What Tacoma can learn from the Notre Dame Cathedral disaster

Our Lady of the Holy Rosary closed needing $10 million in repairs

Our Lady of the Holy Rosary church in Tacoma is closed and in need of $10 million in repairs, according to the Archdiocese of Seattle.
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Our Lady of the Holy Rosary church in Tacoma is closed and in need of $10 million in repairs, according to the Archdiocese of Seattle.

Notre Dame Cathedral’s dreadful after-hours fire Monday was an inferno felt across the globe.

From the banks of the Seine River to living rooms in the South Sound, people mourned damage to religious artifacts, 800-year-old roof beams and the fallen 19th Century spire. But they also joined in relief that nobody died, many priceless treasures were rescued and the grand Gothic edifice didn’t burn to the ground.

It’s only natural that so many in the Tacoma area would feel connected to Notre Dame de Paris, a bucket-list destination for people of faith and an architectural wonder for the world. Countless honeymoons, college study abroad trips and other adventures have led to its steps. Even homebodies have traveled there, like Quasimoto’s boon companions, through the magic of literature or Disney animation.

During this holiest week of the Christian calendar, Notre Dame should stand as a reminder of the many beautiful sacred spaces we have in Tacoma, also vulnerable to being lost for all time.

Historic churches should be protected from fire hazards, of course, but the greater risk is more subtle: Local leaders must preserve them from neglect, decay, financial challenges, development pressures and, ultimately, the wrecking ball.

In terms of Catholic heritage and prominence on the local skyline, Tacoma’s version of Notre Dame is Holy Rosary church. Overlooking southbound Interstate 5 with its 210-foot steeple, the Gothic Revival-style sanctuary founded by German immigrants will turn 100 years old next year.

But Holy Rosary faces its own existential threat. As News Tribune writer Craig Sailor reported in March, the church has deteriorated to the point that a chain-link fence surrounds the building, marking it as unsafe to occupy since a chunk of plaster crashed down last fall. The Archdiocese told us Wednesday it’s cooperating with the parish on a “detailed Due Diligence analysis to determine next steps.”

An estimated $10 million is needed to save the Tacoma icon. But the Archdiocese isn’t responsible for repair expenses and the parish likely doesn’t have the wherewithal.

Holy Rosary isn’t alone. Several other classic churches in the South Sound face uncertain futures as congregations shrink, maintenance costs rise and developers come knocking. The loss of two churches in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood offer cautionary lessons:

* The Scottish Rite Cathedral on G Street. The Egyptian-style structure opened in 1922 as a fraternal lodge but served as a church for most of its life. In 2017, Tacoma Bible Presbyterian Church sold it for $2.8 million to Rush Construction; it was later demolished to make way for an apartment complex.

* First United Methodist Church on Martin Luther King Jr. Way. In 2006, the 90-year-old sanctuary with stained-glass dome and Gothic towers was sold to MultiCare Health System for $8 million, then torn down to make way for a hospital expansion.

Local historian Michael Sullivan told us this week that churches occupy “a very difficult gray area in America because landmark preservation laws don’t apply to religious buildings.” That means congregations can sell to the highest bidder with less red tape.

On a positive note, Holy Rosary is included on the Tacoma Register of Historic Places by request of the archdiocese. So there’s reason to hope it will stand for years to come, if renovation funds can be secured.

“Mankind was never so happily inspired as when it made a cathedral,” Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote.

Let us not take for granted these places of inspiration — neither the magnificent one that will rise again in Paris, nor the smaller ones that shouldn’t be allowed to fall in Tacoma.