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When the San Francisco 49ers take the field on Super Bowl Sunday, there will be plenty of Catholics among the fans cheering them on – and probably a few praying for a favorable outcome as well. 

But almost 200 years ago, another set of Catholics was praying for the original 49ers. 

Those Catholics were the priests who ministered to the miners flooding California during the gold rush migration which peaked in 1849.

The priests were led by Bishop Joseph Alemany of Monterey, who would go on to become the first archbishop of San Francisco. 

But Alemany was initially reluctant to take up the assignment. In fact, he initially refused the appointment.

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After gold was discovered in California in 1848, eager miners flooded the area, hoping to strike it rich. It is estimated that some 300,000 people moved to California over the following decade. Towns sprang up virtually overnight, and California was admitted as a state in 1850.

The miners were given the nickname 49ers, as 1849 saw the largest wave of new people flocking to California.

With the spike in population came a need for sacraments and pastoral ministry. In 1850, the pope appointed Joseph Alemany, a Dominican priest, as the bishop of Monterey.

Alemany had moved from Spain to the United States a decade earlier to work as a missionary in Ohio and Tennessee. 

Records indicate that he loved working as a simple missionary priest. When the pope appointed him to be a bishop in California, Alemany said “no.”

The pope, Pius IX, then called him to an audience, where he told him, “You must go to California…Where others are drawn by gold, you must carry the cross.”

So Alemeny agreed, under obedience, and was consecrated bishop in June 1850.

Over the next three decades, he brought in numerous religious orders, established parishes, and oversaw the establishment of schools, hospitals, and orphanages in California.

In 1853, the Archdiocese of San Francisco was erected, and Alemany became its first archbishop. 

California was a particularly challenging mission territory at the time, rife with disease, anti-immigrant sentiment, brothels, and gambling. The mining towns were known for violence and lawlessness. 

Finding priests willing to serve in California was a challenge. Alemany failed in his effort to establish a seminary. Still, he persevered, and the archdiocese was home to more than 150 priests by the early 1880s.

Throughout his ministry, Alemany became known for his humility, generosity, and love of poverty.

He retired in 1884 at the age of 70 and returned to Spain. He lived in a convent in Valencia until his death in 1888.

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