NEON: CHURCH OF 8 WHEELS Entry and Photography by Valentina Flora Angelucci

The Sacred Heart Parish sits on the corner of Fillmore and Fell Streets, San Francisco. It is a large magnificent structure of pressed yellow brick and white terracotta trim, in a mix of Lombard and Classical Revival styles. It stands strong and reverently under its 120ft campanile, signalling that this is a noble house of worship.

It is a Saturday night and there is a crowd gathering restlessly outside. These people are devout alright, but they are not preparing for a Saturday night sermon. Among them I see Harley Quinn and a woman in blue leggings and a Tutankhamun print leotard. They are not here to pray, or for confession, although I suspect they will leave feeling lighter and rejuvenated. No, these people are here to roller skate. You are no longer standing outside the Sacred Heart Parish, but rather the Church of 8 Wheels!

The Parish was constructed in 1898. It was designed by Thomas John Welsh, a notable architect of ecclesiastical buildings. It served its time as a Catholic church for over 100 years, even surviving the 1906 earthquake and fire. In 2004 the Archdiocese of San Francisco was forced to close the church due to the high costs of a seismic retrofit. In 2005 it was privately bought but remained unoccupied for years. And sadly, in 2006 much of the interior was gutted and sold. This included the altar, the organ, two rose windows and some of the pews.

In an effort to save what remained of the Parish, the building was finally added to the National Register in 2010. But it wasn’t until 2012 that a new use was found for the vacant church. David Miles Junior, also known as the Godfather of Skate, was looking for a place to host his regular congregation of skaters. And the empty church, with its wide and long floor plan, high ceilings and stained glass windows was just the place.

The Church of 8 Wheels has been hosting parties every Friday and Saturday night for the past 4 years, providing fast paced, neon-light lit, fancy dance-y escape to all who visit it. The new use has created an environment where all feel welcome, from seasoned skaters like Harley Quinn to new baby-giraffe-on-skates kind of skaters like me. There is a strong sense of community and comradery, in a unified pursuit of pleasure. And out of respect of the primary, religious purpose of this building, there is no smoking or drinking allowed, its family-friendly.

Without the tell-tale objects of churches, such as the altar and the pews, the interior of the church sadly lacks most of its historic integrity. But it is quite a magical moment when one catches a glimpse of the ceiling, either taking a break or having fallen off their skates, and notices the paintings of saints, and angels in an oval of radiating light. It is magical, and for some can maybe be likened to a religious experience – the neon disco lights, the cheesy old-school pop music and the round-about motion; it’s enrapturing, trance-like.