A chain-link fence was keeping parishioners out of Tacoma's Holy Rosary Catholic Church this week, the site for generations of baptisms, weddings and funerals.
The building is too dangerous to occupy, according to the Archdiocese of Seattle.
The century-old icon with the 210-foot-high steeple is too precious to lose, says its congregation.
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For 127 years, Tacoma’s Catholic community has gathered to share joy and sorrow at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary. The original wooden church is long gone but its brick and mortar replacement is a Tacoma landmark.
The problem: an aging, crumbling building that needs $10 million in fixes to save it, says the Archdiocese.
The trouble began in November when a 5-by-5 foot piece of plaster ceiling fell into the choir loft — an area that goes largely unused at the church located at 424 S. 30th St., adjacent to Interstate 5.
“The concern was there could be other pieces falling in the more heavily populated areas of the church,” said Joe Sprague, a spokesman for the Archdiocese.
Sunday mass and other services were moved to the school next door. The church, with its interior painted a striking robin’s egg blue set against white trim and soaring stained glass windows, was shut down.
“The building is not condemned,” Sprague said this week. “It’s not being torn down. There’s no secret plan to do anything. This is a conversation that both the parish and the Archdiocese will have over the next few weeks and probably months.”
The parish, however, will not decide the fate of the building.
“That decision does ultimately rest with the archbishop (Peter Sartain),” Sprague said.
But it’s the Holy Rosary Parish, not the Archdiocese, that is responsible for coming up with the $10 million, Sprague said. The parish is also responsible for operating budgets, funding, employment and other financial considerations.
“What we would like as a parish is to find out how much it would cost to reoccupy, to make it safe,” said Holy Rosary office manager Laurie Halte. She referred all other queries to the Archdiocese.
The Holy Rosary Parish, already in a membership decline, according to Sprague, has had to endure the move to the school and, on some Sundays, to another church for mass.
Currently, the parish has 400 registered families and individuals, Sprague said.
Meanwhile, the Holy Rosary Bilingual Academy is one of the area's only English-Spanish immersion programs.
“The school is, thank the Lord, doing quite well,” Sprague said.
The first version of the church was built in 1891 by German immigrants.
“The German-speaking folks wanted preaching in their own language,” said parishioner Thom Ryng. “They bought the land. They built by hand the wooden church that was originally on this site.”
Henry and Catherine Crosby were married there in 1894. They had a house in the North End where they raised their son, Harry Jr., known better by his nickname, Bing.
In 1920, a new brick-and-mortar church, the one that’s in trouble now, was completed.
“It’s been an architectural monument since it was built,” Ryng said.
In 1960, the church lost some of its land when Interstate 5 opened adjacent to it. But, the new freeway created a generation of travelers who could mark their journey through Tacoma with the sight of the steeple.
The church survived the 1965 Puget Sound earthquake but its cross did not. In 1966, a new 16-foot-tall aluminum cross was put on the steeple.
In 1994, the church underwent its last major renovation work, which included a new $500,000 copper roof for the steeple, which is 50 feet taller than the Tacoma Dome.
Today, the new penny shine of the roof has dulled, but the church has not lost its luster among those who cherish it.
Elizabeth Burris Willcox, 43, has had four generations of her family pass through its doors.
“I was baptized there. My kids were baptized there. My parents renewed their vows there,” Willcox said this week. “I think it’s a total bummer that mass can’t be held in church.”
If the building is lost, it’ll be a bigger loss than just to the parish or Catholics, she said.
“It’s a historical artifact for the community,” Willcox said. “I think it would be a true tragedy to see Holy Rosary gone. I don’t know what my dad would do.”
Her dad is Charles Burris, 68, the head usher for Sunday’s noon mass.
“The only thing I don’t do is say the mass,” Burris said Wednesday.
The church, he said, is a major part of this life.
“I live and breathe that thing,” he said.
Burris is skeptical of the $10 million price for repairs, and he doesn’t know where the money would come from.
“We have a very poor church,” he said. “But it may be the finest church in the state and the Northwest.”
Compounding the money problems, the Archdiocese has a three-year moratorium on capital fundraising while it tries to fund retirement accounts for priests. The Holy Rosary parish is on the hook for about $300,000, according to a church official.
Parishioner Joy Donohue, 44, went to school at Holy Rosary from kindergarten through eighth grade. Later, she was married there.
“I’ve been involved my entire life with this church,” she said. “It just breaks my heart to see it closed.”
Spurred to action, she wrote a blog post about the closure and ended it with a call to action: "Help me save Holy Rosary Church."
“My goal is to get this church fixed and reopened,” Donohue said Thursday.
She wants to raise money and find contractors who would donate or discount their work.
“If you come from a Catholic parish, you know how to fund-raise,” she said.
The dropping plaster inside the neo-Gothic style church was simply the harbinger of things to come, according to Archdiocese.
“In an abundance of caution, the decision was made that until repairs could be made that it just was not a place for large groups of people to be congregating,” Sprague said.
An engineering/construction/architectural team examined the building from top to bottom, even climbing into the attic via metal rungs inside a ventilation system, according to engineer Todd Wolf.
They found roof structure deficiencies, water damage and aging materials.
“Our work was only partially completed,” Wolf said. He doesn’t know where the $10 million figure comes from.
They found a particularly damaged roof near the steeple.
“It was allowing water in because it couldn’t drain properly,” he said.
The group’s main concern was the concrete ornamental pieces that adorn the building. They removed 20 pounds of material that was at risk of falling off, Wolf said.
Wolf is a member of the parish.
“I have a vested interest in seeing this through,” he said. “There’s a certain degree of loss we’re feeling not being in the building.”
He’s hoping the community at large will see Holy Rosary as a community icon worth saving.
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