Special Reports

Bridge renews happy – even holy – memories

If you’re fretting about the cost of crossing the new Tacoma Narrows bridge starting Monday, take heart that at least you don’t have to pay extra for passengers.

Consider the nuns.

Once they walked across the existing bridge to save the dime toll for passengers, their white habits ruffled by the breeze.

Horns honked and passers-by waved as the sisters talked, enjoyed the view and peeked at the choppy waters of the Narrows.

The milelong jaunt to Gig Harbor was a summertime ritual for nuns-in-training on their way to the summer home of the Sisters of St. Dominic of Tacoma.

At least seven nuns will make that walk again Sunday when the new bridge opens.

“I think it’s a chance to be part of history,” Sister Patty Morisset, 60, said Wednesday. “I like remembering a fun part of our history.”

From the time the bridge opened in 1950 to the point when the tolls ended in 1965, those who were training to join the Tacoma Dominicans walked across several times each summer.

It was the cheap way to travel to the Catholic religious order’s summer cabin on Wollochet Bay in Gig Harbor for a day of swimming, fishing and relaxing.

“It was a lovely view, the wind blowing on your face,” Sister Morisset recalled. “We didn’t get out a lot.”

The nuns piled into two station wagons at Mount St. Dominic, their then-convent in Tacoma’s North End. The wagons made two trips, dropping as many as 40 nuns on the Tacoma side of the bridge. The women, from 17 to 19 years old, then walked across, two at a time.

Sister Morisset recalled when the 3-foot-wide walkway turned into metal grates around the bridge’s mammoth towers. She could see the water below.

“That was a little on the scary side,” she said.

The nuns who drove followed in the wagons, picked up the nuns who walked on the other side, and drove them to the summer home a few miles away.

Each time, the walking nuns saved their community up to $4 in passenger fares. The ritual also saved time, with fewer trips from the convent to the summer home. Plus, the nuns driving the station wagons had to pay only one 50-cent fare for a car and a driver.

The nuns walked “to save money because we didn’t have a lot of it,” Sister Morisset said. “We’ve always been frugal and poor.”

She and Sister Patty Beattie, 60, made the walk in 1964-65.

“It was wonderful,” Sister Beattie said. “The wind was blowing. I felt very free.”

In the convent, the nuns remained silent for most of each day. They prayed, worked and studied.

But the walk across the Narrows Bridge was part of a recreation day – one of the few occasions when the nuns could talk to one another all day long.

They talked about books they were reading and letters from parents, brothers and sisters. They might even mention a former boyfriend.

“That was rare,” Sister Morisset said.

The postulants, who were candidates for the order, wore black skirts, blouses and veils. The novices, who had entered the order, wore white habits and black veils. They all stood out.

“Horns honking, people waving,” Sister Beattie said. “You felt like you were on parade.”

Times have changed for Catholic religious orders such as the Tacoma Dominicans. They no longer wear habits. They’ll probably walk in blouses and long pants on Sunday.

Once numbering more than 40 in Tacoma, their community of nuns here has declined to 17. The summer home, called St. Joseph’s Villa, was sold and is now a private residence.

But the opening of the new bridge is a chance to remember what was.

“It’s going back and remembering the past when we entered the convent,” said Sister Beattie. “It’s really, for me, a walk back in history.”

Bridge opening-day events this Sunday

8 a.m.: 5K bridge run. $30 registration (free for kids 12 and under, or $12 if they want a T-shirt). Register at South Sound Running (Tacoma and Olympia) and at Super Jock

 • Jill (Seattle). Or register online at www.athleteslounge.com – click on “events.”

9:30 a.m.: First toll ceremony. State Treasurer Mike Murphy and House Speaker Frank Chopp pay first toll, riding in 1929 Lincoln touring car that was first to cross both previous Narrows bridges.

10 a.m.-3:30 p.m.: Walk the bridge. Deck open for viewing, photos and ribbon cuttings. “I walked the bridge” passports available.

10:30 a.m.: Safety remembrance. A reminder that the bridge was built in part to improve safety. State Rep. Ruth Fisher, the late Sen. Bob Oke and others who helped make the bridge possible will be honored.

1:30 p.m.: Workers’ ribbon-cutting. Gov. Chris Gregoire will speak briefly, and a dozen bridge workers will cut the official ribbon.

4 p.m.: Event ends, crews begin cleaning up and preparing to open the bridge to traffic.

Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647