The history of Seattle's Immaculate Conception Church has often paralleled its Central Area neighborhood. But now the Central Area is majority white for the first time in 60 years, according to recently released census data, and the multiethnic church is struggling financially as it searches for its new identity.

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Amid two- and three-story homes and green front yards, the twin bell towers of the grand Immaculate Conception Church soar over Seattle’s Central Area.

A historic landmark, the city’s oldest standing Roman Catholic Church has been an important part of a neighborhood that’s been the birthplace of local Urban League and Black Panthers chapters and home to many historically black institutions.

Over the decades, the church and neighborhood have changed on roughly parallel paths, morphing from largely white institutions to multiethnic and predominantly African American.

But now their paths have diverged.

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For the first time in 60 years, more than half of the neighborhood’s residents — 58 percent — are white, according to recently released census data. The shift began in the 1990s, when the Central Area started becoming whiter and wealthier — changes accepted, and sometimes lamented, by residents.

Immaculate Conception, on the other hand, is struggling financially and working to redefine itself. Membership is at its lowest, and an attempt by the Seattle Archdiocese to remedy that by merging another congregation into Immaculate’s was not well-received.

“We’re such an established church with an ethnically integrated personality and deep historical roots,” said longtime member Marya Castillano Bergstrom, 68, a retired city energy-management director. “It’s unfortunate that we’re struggling. But you can’t blame anyone. You can’t blame the families who moved out or the kids who moved away. It’s where history has taken us.”

Shifting demographics

Immaculate Conception church and school were founded by Jesuit priests in 1891, with the current church building — a beautiful structure with a grotto, ceiling murals and carillon bells — built in 1904.

Members, including wealthy families on First Hill, came from the neighborhood then.

At its peak, probably in the 1920s and ’30s, the church drew about 1,500 people to weekend Masses, said Dorothy Laigo Cordova, 79, Bergstrom’s sister and a longtime member of the church.

By the 1940s, blue-collar immigrant families from Ireland and Italy had moved into the neighborhood and joined the church, said Cordova, who attended the parish school and has researched church history.

Indeed, the Central Area largely was white then: 86 percent of the population in 1940 and 60 percent in the 1950s, according to census data.

Millie Russell, 84, a retired University of Washington biology lecturer and administrator, was a student at Immaculate Conception High School in the ’40s.

An African American, she remembers being chosen prefect of the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary — an honor that meant she would have been the one to place a crown on the Virgin Mary statue at the front of the church during an annual event.

But school administrators quietly chose someone else that year.

“Someone didn’t want a darkie up there,” Russell said. “My mother said: ‘Don’t worry. It’s their loss.’ We chose our battles. There were so many of them.”

But Russell, Cordova and Bergstrom said they started seeing more ethnic minorities in the church and in the parish’s elementary and high schools by the 1950s.

Many African Americans who had moved to Seattle after World War II and found jobs at Boeing or at shipyards lived in the Central Area, in large part because of housing discrimination and restrictive covenants in the city, according to HistoryLink.org.

Still, the change in the 1950s at Immaculate was gradual, as more African Americans came to join a parish that already had a good number of Filipino and Japanese congregants.

Civil-rights hub

The church saw its biggest shift in the 1960s and ’70s: The congregation became majority African American as older white parishioners died, other whites fled to the suburbs and new black residents joined, Cordova said.

That same demographic shift had been happening in the neighborhood, where 64 percent of residents in 1960 were black. That rate went up even more — to 79 percent — by 1970.

Just as the neighborhood was a hub of activity during the civil-rights movement, so, too, was the church.

“They were exciting days,” Cordova said. “We could call a meeting, and 200 people would show up.”

And, even as the parish began to struggle financially, it still drew a vibrant, ethnically mixed congregation. Parish grounds and buildings served as meeting centers and headquarters to a variety of community groups, including the Indochinese Resettlement and Job Program, the Vietnamese Catholic Center and Black Arts West.

By the 1980s, however, the percentage of African Americans in the Central Area began to decline, from 67 percent in 1980 to 58 percent in 1990, as residents moved to the suburbs or South King County.

The number of parishioners at Immaculate had been declining by then, too. By the 1990s, the church was drawing only about 500 people to weekend Masses. And, while its makeup remained ethnically diverse, the neighborhood around it was gentrifying and growing whiter.

By 2000, the neighborhood was 45 percent white, 36 percent black, 8 percent Hispanic and 5 percent each Asian and those of mixed race.

Barely 300 attend Immaculate Conception’s weekend Masses these days — hardly enough to support operation of a building that seats 800, not to mention pay off a sizable debt for extensive renovation and repair work that was finished last decade.

Families who used to support the church are now “old, gone or don’t exist,” Bergstrom said.

Search for future

The Seattle Archdiocese’s proposed solution didn’t go so well: It proposed moving a community of Vietnamese Catholics that had been meeting at the Church of the Vietnamese Martyrs nearby, to Immaculate Conception. It seemed a good idea on paper: Moving a rapidly growing congregation to a church where attendance was sparse would provide more space for the Vietnamese Catholics and more parishioners to support Immaculate financially.

But some in the Vietnamese congregation opposed the move, wanting to expand their own space. Some longtime members at Immaculate also felt they were being pushed out.

“It just didn’t work out,” said Seattle Archdiocese spokesman Greg Magnoni.

Still, the parish “can’t move forward as the kind of parish they once were,” Magnoni said. “It really needs to re-establish its identity to become a truly destination parish.”

Immaculate already is more of a destination parish than a neighborhood one, drawing Mass attendees from some 45 ZIP codes. Part of the challenge is that several other nearby Catholic churches also draw from the larger area: St. James Cathedral and St. Joseph, St. Therese and St. Mary churches and the Chapel of St. Ignatius at Seattle University. Immaculate’s congregation realizes it needs to become even more of a draw for those outside its neighborhood while adapting to the changes within it.

The congregation has no desire to back away from — and indeed, is proud of — its multicultural mix. According to a recent church census, 42 percent of congregants are African American, 23 percent of Filipino descent, 22 percent white and the rest are of other backgrounds. Many are multiracial.

That mix is reflected in many ways, from gospel choirs to celebrations of traditional Filipino Catholic festivals.

But whether that will help attract nearby condo dwellers or woo back former members is something its members are working out.

“What we’re running into now is not having a strong identity for the church’s personality,” said Monica Hall, 44, parish council chairwoman.

The congregation is working on that, too, reconstituting its parish council and starting a Bible-study series that members hope will strengthen relationships within the church as well as draw new folks.

Cordova is organizing a celebration for this year marking the 100th anniversary of the building next door that formerly housed Immaculate Conception elementary and high schools, which closed about 35 years ago. She hopes the event also will draw former parishioners who’ve moved away.

Members — even if they’ve moved out of the Central Area — say the sense of diversity and warmth at Immaculate is what drew and kept them there. They hope it will do the same for others.

Said Cordova: “Even as small as it is, there’s a sense of family.”

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com. Information from Seattle Times archives is used in this report.