The Panama Canal was completed in August 1914, and in anticipation of its opening, the citizens of San Diego made a tremendous gamble. They would stage a World’s Exposition in 1915, creating a festival to rival some of the best in the world. Many just laughed at the idea. World’s Fairs are events undertaken by cities like Chicago, New York, and Paris, not some sleepy little border town that few had ever heard of. But the opening of the canal meant that boats traveling westward would encounter San Diego as the first United States port of call on their journey, and it opened the gates to commerce as well as tourism. Thanks to some keen creative planning and very hard work, the Panama-California Exposition, which lasted two years, was a resounding success.
The Exposition, along with the end of both World War I and the influenza pandemic of 1918-19, initiated a tremendous expansion of the city’s population. In the early 1920s, many were now settling in North Park. With the inflow of new residents, there was a need for more churches and priests to serve them. The Augustinians, based in Philadelphia, were interested in becoming involved.
Bishop Cantwell saw the need for a Catholic high school in San Diego. Knowing of the Augustinians’ great interest in education, he persuaded Father Nicholas Vasey, the Provincial, to investigate. Father Vasey sent a priest from Villanova, Father Thomas Healy, to scout the area and determine the feasibility of such a project. This was in 1921, around the same time that Father Gregory Ashe established St. Patrick’s church.
During Father Healy’s inquiries, two things happened to change the course of events. The friars of the order of St. Vincent de Paul (the Vincentians) ran St. Vincent’s church in Mission Hills. They had been there since 1912. In 1922 they decided to change their course and become missionaries to China, leaving the parish without a priest. Bishop Cantwell persuaded Father Healy and the Augustinians to take over St. Vincent’s, which they did, with Father Healy as pastor. Around the same time Father Gregory Ashe, the priest at St. Patrick’s, became ill following a vacation and requested a six-month leave of absence.
Meanwhile, Father Healy and the Augustinians had purchased land in an area adjacent to the Burlingame development on 32nd Street, which became St. Augustine High School. It opened in 1923 with 54 students and three priests. The Augustinians were now entrenched in San Diego, both as educators at the high school as well as parish priests at St. Vincent’s in Mission Hills.
With Father Ashe’s illness and absence, St. Patrick’s needed a priest. Since it was much closer to the Augustinian high school, the Augustinians would move into St. Patrick’s, and a secular priest would assume the pastorship at St. Vincent’s. Father Thomas Healy, a well-liked energetic priest, became the second pastor at St. Patrick’s and the first Augustinian. The date was January 4th, 1926.