A magnificent piece of Tacoma’s history needs a dose of the spirit that has saved other city landmarks before.
For 99 years, the 200-foot spire of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Catholic Church has towered above where Interstate 5 now bisects the city. The church today stands closer to demolition than it does to returning to active life. Roof leaks and falling plaster put the neo-Gothic church behind a chain-link perimeter months before social distancing became Washington’s enforced lifestyle.
The precedent for saving it sits a mile down the street, and the method is in the fairly recent past. Tacoma’s Union Station was a decrepit shell 30 years ago. When federal resources to save the station from demolition ran short, then-U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks insisted, “Find a way!” Help was secured. Today, the old train station is a gleaming courthouse and occasional wedding-party venue.
That “Find a way!” ethos needs to be conjured again for Tacoma to save this treasure from the brink.
The Archdiocese of Seattle announced in August the church would be razed because of the exorbitant cost of long-delayed repairs. An Archdiocese evaluation found costs could reach $2.5 million just to make Holy Rosary safe to enter. The fix-everything bill, including seismic stabilization, came to $17.6 million.
Despite the high price of preservation, Archbishop Paul Etienne stayed the demolition order shortly after he took office in September. The delay — Etienne wanted to consult parishioners — encouraged Tacoma’s preservationists. By the time coronavirus shut down most of society, the group Save Tacoma’s Landmark Church had collected about $2 million in pledges and donations from across ideological dividing lines.
“The whole city wants to see that church preserved,” said Jack Connelly, a lawyer and Catholic whose foundation pledged in December to give $500,000 outright and match the next $500,000 donated to keep Holy Rosary.
He attends Mass elsewhere in Tacoma.
“It’s our Notre Dame, really,” Connelly said of Holy Rosary. “Imagine if, after Notre Dame burned, the people of Paris had said it’s just too expensive to put back up.”
Connelly, an injury lawyer who made his wealth in part by suing state government, has also publicly opposed gay marriage, abortion rights and bathroom choice by transgender people. Across the political spectrum, Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards, a supporter of LGBTQ causes who last year raised a Pride flag atop the Tacoma Dome, is with Connelly in this one fight.
Woodards met with Archdiocese staff herself to lobby for preservation and participated in a fundraiser to help the cause. Unlike Connelly, she isn’t Catholic — but her appreciation for the church’s place in the city skyline runs deep. Its tower was her office-window view and her cellphone’s background picture for a time.
“It’s not an analytic decision,” she told me. “It’s a real heart decision about what it means and what connections people have to it.”
But there’s the rub. Etienne and the Archdiocese are subject to the real-world logistics of tending to parishioners, who deserve a better sanctuary than temporary quarters in the parish school.
That school won’t hold classes on Holy Rosary’s campus much longer. The Archdiocese announced in February that Holy Rosary Bilingual Academy would move five miles away, to Fife’s St. Martin of Tours Parish campus, effective this fall. The Archdiocese would not say whether the school move portends action on the church building. An internal analysis of demolition and building a smaller church said selling off the entire Holy Rosary property could net $5 million, though a sale would require a “grave cause” under canon law, triggering a complex process.
As a Tacoman, I share the frustration of the preservation group. With $2 million already in hand, Save Tacoma’s Landmark Church could get the building far toward stability — if the Archdiocese consents. The parishioners’ need for a sustainable sanctuary is the trump card here, but the community stepped up because people beyond the flock treasure the sight of Holy Rosary, even from across downtown.
“It’s just become this beacon, this icon of Tacoma,” said Thom Ryng, a Holy Rosary parishioner helping the preservation effort. “I don’t know how many photographers have taken that photo of Holy Rosary’s steeple with Mount Rainier in the background. It’s a gorgeous image.”
Good leadership needs to channel the energy of all parties to benefit Holy Rosary Parish and preserve a jewel of the South Sound skyline. I called Dicks to ask what he would advise. The retired lawmaker’s mind whirled with possibilities: Look to foundations. Figure out if state government can legally help. “Keep working the community leaders and the members of the church.”
Find a way.