Can a Hail Mary save iconic Tacoma church? It’s worth a shot

Meeting to save Holy Rosary Church in Tacoma draws a crowd

The Holy Rosary Parish is working to save its Catholic church after the Seattle Archdiocese has decided to demolish it. It needs $18 million worth of repairs.
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The Holy Rosary Parish is working to save its Catholic church after the Seattle Archdiocese has decided to demolish it. It needs $18 million worth of repairs.

Even if you’ve never walked through the large wooden doors of Tacoma’s Holy Rosary Catholic Church or sat in its pews hewn with age, no doubt you’ve seen its magnificent profile overlooking southbound Interstate 5.

And, like us, you were stunned by last weekend’s decree from Seattle’s Archdiocese that the century-old sanctuary will soon be gone. Another inner-city church bites the dust.

It’s a shame, plain and simple, for Tacoma to lose a prominent reminder of its past. With the planned razing of Holy Rosary, so goes one more link to Tacoma’s history.

Bill Baarsma, former mayor and current president of the Tacoma Historical Society, feels our pain: “Holy Rosary is Tacoma’s cathedral. It is iconic, comparable to Old City Hall,” he told us.

Alas, the dilapidated church has been deemed unsafe, and after a year-long assessment of damages, the price tag of $18 million to restore and renovate is prohibitive, especially for a small parish.

The Tacoma takeaway is there’s nothing sacred about the city’s historic churches. Holy Rosary’s ending is the second verse of a sad hymn: A struggling church can’t afford maintenance on its aging edifice.

It’s interesting that when local churches get vandalized or burned, the reaction of all sensible people, religious or not, is appropriate outrage. But when historic churches deteriorate, the reaction is mostly resignation.

It’s reminiscent of Tacoma’s First United Methodist Church, the beautiful 89-year-old Gothic building that met the wrecking ball in 2007; it gave way to the expansion of the MultiCare hospital system.

Churches are in the business of saving souls, not necessarily buildings. As Deacon Jim Fish recently wrote to the distraught Holy Rosary community of about 296 registered families: “A church is not a building; it’s a group of people committed to Christ Jesus.”

But not so long ago Holy Rosary was home to a thriving Catholic community; it stood strong during a declining timber industry, saw its share of the city’s downturns and eras of revitalization. Even when Interstate 5 sliced through the church’s backyard in 1967, the edifice endured.

Sure, demographics have changed, but the walls of red brick still hold generations of Tacoma stories and have witnessed life events both big and small.

Katie Dempsey, principal of Holy Rosary Bilingual Academy, a thriving pre-K through 8th grade Spanish immersion school, says diversity represents what’s best about our inclusive city.

Holy Rosary, the oldest school in the city, became the first bilingual immersion school in the state. The church offers Mass in Spanish, sponsors Vietnamese nuns and supports a school that’s never turned a family away for economic reasons.

While staff and students mourn the old church’s fate, Dempsey says she’s been assured that the Bilingual Academy will continue.

Baarsma calls the church’s demise an embarrassment, saying when people can no longer see the 210-foot spire above the city, they’re likely to say, “There goes another Tacoma failure.”

We don’t disagree.

But while the Seattle Archdiocese has lost faith the structure can be saved, the former Tacoma mayor holds out hope for a Hail Mary.

Baarsma hasn’t eliminated the possibility of city involvement. The local history expert suggested Holy Rosary be resurrected for something useful, a community center perhaps. Financing would have to be “innovative.”

A social media campaign called Save Tacoma’s Landmark Church has already collected $175,000. The longshot effort merits a chorus of hallelujahs and support from Catholics, Protestants and agnostics alike.

You can bet that St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, has also been paged.