw the establishment of a health cabinet as part of St. Columba’s many ministries; increased leadership opportunities among lay persons, including students from the Jesuit School of Theology (JTSB), Berkeley; also, since 2004, JTSB students were afforded opportunities to reside in the Community House (rectory) and aid in the ministries of St. Columba. In 2005, parishioners reached out to support survivors of Hurricane Katrina in the form of financial support as well as creating and providing 50 handmade quilts to displaced families. Also, in November 2005, St. Columba – in conjunction with both St. Patrick’s Parish and St. Benedict Parish, Oakland – celebrated a Thanksgiving mass and hosted a “Mardi Gras” style reception for Katrina survivors. In March 2005, Rawn Harbor was named Pastoral Associate. Since 2005, under Fr. Jayson’s tenure, has observed the month of November as Black Catholic History Month to celebrate the long history and proud heritage of African American Catholics. Other notable achievements under Fr. Jayson include the Rosary Group, a small ministry of several parish women who gather each Friday to pray for special intentions, and monthly gatherings of families with small children.
As pastor, Fr. Jayson raised awareness with regard to the growing concern over violent crime in the City of Oakland and its impact on the community. Each year, since 2004, crosses have been erected each year in front of the church to remember homicide victims. Fr. Jayson frequently met with many organizations, as well as families and friends of homicide victims, and held a commemorative community service at St. Columba each December.
In November 2008, a group of parishioners took part in a day-long forum to discuss and forge a renewed commitment to St. Columba Catholic Church with a focus on its future. With the guidance of Janet Cooke, chair of the Diocesan Pastoral Plan Task Force and Chair of the Diocesan Pastoral Council, the group successfully developed a new vision and mission statement that celebrate Roman Catholic principles as experienced through the lens of African American culture and members of the Body of Christ in the Catholic Diocese of Oakland: “We are a Roman Catholic Christian community with a focus on African-American spirituality….Through African-American traditions and Roman Catholic Christian principles, we are moved by the Spirit of God to serve through the Church of Oakland…”
Fr. Jayson is the first pastor not to live at the parish rectory, living instead at Sacred Heart Church, Oakland through 2006, and at St. Joseph the Worker, Berkeley from 2006 until August 2009. Fr. Jayson completed his tenure at St. Columba on August 9, 2009.