The first German immigrants to Tacoma must have felt right at home with the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges and a climate mimicking that of their homeland. But they wanted more. They then set out to build a place of worship, the one that still stands above the skyline of Tacoma – Our Lady of the Holy Rosary today. But his future is uncertain.
Barely 16 years after the incorporation of the City of Fate in 1875, a gathering of local German Catholics raised funds to purchase land on the outskirts of the city for a church, where they could pray in their native language.
The first service at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary took place on July 19, 1891, when Benedictine Father William Eversmann gave the first mass in what was then a recently completed wooden church. The first church marriage was that of Francis Xavier Schaupp and Magdalene Leibenger, who became husband and wife on October 29, 1891. Another notable marriage was that of Henry Crosby and Catherine Harrigan on January 4, 1894. A child from this marriage was the famous singer Bing Crosby. These simple beginnings would continue to serve as the “Mother Church” of five other parishes, would have the honor of being the oldest Catholic school in the state, and would become what is now Tacoma’s most visible church as it overlooks Interstate 5.
All of this, however, would come over decades. Every big tree must first be a sapling, so it is with churches. But these first years of the Holy Rosary saw rapid growth. Only four years after its constitution, the parish gave birth, for example, to the abbey of the University of Saint-Martin. The Holy Rosary also became too large for its original wooden church as the parish split to form the nearby Sacred Heart in 1913. The outbreak of World War I hampered the practice of Mass in German, because the continuation of the practice was considered unpatriotic. Reverend Mark Wiechmann would only hold Friday Masses in German in 1918, all others were held in English.
It was during his stay in the parish that the current historic building was constructed. It happened shortly after the end of World War I. The parish laid the cornerstone for the $ 175,000 building on May 30, 1920. The church was dedicated on November 21, 1921, Thanksgiving Day. The first mass in the neo-Gothic church, however, used a piano, as the organ had not yet arrived in time. The crews installed it the following spring.
The church would survive the financial strains of the Great Depression, celebrate its 50th anniversary as America entered World War II, and then explode as Tacoma’s population skyrocketed with the promise of wartime jobs on the neighboring mudflats. This boom would collapse a generation later, as Tacoma’s Germantown was cut in half with the construction of Interstate 5 in 1960. The heart of the neighborhood then became an island between two ravines as houses were purchased and demolished and the streets diverted to make way for the notch of the highway that crossed the city in two. Then, morning mass ended on April 29, 1965, when a magnitude 6.7 earthquake struck the area, knocking the cross from the steeple down 200 feet. No one was injured and the damage was repaired.
The Holy Rosary was added to the city’s Register of Historic Places in 1975, after years of restoration under Reverend Felix Wirth which included repainting the powder blue ceiling of the church which reached 60 feet above the shrine floor . The next big steps in the life of the parish took place in the 1990s. He celebrated his 100th birthday in 1991 and replaced the shingles on his steeple with copper that glistened in the sun until he developed his patina. The 90s ended with the retirement of the Rev. Richard Cebula in 1998. He was the last Benedictine priest to serve in the Holy Rosary. The last two Benedictine nuns in the parish, Sisters Nathalie Karels and Margaret Ann Rohling, would also retire later that year. The nuns returned in 2009 when the eleventh pastor of the Holy Rosary, Rev. Tuan Nguyen invited the Vietnamese Sisters of the Lovers of the Holy Cross of Go-Vap to use the old rectory. The former Benedictine convent was then transformed into offices and classrooms. The school itself saw improvements and growth with the formation of the Juan Diego Academy, which offered English-Spanish immersion education, the first of its kind in the state.
The parish celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2016. Tragedy would not strike until two years later, however, when Reverend Michael Wagner collapsed from a cerebral hemorrhage at the altar during mass on April 10, 2018. He did so. was rushed to hospital and died three weeks later. later. His funeral mass drew 1,400 people in mourning at the Holy Rosary on May 10, 2018.
More problems would arise later that year, when a section of plaster wall fell into the choir attic, forcing part of the building to close. An investigation into the extent of the need for repairs then prompted the Archbishop of Seattle to order the closure of the parish and the demolition of the church. He cited $ 18 million in long-term repairs that were too expensive to fund.
“Unfortunately, the Archdiocese does not have the funds to pay for these important repairs, nor does your community of the Holy Rosary,” Archbishop J. Peter Sartain wrote in a letter to the parish. “Needless to say, you and I wish the situation were different. At the same time, however, an important question must be asked: even if the necessary financial resources could be found, would this be the most prudent use of $ 18 million to repair a church building serving a small community of worshipers? , when there are so many other pressing needs, both spiritual and social? Faithful management of the resources of the parish and the archdiocese says no. It is clear that the costs of full repair, restoration and maintenance of Holy Rosary Church are simply unaffordable. Therefore, after much prayer and wide consultation, I decided to issue a decree to close and raze the church building.
The letter sparked an effort, Save Tacoma’s Landmark Church, which raised $ 400,000 in donations and pledges in hopes of saving the church.
The effort had a seemingly good sign when the Archdiocese of Seattle received a new Archbishop, Paul Etienne. One of his first official acts was to attend Mass at the Holy Rosary.
“I think it’s a good sign,” said Joy Donohue, parishioner and fundraising effort organizer. “We are getting offers of help from everywhere. “
The effort holds regular meetings as updates on their decree appeal arrive and fundraising efforts continue. The group is putting together family stories and photos for a calendar to mark the church’s 100th anniversary in 2020.