The rubble piled alongside Tacoma’s Sacred Heart Church last week had a history beyond the mortar and brick that built it in 1924.
The two-story building became a school in 1929, and between then and its closing in 1980, a few thousand children created more than history. They made memories.
“As a kid, it seemed like a huge building with these long hallways,” said Tim Smith. “I went there from second through seventh grade, and it was an awesome place to be.”
Perched near 45th Street and McKinley Avenue, the church and school fell into the neighborhood known as McKinley Hill. People didn’t just live there, their families were built there, generation after generation.
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“My mom lived on G Street growing up and she and her sisters went to Sacred Heart School,” Laura Davis said. “When she was married, she moved about six blocks, where her five children were born.
“We didn’t just go to Sacred Heart School. Our parents were married in the church there, and my grandfather donated the pipe organ. It was like that for all the families.”
The building was the pet project of the Rev. Robert Ryan, the church’s second priest. After it was built, he waited five years to open the school while searching for Catholic nuns to teach.
In 1929, the Sisters of Providence opened Sacred Heart School with 89 students between first and eighth grade.
“When Mom was there, they doubled up on grades and used four classrooms downstairs,” said Davis, who now lives in Puyallup. “The upper floor was for piano lessons, dance lessons. It had a stage, too.”
That lasted until 1943, when attendance reached 235. The stage became a makeshift classroom, and both floors were used. In 1954, a new church was built, but the school was unchanged.
It was the same building in the late ’60s, when Jeanne DePaul attended, as it had been in 1929.
“It didn’t have a cafeteria, a school nurse or a library,” said DePaul.
There was one major change in 1970. The Sisters of Providence no longer taught, replaced by lay teachers. That transition was easy.
“For us, it wasn’t just a school, it was an extended family,” DePaul said. “Between faculty, students and parents, we all made lifelong friends.”
The ’70s were not kind to Sacred Heart.
“When I was in seventh grade in the mid-’70s, the school wasn’t getting the draw of the students,” Smith said. “At the bitter end, it just wasn’t worth keeping it open.”
The school closed in 1980, its building outdated, its attendance waning.
The church and parish used it for offices, meetings and storage.
“I’d drive by and there it would be, unchanged,” said Smith, now 51. “I thought it would be there until the day I died.”
A few years ago, the parish had engineers look at renovating the school, said the church’s new priest, the Rev. Tuan Nguyen. The price tag was $3 million just to refit the walls and inner structure.
The building was condemned by the city, which cited damage already showing and the fear that an earthquake would bring it down. Last week, the school building was demolished.
“We hope to have a new building there,” Nguyen said.
That will depend on community support and grants, he said.
No one, Nguyen said, wanted to demolish the building, but there seemed no choice. They couldn’t use it and could not afford to bring it up to standards 90 years after it was constructed.
Throughout the week, former students drifted by and picked up bricks for themselves and friends. DePaul, who lives in Idaho, said a friend took one for her, and she’ll put it in a place of honor.
“My garden, maybe,” DePaul said.
A community of former students began a Facebook page, finding one another again decades after attending Sacred Heart School.
“The sense of family, of community, never left us,” Davis said. “We were all connected. Many of us still are. Everyone has the same memories.”
One of those is of Hot Dog Thursday.
“We had no access to hot meals at school, but once a month we had Hot Dog Thursday,” DePaul said. “A group of parents would gather in the parish hall and prepare hot dogs. You ordered ahead of time, then they’d deliver them to the school.
“White napkins for plain hot dogs, yellow napkins for those with mustard. And the moms always baked cupcakes, too.”