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Tacoma’s iconic Holy Rosary Church granted ‘stay of execution’

Vintage image of Holy Rosary Church in Tacoma. (Michael Sullivan)

With its 216-foot tall steeple alongside the southbound lanes of Interstate 5, Holy Rosary Catholic Church is a highly visible landmark for tens of thousands of motorists zooming past each day, and for countless Tacoma residents in the surrounding neighborhoods.

In August, the 1920 structure was slated to disappear from view forever, when Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain issued a formal decree calling for its demolition.

But Archbishop Sartain’s health deteriorated over the summer, and he stepped down. Around the same time, a group called Save Tacoma’s Landmark Church (STLC) led an effort to formally appeal the decree. In the terms of the “canonical law” that applies when a Catholic leader issues a decree, what STLC and other parish members did was “seek recourse.”

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Now, with new Archbishop Paul Etienne in place, the changing of the guard at the Seattle Archdiocese might very well mean a reprieve for the historic Tacoma church. Last week, Archbishop Etienne sent a letter to Holy Rosary parishioners that, in effect, put a hold on the decree.

At least for a little while.

In his letter, Archbishop Etienne wrote, in part:

I am neither denying nor granting recourse against my predecessor’s decree. Given the change in leadership during this recourse period, I need time to speak with your leadership team, review the issues, and make an informed, thoughtful and prayerful response.

The timing of the letter was not without drama. Under canonical law, the Seattle Archdiocese had a 30-day recourse period to respond to the appeal. Had no letter been sent by Archbishop Etienne, the decision to demolish the old church would have stood.

Jonathan Carp is a volunteer with Save Tacoma’s Landmark Church.

”Well, it’s not the best news we could hope for, but it’s good news,” Carp said on Monday. “Archbishop Etienne … has essentially suspended judgment on our appeal to Archbishop Sartain’s decree to destroy Holy Rosary. Because of this letter, the [new] Archbishop has given himself as long as he feels is necessary to respond to the letter.”

And so what does this actually mean for the old church?

“It’s kind of like a stay of execution while he considers our position,” Carp said.

Next steps for the Holy Rosary Church

Helen McClenahan is a spokesperson for the Seattle Archdiocese. She says Archbishop Etienne is eager to meet with parish leadership and learn more about Holy Rosary.

“Archbishop Etienne wrote a letter explaining that he’d be interested in meeting with the pastoral and finance councils of Holy Rosary Parish before making a decision,” about the decree, McClenahan said on Monday. “So this letter essentially says ‘Hey, I need a little more time.’ And they are trying to set up that meeting, hopefully in the next couple of weeks, so that he can meet directly with the parishioners and talk to them about the situation.”

Before Archbishop Sartain issued his decree calling for demolition of Holy Rosary, the Seattle Archdiocese had estimated that the total cost to fully repair the church, which suffered some water damage a few years ago, was about $17 million.

The church has been closed for a few years, and parishioners have gathered for mass in other parish buildings adjacent to the church. Meanwhile, according to documents provided to KIRO Radio by the Archdiocese, the parish has shrunk from 500 to 300 households in the past few years, and the number of sacraments has decreased as well (for example, baptisms dropped from more than 30 in 2013, to just five in 2018).

Jonathan Carp of SLTC says that while the $17 million price tag would indeed cover the complete restoration and renovation of Holy Rosary, the work required to make the church usable again is in the much more modest range of $2.2 million.

Carp says that his group can raise this money, can get the work done to re-open Holy Rosary in about a year, and then can do the remaining $14.8 million or so of work (and necessary fundraising) over the next several years.

“We have been fundraising,” Carp said. “We can take cash pledges, cash donations, we can also take donations of labor and materials. Taking all of those together I think we’re closing in on about half a million dollars, and that’s before having even had any [fundraising events].”

Carp says SLTC has about 300 members, and is made up of roughly half parishioners and half non-parishioner community members. He points to St. Anne’s in Fall River, Massachusetts, where a similar group struck a ten-year deal with the Archdiocese there to restore and preserve a historic church.

How the church can be saved

That $17 million estimate referenced by Archbishop Sartain is high, says Tacoma historian and historic preservation consultant Michael Sullivan, and a full restoration isn’t necessary to undertake right away.

Sullivan says the work to repair Holy Rosary can be done incrementally. The building is not in danger of collapsing, Sullivan says, who points to water-damaged plaster he’s seen in other buildings over the course of his long career.

“That kind of thing is not a fatal problem,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan also says that Holy Rosary Church is an incredible symbol of how Tacoma has changed, and is another opportunity for Tacoma to demonstrate the value of historic preservation as a tool for economic development and community-building.

“Tacoma’s Catholic population here, you know, it’s changed a lot. This church was handmade by German and Swiss and Central European Catholics, and goes back into the 19th century,” Sullivan said. “Today, the Catholic congregation … are Vietnamese Catholics and Latino; the school is a bilingual Spanish-English school at Holy Rosary.”

The current parishioners, Sullivan says, “aren’t the sort of rich brewers, you know, the brewery industry people that built the church in the first place.” Tacoma has changed, and the city and other groups have figured out how to make historic preservation essential to the look, feel, and success of the city.

An iconic piece of Tacoma

When it comes to the visual landscape, Michael Sullivan says whether you’re Catholic or not, the church is important to Tacoma’s identity. He says it also serves as something of a historical and cultural buffer for all the lanes of traffic that go through that part of town.

“We’re going through all this hundreds of millions of dollars [of construction work] on freeways cutting through the city,” Sullivan said. “And there needs to be some elements of recognition, and softening of the edges of the [parts of the] city that have to contend with the impact of the freeway.”

When it comes down to it, what SLTC is asking for from the Seattle Archdiocese is time: Time to raise money. Time to repair the church. Time to develop an operational model that would put more control, and more fiscal responsibility, in the hands of SLTC as they work with the parish and with supporters to ensure not just a sound building for Catholic mass, but also a vibrant place for the neighborhood and the greater community.

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Along with the resources they’ve already raised, Carp admits that he wouldn’t mind if the Archdiocese dedicated at least what they had planned to spend on the demolition, about $1 million, and use that for the restoration project instead. Either way, Carp wrote in an email Tuesday, “our planning does not include any [Archdiocese] contribution.”

Also on Tuesday, SLTC representative Shelly Copeland said in an email that the meeting with Archbishop Etienne has now been scheduled to take place on Wednesday, October 30.

After that meeting, Archbishop Etienne could very well decide to reject the appeal, and Holy Rosary’s days would be numbered. Or, he could withdraw the decree and let the SLTC have the time they need to see if they can make a miracle happen.

Ultimately, because Holy Rosary’s demise was the subject of Archbishop Sartain’s decree, the entire process is subject to canonical law. Thus, Carp says that should Archbishop Etienne ultimately deny the appeal that’s currently on hold — that is, choose to not grant recourse — SLTC has an appeal ready to send to the next level of recourse: The Vatican.

Meanwhile, Michael Sullivan says this isn’t the first time that Holy Rosary has faced down a threat and remained standing.

“I had heard a story that when they first laid out the route of I-5 in the 1950s, one of the reasons it didn’t follow South Tacoma Way and ended up farther south was because they didn’t want to demolish Holy Rosary,” Sullivan said.

“Even in the 1950s, it was recognized as an architecturally important structure and they routed the freeway around it in order to save it,” he added.

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