The Fate of the Faithful

Tacoma’s iconic Holy Rosary Catholic Church has been slated for demolition, but one group of parishioners is endeavoring to resurrect it.

Courtesy Richards Studio and Tacoma Public Library, 17914

It was a gray, blustery day in February as parishioner D.C. Grant walked the cordoned perimeter of Tacoma’s 100-year-old Holy Rosary Catholic Church, his chosen venue of worship for more than eight years.

“The architecture is just gorgeous inside and out,” Grant remarked, stopping to glance up at the church’s brick façade, ornate stained-glass windows, and iconic steeple. “The two architects that designed it, Charles F.W. Lundberg and C. Frank Mahon, they both have this listed as the crowning achievement of their careers — and they had very prolific careers in architecture.”

His words hung in the air for several moments before he resumed his gait, striding past the hastily constructed chain-link fence adorned with a banner that read, “All Masses are being held in the school auditorium.” 

The cordon had been placed, and the services moved, due to events that had occurred more than a year prior. In October 2018, pieces of ceiling sheetrock had fallen into the choir loft and the church’s rear pews below.

Though building maintenance traditionally falls to the individual parish, the Archdiocese of Seattle stepped in and shuttered the building until the extent of the damage could be gauged.

“We — the Archdiocese in partnership with Holy Rosary parish — closed the building and brought in experts to assess the safety and figure out how to repair the issue with the intention of reopening the building,” explained Helen McClenahan, managing director of communications for the Archdiocese of Seattle. “The first assessment uncovered significant issues, including massive water damage, among other things. Once we discovered this, we brought in four different outside experts to do a full assessment of the building.”

The results of the initial assessment showed that, in order to open the doors and allow the church’s more than 250 worshipping families to gain access once again, it would cost $2.25 million in repairs. But that was just the beginning. Contractors estimated the building would need much more work in the near future that would cost an additional $6.7 million.

However, both of these measures would act as nothing more than a bandage when what the church really needed was extensive surgery, according to the Archdiocese. The total cost to restore the church to its original glory? Approximately $17.7 million.

Meanwhile, Grant said, the church’s parishioners had been waiting to get back into the church for services since the closure. “They made it sound like we’d be back in for Christmas (2018),” he said. “When people approached them about fundraising and trying to get things done, they dragged their feet and said ‘No; don’t donate for that now.’”

It was at this time that Grant and some fellow parishioners felt they needed to take matters into their own hands.

“I had formed a nonprofit corporation in 2017,” Grant said. “It wasn’t getting any traction for the purpose (for which it was intended) … so I reformed that corporation last year into the Tacoma Community Association, doing business to save Tacoma’s landmark church.”

Thus, the Save Tacoma’s Landmark Church (STLC) group was formed — a group that, McClenahan is quick to point out, is not sanctioned by the church or parish leadership.

“This is a separate nonprofit entity that does not represent the church or the parish community,” she said. “Many parishioners of Holy Rosary are angry that this group claims to represent them and makes it appear that they’re collecting money for the building. While we applaud their enthusiasm and efforts, they are confusing the situation for many people. Many people donating to them don’t understand that the money isn’t actually for the church building.”

Nevertheless, before Grant knew it, what started as $513 at the group’s first meeting soon became more than $1.3 million thanks to donations, in-kind donations, and grants he said he absolutely plans to put toward repairs.

Then, in August 2018, the Archdiocese issued a decree regarding the future of Holy Rosary.

“Because (the) Holy Rosary building is structurally unsafe and would require nearly $18 million to fully fix and restore the building — money that neither the parish nor the Archdiocese has — Archbishop J. Peter Sartain issued his decree last year to raze the building,” McClenahan said.

In his decree, Sartain wrote briefly of the property’s possible future following the razing of the church building.

“Archdiocesan leadership will continue to work with Parish leadership to assess options for Catholic use of the property, including but not limited to low-income or affordable housing,” Sartain wrote.

This hypothetical plan, though beneficial to the community, would mean demolishing an iconic Tacoma landmark and a place of worship for parishioners, many of whom can reflect upon the generations of family weddings, funerals, baptisms, and first communions the church had hosted.

“Rather than saying, ‘Let’s fix this; let’s get it going,’ they’ve been disparaging and defeatist since the beginning,” Grant said of the steadfast response the group has received from the Archdiocese.

Though Grant admits low-income housing would benefit the community, he questioned where the profits from the housing would go. “Who does (low-cost housing) benefit? It benefits people who need housing, but it also benefits them because they turn it from a parish with a beautiful piece of property that doesn’t get them anything, to an income-producing property.”

According to McClenahan, however, if the land did turn over to low-income housing, the parish itself would work in partnership with the organization Catholic Housing Services. The Archdiocese would not retain the funds.

Moreover, McClenahan stresses that the Archdiocese did its due diligence before arriving at the “difficult decision” to level the iconic building. In an official report, the Archdiocese disclosed it had performed research on parish budgets and operations, as well as fundraising potential, grant opportunities, and more.

“The purpose of this report was to figure out the full situation, which is why you’ll also see details about the parish operations, including its finances and decline in parishioners and sacraments.”

The research revealed that parish income over the preceding three years averaged $279,000 and, based upon historical precedence, it estimated the parish could raise a little more than two times its ordinary income, approximately $627,000.

Additionally, it found many available grants, like the National Fund for Sacred Spaces and the National Parks Service Save America’s Treasures, difficult to obtain, citing, “parish life isn’t growing; community dwindling,” and “national significance required.”

Moreover, the Archdiocese discovered that Holy Rosary is largely a destination parish, meaning a majority of its parishioners reside outside the parish boundaries with easy access to other churches in the community.

It cannot be ignored, however, that Grant and his fellow STLC members already have raised more than $1 million in just over a year — far north of the Archdiocese’s fundraising estimate of $627,000 — and they show no signs of slowing down, with monetary and in-kind donations, as well as pledges for volunteer hours.

“The thing that we have to prove under canon law is that the funds exist to save the building,” Grant said. “If the funds exist to restore the building, they can’t say they’re going to tear it down. And there’s no way we’re not going to succeed. I don’t care what stands in the way of that — whether they are a 2,000-year-old hierarchy organization or not — we’re going to do it.”

The Archbishop’s August 2018 decree, however, seems resolute.

“A question must be asked, as well: Even if the financial resources could be identified, is it the best use of almost $18 million to repair one church serving a small and declining community of faithful, when there are so many other pressing human needs in the area?” Sartain wrote. “Faithful stewardship of both parish and Archdiocesan resources says no.” 

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is an assistant editor at South Sound magazine. Email her.
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