It was a lovely Saturday evening inside Our Lady of Mount Virgin Catholic Church. Light filtered through arched stained glass windows imprinted with dedications to Italian Americans who populated the Mount Baker church after its founding in 1911. Some were open to let in a breeze for the 5 o’clock Mass, normally in Vietnamese for one of several groups of immigrants the church has since attracted.
An English-speaking guest, Auxiliary Bishop Daniel Mueggenborg, helped conduct Mass on this July night — the prelude to a fateful parish meeting. “Tonight is going to be a difficult evening,” Mueggenborg told the crowd of 150 or so. “There is no way around it.”
The bishop, and a handful of others from the Seattle Archdiocese, came to tell parishioners their church would close.
Two other Seattle churches, St. Mary’s in the Central District and St. Patrick in North Capitol Hill, are also slated to do so, while Immaculate Conception in the Central District and St. Therese in Madrona are tasked with revitalizing themselves.
More shake-ups may follow as the Archdiocese’s “strategic planning” — implemented first in Tacoma, where five parishes are merging together, and now in what is known as the South Seattle Deanery — turns to other areas.
The reasons have been apparent for some time, according to the Archdiocese, which encompasses 174 parishes and missions across Western Washington.
Fewer people are going to church, yet many neighborhood parishes are clustered close together, established at a time when people walked to Mass. The parishes need priests, who are in short supply, and money to maintain buildings often built around the turn of the 20th century — made abundantly clear at now closed Holy Rosary in Tacoma when a piece of ceiling plaster fell into the choir loft in 2019.
A battery of slides delved into the numbers for those gathered. Mass attendance in the Archdiocese fell 15.5% between 1999 and 2018, to about 126,000, though the general population boomed. Catholic baptisms and marriages plummeted even more, by 21.5% and almost 46% respectively.
At Our Lady of Mount Virgin, a spike brought weekend Mass attendance up to 480 seven years ago, but it dropped to around 360, pre-pandemic. Parish income, one slide revealed, declined by about a third in just five years.
The reaction to the bishop and his team was mixed.
“The parish has been our home for decades,” said Joseph Tseng, president of the Seattle Chinese Catholic Community.
Emmy Purainer declared: “We’re not easy pushovers.”
She lives two blocks away, has attended the Mount Baker church for more than 60 years, and was visibly distraught. “I planned to have my funeral here,” she said.
So goes the swirl of emotions, laced with suspicion, that has greeted the Archdiocese’s plans in a state where an estimated 17% of adults identify as Catholic, second only to evangelical Protestant among the religiously affiliated.
Amid sadness and anger, some want to know what will happen to the parishes’ real estate and wonder whether a desire for the millions of dollars to be gained by selling or renting them is driving the closures.
“Right now, it sounds fishy,” said longtime St. Mary’s parishioner Larry Pitre.
Liza Neal, a leader in St. Patrick’s social-justice ministry, said she feels the Archdiocese is targeting the Capitol Hill parish because it is viewed as too progressive. Among other things, it has an active outreach to gay Catholics.
“I don’t think this matter is settled,” she said, echoing others at affected parishes who are resisting. They are holding vigils and writing Mueggenborg and Archbishop Paul Etienne. St. Patrick Deacon Dennis Kelly went before the two top officials last month, to plead the parish’s case. Some are even considering leaving the Catholic Church to join other communities, including a movement that ordains women priests.
Fewer people at Mass, more financial strain
In the Archdiocese’s chancery, a block away from soaring St. James Cathedral on First Hill, Mueggenborg said the Archdiocese has no ulterior motive. “It is not an effort to get anyone’s real estate,” said the bishop, who for the last two years has overseen strategic planning, and will leave in September to become the Bishop of Reno.
Like other Catholic jurisdictions, the Archdiocese has been grappling with the fallout from the priest sexual-abuse crisis. An Archdiocese list of questions and answers says more than $113 million it has paid in legal settlements over the last 40 years has come partly from the sale of property, as well as insurance payouts.
Mueggenborg said that real estate did not consist of closed churches, but parcels the Archdiocese was holding onto for future development.
Assets from the parishes now to be closed will not go to the Archdiocese, he said, but will be used according to the wishes of people in those communities and those they join. (The Archdiocese has assured the Food Bank at St. Mary’s, the second largest in Seattle and run independently of the parish, it can continue to operate across from the church for the foreseeable future, said Executive Director Bruce Wood.)
The bishop also said a parish’s progressive slant didn’t factor into decisions, noting the Archdiocese was accused of closing Holy Rosary last year because it was seen as too conservative.
Mueggenborg came to the Archdiocese from Oklahoma in 2017. Two years later, Etienne arrived and asked him to take over strategic planning. “My heart absolutely sank,” the bishop said. “No one wants to get up in the morning and say, ‘Today we’re going to close the parish.’ “
Yet, he said he had watched his home parish in Oklahoma merge with another, as a result becoming stronger and taking on new outreach efforts. And he said the Catholic Church has to face the reality that religious life in this country has changed. Gallup surveys in 2020 show membership in a church, synagogue or mosque dropped below 50% of U.S. adults for the first time in eight decades. In 1937, church membership stood at 73%.
Immigrants have stemmed the decline to some degree. The Seattle Archdiocese had, at last count, 92 non-English Masses each weekend, more than 40 conducted in Spanish. Still, Mueggenborg continued, Seattle has an overabundance of churches.
Meanwhile, the church is confronting a priest shortage that means there’s not enough to go around the Archdiocese’s vast territory, including underresourced rural areas.
“We’re all failing,” said Deacon Greg McNabb of St. Therese, where weekend Mass attendance has fallen from roughly 930 in 2002 to about 240. Parishes are cutting staff and going into debt to repair historical buildings.
“We all want to keep doing what we’ve been doing and expect that sooner or later people will see how great we are.” Understandably, he said, the Archdiocese is taking a tough love approach.
Memories and changes
Pitre doesn’t like it. “What the archbishop and bishop are saying is that it’s going to take an act of God to keep St. Mary’s open. To me that’s just a slap in the face.”
A 57-year-old artist, military veteran and president of the Central Area Chamber of Commerce, Pitre grew up going to St. Mary’s, along with siblings and cousins. For several years beginning in kindergarten, he went to its school, eventually closed, the building rented out. Standing outside the 1911 red brick church and school building, he remembers running along the grounds. “I can still hear the kids laughing.”
After school, they would head to Gai’s bakery (now Franz), where a staffer cut up doughnuts and gave pieces away.
Inspired by renowned Seattle artist Jacob Lawrence, with whom he once studied, Pitre’s vivid paintings document the changing demographics of the Central District, occupied at various points by Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Jewish and Black Americans. As upscale apartment and condo developments go up near St. Mary’s, he sees the church’s pending closure and possible repurposing as one more sign of gentrification.
It didn’t help the parish take the news well when an April letter from Mueggenborg said St. Mary’s would merge with St. Therese and parishioners found out the Madrona church does not and would not have a Spanish-language Mass.
St. Mary’s has a Spanish ministry that draws about two-thirds of the parish’s roughly 375 households, attracting the kind of young families that often eludes aging, nonimmigrant parishes.
“They never said anything about what was going to happen to the Latino community,” said Felipe Maqueda, a construction-company owner who started going to St. Mary’s Spanish Mass about 20 years ago, when there were few others in the Seattle area. It felt disrespectful.
Further discussion with the Archdiocese brought up the possibility of St. Mary’s Spanish speakers moving to St. Edward in Columbia City, which has a vibrant Hispanic ministry. But many don’t want to split up the St. Mary’s parish, which has worked hard to forge a bilingual community.
The Archdiocese’s director for strategic planning, Leigh Stringfellow, said some have told her the entire parish might want to move to St. Edward. Meanwhile, in late July, parishioners opposed to closure held the second of two vigils, with about 80 people praying in English and Spanish, according to Rita Selin, one of the organizers.
“Protect our community”
At St. Patrick, parishioners set aside a time every day for a novena prayer. Kelly, the deacon and pastoral leader, led about 80 people in the pews and more online through it on a recent Sunday.
“Good and Gracious God, in this time of peril to the existence of our parish,” it began, calling upon past St. Patrick parishioners “to implore our loving God to protect our community.”
A few days before, Kelly had an audience with Mueggenborg and Etienne to ask that the parish be allowed to continue.
“No decisions were made,” Kelly said in a talk after Mass. He framed the discussion positively. “It’s not often a pastoral leader gets two hours of an archbishop’s undivided attention.”
The deacon used the time to tell the Archdiocese’s leaders that his Capitol Hill parish was financially stable, had recently grown by 15 households and, while still small with about 200 households, “mighty.”
Kelly stressed its inclusion of marginalized communities. Multiple American Sign Language interpreters attend services for those who are deaf, signing into the hands of parishioners who are also blind, and ASL is incorporated into liturgical dance. The parish also draws from the L’Arche community of developmentally disabled individuals.
“St. Patrick is a very different place than any other church I’ve ever been in,” said Neal, of the social-justice ministry. Opinionated, with dyed “Crayola red” hair, the 37-year-old personal assistant said she had never felt accepted in a parish before joining St. Patrick last year.
She wrote Mueggenborg about her love for the parish and said his noncommittal answer left her feeling unheard — a common sentiment Kelly said he also shared at the meeting.
“Why can’t we just say: ‘We’re not closing, deal with it,’ ” one parishioner asked Kelly.
“I appreciate that sentiment,” said the deacon, who nonetheless added that the Archdiocese owns the buildings. “They can come in here and change the locks.”
On Friday, the Archbishop sent a letter to the parish with his decision. “Given the realities we face across the Archdiocese of Seattle, I simply cannot change the direction that has been many years in the making,” he wrote, although Etienne said he would extend the timeline for closing until one of the parishes St. Patrick might merge with has found a new pastor.
St. Patrick’s next steps will be up for discussion after Sunday Mass.