Seattle Archdiocese plan to close churches stirs sadness, anger and resistance

Seattle Times [Seattle WA]

August 7, 2021

By Nina Shapiro

It was a lovely Saturday evening inside Our Lady of Mount Virgin Catholic Church. Light filtered through arched stained glass windows imprinted with dedications to Italian Americans who populated the Mount Baker church after its founding in 1911. Some were open to let in a breeze for the 5 o’clock Mass, normally in Vietnamese for one of several groups of immigrants the church has since attracted.

An English-speaking guest, Auxiliary Bishop Daniel Mueggenborg, helped conduct Mass on this July night — the prelude to a fateful parish meeting. “Tonight is going to be a difficult evening,” Mueggenborg told the crowd of 150 or so. “There is no way around it.”

The bishop, and a handful of others from the Seattle Archdiocese, came to tell parishioners their church would close.

Two other Seattle churches, St. Mary’s in the Central District andSt. Patrick in North Capitol Hill, are also slated to do sowhile Immaculate Conception in the Central District and St. Therese in Madrona are tasked with revitalizing themselves.

More shake-ups may follow as the Archdiocese’s “strategic planning” — implemented first in Tacoma, where five parishes are merging together, and now in what is known as the South Seattle Deanery — turns to other areas.

The reasons have been apparent for some time, according to the Archdiocese, which encompasses 174 parishes and missions across Western Washington.

[Photo: Parishioners attend Sunday Mass at St. Patrick Catholic Church in the North Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)]

Fewer people are going to church, yet many neighborhood parishes are clustered close together, established at a time when people walked to Mass. The parishes need priests, who are in short supply, and money to maintain buildings often built around the turn of the 20th century — made abundantly clear at now closed Holy Rosary in Tacoma when a piece of ceiling plaster fell into the choir loft in 2019.

A battery of slides delved into the numbers for those gathered. Mass attendance in the Archdiocese fell 15.5% between 1999 and 2018, to about 126,000, though the general population boomed. Catholic baptisms and marriages plummeted even more, by 21.5% and almost 46% respectively.

At Our Lady of Mount Virgin, a spike brought weekend Mass attendance up to 480 seven years ago, but it dropped to around 360, pre-pandemic. Parish income, one slide revealed, declined by about a third in just five years.

The reaction to the bishop and his team was mixed.

“The parish has been our home for decades,” said Joseph Tseng, president of the Seattle Chinese Catholic Community.

[Photo: At Our Lady of Mount Virgin Catholic Church in the Mount Baker neighborhood, Joseph Tseng, president of the Seattle Chinese Catholic Community, speaks during a meeting about the planned closure of the church. He said… (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)] 

Emmy Purainer declared: “We’re not easy pushovers.”

She lives two blocks away, has attended the Mount Baker church for more than 60 years, and was visibly distraught. “I planned to have my funeral here,” she said.

[Photo: “I planned to have my funeral here,” says Emmy Purainer, a lifelong parishioner of Our Lady of Mount Virgin, explaining she “won’t stand for” closing the church. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)]

So goes the swirl of emotions, laced with suspicion, that has greeted the Archdiocese’s plans in a state where an estimated 17% of adults identify as Catholic, second only to evangelical Protestant among the religiously affiliated.

Amid sadness and anger, some want to know what will happen to the parishes’ real estate and wonder whether a desire for the millions of dollars to be gained by selling or renting them is driving the closures.

“Right now, it sounds fishy,” said longtime St. Mary’s parishioner Larry Pitre.

Liza Neal, a leader in St. Patrick’s social-justice ministry, said she feels the Archdiocese is targetingthe Capitol Hill parish because it is viewed as too progressive. Among other things, it has an active outreach to gay Catholics.

“I don’t think this matter is settled,” she said, echoing others at affected parishes who are resisting. They are holding vigils and writing Mueggenborg and Archbishop Paul Etienne. St. Patrick Deacon Dennis Kelly went before the two top officials last month, to plead the parish’s case. Some are even considering leaving the Catholic Church to join other communities, including a movement that ordains women priests.

Fewer people at Mass, more financial strain

In the Archdiocese’s chancery, a block away from soaring St. James Cathedral on First Hill, Mueggenborg said the Archdiocese has no ulterior motive. “It is not an effort to get anyone’s real estate,” said the bishop, who for the last two years has overseen strategic planning, and will leave in September to become the Bishop of Reno.

Like other Catholic jurisdictions, the Archdiocese has been grappling with the fallout from the priest sexual-abuse crisis. An Archdiocese list of questions and answers says more than $113 million it has paid in legal settlements over the last 40 years has come partly from the sale of property, as well as insurance payouts.

Mueggenborg said that real estate did not consist of closed churches, but parcels the Archdiocese was holding onto for future development.

Assets from the parishes now to be closed will not go to the Archdiocese, he said, but will be used according to the wishes of people in those communities and those they join. (The Archdiocese has assured the Food Bank at St. Mary’s, the second largest in Seattle and run independently of the parish, it can continue to operate across from the church for the foreseeable future, said Executive Director Bruce Wood.)

The bishop also said a parish’s progressive slant didn’t factor into decisions, noting the Archdiocese was accused of closing Holy Rosary last year because it was seen as too conservative.