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From mortuary to music venue: Is The Chapel haunted?

Nathan Bennett
Courtesy of The Chapel
The Chapel on Valencia Street.

In the late 1800s, San Francisco started to get crowded. To make more room, the city outlawed burials, and it moved all of its cemeteries south, to Colma. The business of funerals, however, stayed in San Francisco. The Southern Pacific Railroad cut through the Mission on its way to Colma and new mortuaries started opening up along Valencia Street. Including in the building that’s now The Chapel.
Today, the Chapel is a lively music venue. But many people who work there say its history as a mortuary lingers.

It’s a quiet afternoon at The Chapel. The bar hasn’t opened yet, and I’m standing in between the kitchen and the patio, looking up at a big, rusty, piece of metal hanging on a wall. It looks like it could be an old wagon spoke, or just a weird piece of art. But in reality, it’s neither.

“That’s the crank right there, where they used to hoist the bodies up after they went through the proper process to be buried,” says Paul Chalker.

Paul handles PR for The Chapel, and he’s giving me a tour of the building. He says where we’re standing right now used to be a garage, where bodies were loaded onto the train.

Also with us is former Chapel bartender Javi Castro. He leads us down a flight of stairs into the basement wine cellar. It’s small, cold, and pitch black.

It’s also where the mortuary used to store the bodies.

“Two-thirty in the morning, nobody else here, super dead quiet,” Javi says. “You’d never ever want to be here more than ten seconds.”

Javi says when he first started working at The Chapel, some guys on the cleaning crew told him they thought the building was haunted. After an experience down here in the cellar, Javi became a believer.

“The door just slammed shut on me,” he recalls. “I opened the door, nobody there. And I got super, super spooked. Like, all this weird energy up my spine. I knew that I was not alone at that time. And that’s when it started. I was like, alright, this is for real.”

After that night, Javi says he’d often see figures out of the corner of his eye. But they’d vanish when he turned to get a better look. It was like something was there, but always just out of view.

But for others, the presence of something ghostly has been a little less subtle.
Elaine Osuna is a chef who helped open The Chapel.

“I would be in the kitchen really, really early in the morning,” she says. “And there would be nobody else in that building.”

She tells me that she would often see the shadowy figure of a woman in a hallway by the kitchen.

“She’s in like a white dress,” Elaine recalls. “Her hair is in a way, kind of like in an old-fashioned bun.”

And there was something else unique about the woman: “The smell of roses was always with her,” Elaine says.

Elaine called her the Rose Lady. And she says she wasn’t afraid of her.

“You’re gonna think I’m nuts, but I always felt like she was kind of keeping me company,” she tells me. “She kind of made me feel like I wasn’t by myself, in a good way.”

But if Elaine is nuts, so is everyone I talked to at The Chapel. They all had stories to tell.

Former barback Rick Altieri tells me this one: “There was a metal shelf with all sorts of beer bottles on it, and one time a bottle just basically just shot at me horizontally off the shelf, and stopped in mid air and then just dropped to the ground.”

Erica Westley, who manages the venue’s box office, says she’s “seen things in the bathrooms. Like shadowy figures It’s usually standing behind me, like when I look in the mirror.”

And one time, she says, “I had someone tap me on the shoulder, and there was no one there.”

It turns out, though, that sometimes the creepiest things happened at The Chapel when no one was around to see them.

A few years ago, one of the security cameras captured something late at night. In the video, you can see the area where the old body crank is. The last member of the cleaning crew leaves, and all of a sudden, a little girl appears, wearing a white dress, and no shoes. She darts into the room and then runs back out.

Erica was one of the first people to see the video.

“When we went back through all of the footage, we looked at every camera for the entire night, and there’s nobody wearing anything like that,” she says. “There was another camera that would’ve picked up her movement once she left, and that camera shows nothing.”

After news of the video spread, more people came forward sharing sightings of the girl. People at The Chapel started calling her Valencia, after the street.

I ask a few people whether they’re sure Valencia is really a ghost, or if there might be another explanation. But everyone seems convinced. As Erica told me, when it comes to believing in ghost stories, The Chapel is a pretty persuasive place.

“I don’t know, man, it’s turned people,” she tells me. Like we’ve had people who’ve worked there that don’t believe in ghosts at all.”

But after working at The Chapel, now they’re believers.

Crosscurrents San Francisco