Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Catholic Church under construction, circa 1965. Photo courtesy Lucretia Little History Room of the Mill Valley Library.

Church community opens its doors to the public to celebrate the golden anniversary of its 12-sided dodecagon-shaped church. 

PictureOur Lady of Mt. Carmel Catholic Church, circa 1972. Photo courtesy Lucretia Little History Room of the Mill Valley Library.

Regardless of the day of the week or time of day, Father Patrick Michaels, pastor of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church in downtown Mill Valley, will encounter someone wandering into his church, often jaws agape.

“Invariably, they’ll get a tour, whether want one or not,” he says with a laugh.

Whether it’s the architecture or the catechism or something else entirely, churches are destinations all over the world. Mill Valley’s easily recognizable, 12-sided dodecagon-shaped church with a copper-covered spire and an 18-foot gold leaf cross that ascends 140 feet from the sidewalk level, fits the bill.

In May 1968, on the heels of a massive fundraising effort spearheaded by a number of parishioners and Mill Valley residents, many of whom still live in town, the Mt. Carmel community unveiled its new church designed by architect Fred Houweling. The unique design remains eye-catching but was also a practical choice. Because of the layout, none of the 850 seats in the church is more than 17 rows from the altar, assuring a good view for all.

The “mid-century modern” church, easily one of the most identifiable buildings in town, turns 50 this year, and the Mount Carmel community is celebrating by opening its doors to the whole community for a free gospel concert on Friday, September 28 at 7pm. The event, under the tagline of, “Now that our church is 50 years old, it’s time to blow the roof off,” will feature the Tam High Choir, musicians from within the church community and a performance by Lighthouse Singers, an inter-denominational gospel choir based in San Rafael.

​”We’re so proud to mark the 50th anniversary of our church building, which has long been one of our town’s landmark institutions,” says Mt. Carmel parishioner Ann Aversa. “And we’re thrilled to be able to invite the larger Mill Valley community to celebrate with us. We can’t wait to have a night of fantastic music with our friends, neighbors and newcomers in this gorgeous space.”

PictureOur Lady of Mt. Carmel Catholic Church in Mill Valley. Photo courtesy Lucretia Little History Room of the Mill Valley Library.

According to the church’s parish history, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel began with Father John Valentini, a native of Como, Italy, who came to California in 1868 and eventually joined the San Francisco Archdiocese. In the 1880s, Valentini was invited to begin weekly masses in Mill Valley at the home of James and Josephine Thompson at 620 Molino Avenue.

At each mass, the multilingual Valentini – he spoke French, Italian, German, Portuguese, English and Chinese – preached a homily for the English speaking community, another in Portuguese and Azores Islanders who operated the many dairy farms found throughout the area, and a third in Italians. When the congregation outgrew the Thompson living room, Sunday Mass was eventually moved to the Summit School, a small grammar school of a few dozen students not far from the site of the present Old Mill School.

The church there was dedicated by Archbishop Patrick Riordan and was named in honor of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel because Valentini thought the hillside setting was reminiscent of Mt. Carmel in Northern Palestine, near Haifa. In 1914, four years after it was officially designated by Riordan as an independent parish, the church acquired land on the corner of Buena Vista & West Blithedale for $7,500 to build a new church. The frame and stucco structure, which seated 200 people, cost $28,500 to build, was dedicated in January 1917 and served the parish well into the early 1950s.

When the new church was unveiled in 1968, Pastor John O’Brien wrote, “The members of this parish have long sought a place of worship to which they could point with pride to the community, and to which they could come, with family and friends, and join together in holy prayer. Now, this is a reality. To be sure, the edifice itself is temporal, and it is the product of the combined will, perseverance, sacrifice and toil of many people, both within the parish and without.”

The 411: The Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church celebrates the 50th anniversary of its current building with a free gospel concert on Friday, September 28 at 7pm. Here’s a photo of a wedding at Mt. Carmel Church in March 1968:


Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Catholic Church. Interior view. A wedding is in progress. The church opened in March, 1968. Photo by Phil Planert courtesy Lucretia Little History Room of the Mill Valley Library.