I Live in a Palace, Part 1

By Sister Barbara Engs, 1891 – 1979
Written in 1963.

Foreward: This is the story about an opulent 55,000 square foot mansion that decades later became a nearly bankrupt insane aslyum and the Sisters who saw possibilities in the mouldering building and rescued it.

As a prospective buyer, Sr. Anthony of the Sacred Heart said of her first visit to the Ralston Hall Mansion: "No neglect could utterly spoil the intrinsic beauty of the place…but lovely as it was, the house seemed rather a splendid tomb; it was in fact a tomb of a beautiful hope. It had died with the life that made it lovely and it was to revive only under love, love sanctified by sacrifice and altruism."

Following is Sr. Barbara Engs delightful remembrance of moving from bustling San Jose and "setting up home" in this mansion that was far from everything (Belmont in the 1920s) and far from perfect.


Residents at the Gardener Sanitarium enjoy a game of billiards in one of the "maintained" rooms of the then decaying Ralston Mansion. Circa 1922.

Everyone said we shouldn't do it. What was the use of buying a place that had been built in 1868, when there were lovely new subdivisions and projects, and "areas" fairly screaming for a college to spread culture and prestige? And we were going to invest in this place — down at the heel, tenantless for ten years [note: the property was not tenantless but still being used as the Gardner Sanitarium], and miles away from everywhere? Well, we bought it.

This introduction will furnish the background motif for the transfer in 1923 of College of Notre Dame, the pioneer educational institution of San Jose, founded in 1851, from the crowded center of a modern city to a "quiet place in the country," (quote, unquote) where resident students might escape the noise and hum of San Jose's screeching traffic and breathe air unpolluted by the aromas incident to assorted business activities.

We had stood the fire department nestling against our north wall and the granite chipping studio that produced tombstones across from our music department (they had competition) but the daily outpouring of rich coffee fumes to the east and the hurry and scurry of free market enterprise outside our west wall demonstrated beyond a doubt that we no longer lived in cloistered seclusion.

So, we moved. And lest anyone think that the transfer of a seventy-two year old plant (non-botanical) that has sunk its foundations into the very soil of a place is easy — just try it.

The espied choice for our future home was Belmont, the former pleasure palace of a Bonanza King, William Chapman Ralston, known in California history as "The Man Who Built San Francisco."  He was known as a number of other things, too, for the legends that had grown up about the name of "Billy" Ralston were as numerous as the years since his tragic death by drowning the morning the bank of which he was president had failed in 1875.  He had built Belmont in 1868, lived in it for seven brief years — and now — we were moving from our 1851 ten acre home to an estate fifteen times larger.

How did we do it?

PART 2, I Live in a Palace