The nuns who documented a century of Seattle history

Jul 24, 2019, 7:00 AM
Holy Names Academy on Capitol Hill in Seattle circa 1909, where nuns documented local history for much of the 20th century. (MOHAI) The new Heritage Center at Holy Names Academy in Seattle houses photos, artifacts and documents from the school’s history, including the “Chronicles” that also describe local events, including riots, fires and earthquakes. (Holy Names Academy) Sisters of the Holy Names established a school in downtown Seattle in 1880, and documented local history there, and its subsequent home on Capitol Hill, for the next 105 years. (MOHAI)

Six old ledgers books contain more than a hundred years of institutional records kept by a Catholic school on Capitol Hill in Seattle. As it turns out, the nuns who wrote in those big ledgers about happenings at the school also kept track of Seattle history, too.

The Sisters of Holy Names of Jesus and Mary came to Seattle in 1880. They opened their first school in what was a very rustic downtown 139 years ago, and in 1907, moved to where Holy Names Academy now stands on Capitol Hill. As an order of Catholic nuns, one thing the sisters did from the very beginning of their time Seattle in 1880 was keep a detailed journal.

This journal is formally known as the “Chronicles.” Details about the school, such as numbers of students, descriptions of school programs and comings and goings of visitors were noted in the pages of big ledgers. The entries are in longhand, and generally are not signed by whichever sister was the author. The practice of keeping the Chronicles continued until 1985.

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Holy Names Academy recently made the contents of the Chronicles available to historians as part of the dedication of their new Heritage Center at the school last month. What’s of most value to historians, or anyone with an interest in Northwest history, is that in addition to specific information about happenings at Holy Names, the sisters occasionally documented Seattle history and what was happening around the world.

With help from Christie Spielman, 1968 graduate of Holy Names who’s now the archivist there, a perusal of the Chronicles offers some unique glimpses into otherwise well-known events in Seattle history.

Seattle history from the Chronicles

In the winter of 1886, the city was in the grip of violent and ultimately deadly riots, when mobs tried to expel Chinese, and others tried to stop them.

Anti-Chinese Riots of February 8, 1886

Chinese Excitement reigns supreme.  As soon as it is known that the city is under martial law, affairs assume a better aspect, and all talk of a riotous nature dies out.  It seems to be the general desire of all, that no further disturbance shall take place.  Upon it being explained that the Chinese, who had been brought uptown from the wharf, the bringing of whom resulted so disastrously, would be sent away on the steamer Elder; many of the working-men went home, satisfied that the morrow would see [the Chinese] sailing away.  All night long, the streets are walked by the patrol guards, who have instructions to arrest any and all persons showing signs of raising a disturbance.  At an early (hour) the following morning, citizens began to flock downtown to learn the events transpiring there.  They formed in scattered groups, and almost the first question asked was regarding the wounded men, one of whom died at three o’clock in the morning.

A few years later, on a warm day in early June 1889, most of downtown Seattle burned to the ground. The old Holy Names, which was in downtown in those years, was temporarily evacuated, but not before one of the sisters got a good look at what was happening at the fire.

Great Seattle Fire of June 6, 1889

The fire department is immediately called out and two lines of hose run to the burning building, but in a few moments the stream becomes so weak that they cannot reach the top of the structure, and it is apparent there is no water with which to fight the fire.  Both firemen and citizens then turn their attention to the moving of property from the burning buildings but the work is soon stopped by the flames, which, within twenty minutes from the time the fire started, swept from one end of the block to the other.  After seeing several of their best buildings destroyed, it becomes apparent that nothing but the blowing up of the buildings in the southward path of the fire can possibly avert a general conflagration. The explosions produce no appreciable effects other than shattering of the windows in the vicinity.

Skipping ahead a few decades, this is what one of the sisters wrote on the occasion of the Armistice, at the end of what was then called the Great War.

The Armistice of November 11, 1918

This morning, the blowing of whistles, clamor of bells, firing of shots and other expressions of joy announced to the world that the greatest war in history is over!  The glorious victory of the allied forces was formally declared by the signing of an armistice by representatives of the German government late last night.  The signing of the armistice is the tacit acceptance of President Wilson’s peace terms in full, and the renewing of hostilities will be impossible. We gratefully thank God for the long-desired boon of peace for our war-stricken world.  May His Divine Wisdom guide the rulers of the nations whose responsibility it now is to solve the great problems of reconstruction. Sister Superior granted the boarders a holiday in honor of the declaration of peace, and they celebrated by a patriotic procession with flags, trumpets, etc. and the singing of our national hymns.  It is a truly joyful day.

Of course, those “great problems of reconstruction” weren’t solved, exactly, so it was about 27 years later when word of “VJ Day” – for Victory in Japan – reached Seattle, and World War II was over.

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VJ Day on August 14, 1945

Coming as the evident result of Our Lady’s mediation, is the joyful news of the unconditional surrender of Japan to the Allies. Terrified by the frightful devastation wrought by the atomic bomb, our enemies finally resolved to submit to their conquerors. Sirens and radios made their proclamations shortly after four o’clock this afternoon, and at five, with grateful hearts we sang the “Te Deum.” The President of the United States declared two legal, national holidays for tomorrow and Thursday, and everywhere joy is manifest at the conclusion of the terrible conflict.

In addition to the human-caused problems, the Sisters of the Holy Names also chronicled natural disasters. This is from the major earthquake that struck the Puget Sound area on April 19, 1965.

Earthquake of April 29, 1965

Just after classes started this morning our school swayed to a violent 7.5 earthquake. All were thoroughly frightened, but calm and orderly. We are grateful to God that our damage is minor: a toppled and cracked holy water font in the Chapel, several broken statues throughout the house, much cracked plaster, and considerable dislocation of the front steps. The fact that the disturbance originated an estimated forty miles deep in the earth, and that it continued for a mercifully short time, prevented Seattle becoming a shambles as some Eastern papers incorrectly reported had happened. More fervently we pray “From the scourge of earthquake, O Lord deliver us.”

In light of this same earthquake, the sister who wrote the entry went on to theorize on the low-turnout for a school program that place later in the day, writing, “The drama class presented ‘Song at the Scaffold’ for the Sisters of the city this afternoon. But relatively few came, most probably because the earthquake did not leave anyone in a mood for diversion.”

For more information about how to access the priceless Seattle history resources available through the new Holy Names Academy Heritage Center, send email to Christie Spielman cspielman@holynames-sea.org or call 206-323-4272.

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The nuns who documented a century of Seattle history