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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Spiritual refugees’ feel the loss of closed Catholic churches in Seattle. Some are appealing to the Vatican

By Nina Shapiro Seattle Times

SEATTLE – For the past three Sundays, a couple of dozen people gathering to pray in Mount Baker have met outside a locked church door.

As far as the Seattle Archdiocese is concerned, Our Lady of Mount Virgin Catholic Church was one of two churches that closed July 1 as part of a wrenching consolidation effort from Tacoma to Everett that has also slated a third Seattle church to close Sept. 1.

But a group keeps coming to Our Lady of Mount Virgin, standing on the porch or sidewalk to recite prayers, sing and keep the spirit of the 1918 church alive.

“We don’t want to go anywhere,” said Mansak Douangdala, who started attending the church soon after arriving in the Seattle area from Laos in 1981.

He said his daughter was married there, he and others turned to the church for many funerals, and some had their names on a wall because of money contributed to building improvements.

Parishioners at this Seattle church and two others have enlisted canon law experts to appeal the closures. But the archdiocese is resisting as the Catholic Church grapples with multiple crises affecting the Catholic Church: declining attendance, especially among young people; a startling shortage of priests; compounding revelations about priest abuse leading to multimillion-dollar settlements; and debates about same-sex marriage, women priests and abortion. (All of which are against the church’s teachings and practices.)

Such appeals first go to Archbishop Paul Etienne and then, if he doesn’t change his mind, to the Vatican. Members of the Central District’s St. Mary Catholic Church, the second place of worship shuttered this month, have also submitted an appeal, as have parishioners at St. Patrick Catholic Church in North Capitol Hill, which is set to close in September.

Etienne has already reaffirmed his decisions about Our Lady of Mount Virgin and St. Mary, and the Vatican is expected to take three months or longer to issue a ruling on the appeals. In the meantime, the church properties cannot be sold or demolished.

Eventually, the archdiocese says, assets from St. Mary and St. Patrick will go to parishes they have merged with – to use or sell as they see fit. Everyone wants to keep St. Mary’s well-used food bank running, said archdiocese spokesperson Helen McClenahan.

For arcane reasons, the archdiocese controls Our Lady of Mount Virgin’s property, whose future isn’t yet clear. Conversations are ongoing about what to do with the church and surrounding land, including possibly housing Catholic social service programs there, McClenahan said.

More change is on the way in the archdiocese, which claims 600,000 members across Western Washington. Etienne early this year announced an initiative that will take a top-to-bottom look at how the church could be more effective, according to McClenahan. The effort will involve rank-and-file church members, she said, not just leadership, and “every parish so there won’t be communities that are feeling singled out.”

Additional closures are possible, McClenahan said.

Those affected so far are coping in various ways. Some have moved on to other parishes. Others are attending alternative worship services or, in the case of a small group from St. Mary, gathering weekly outside the archdiocese’s downtown Seattle chancery on Ninth Avenue in a kind of prayerful protest. At least one former parishioner is taking a break from organized religion.

“There’s still a lot of grief, I think, in the community, and anger,” said Deacon Greg McNabb of St. Therese Catholic Church, the Madrona parish that subsumed St. Mary, by decree of the archbishop. “We’re trying to do some outreach, but [also] just kind of allow people to be where they are, and not feel any pressure to make a choice, not at this point anyway.”

McNabb said about 20 to 30 people have so far come from St. Mary, which counted roughly 375 households as members. Two-thirds of them attended a Spanish-language Mass, which St. Therese doesn’t have.

“You don’t know where everybody went,” said Larry Pitre, a former St. Mary parishioner now attending Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in the Central District, which he sees as more multicultural than St. Therese. “You just know that now they’re displaced.”

Lisa Dennison, a St. Patrick parishioner, speaks in similar terms: “Some of us feel more like spiritual refugees in some ways because we’re being forced out of our home,” she said.

Too many buildings, too few priests

The archdiocese says it has little choice but to close churches.

Despite Western Washington’s population boom over the past few decades, Mass attendance dropped by 18% between 2000 and 2021, and 23% in the South Seattle region that is the focus of the Seattle consolidation.

Meanwhile, some of the archdiocese’s 100 active priests cater to two, three or even four church communities. And the archdiocese estimates that in 15 years, it will have only 67 priests (not counting Jesuits or others outside its authority) to serve roughly twice that many parishes.

Many churches, while historic and beautiful, were built close together at a time when people walked to Mass. No longer the case, that layout is unsustainable, the archdiocese maintains.

“We simply cannot continue with the status quo,” Etienne said in a statement as he ordered that St. Patrick’s parish merge with St. Joseph Catholic Church on Capitol Hill.

Some parishioners are embracing the change.

Joseph Tseng, president of the Seattle Chinese Catholic Community, said roughly 50 members who had been worshipping at Our Lady of Mount Virgin – a multiethnic parish founded by Italian Americans that later attracted successive waves of immigrants – have received a warm welcome at St. Peter Church on Beacon Hill. A once-retired priest from Taiwan is leading a Chinese-language Mass there.

The community desire, though, has been to find a parish home on the Eastside, where many live. That’s becoming a reality: Tseng’s group last week announced an agreement with St. Monica Catholic Church on Mercer Island to hold a Chinese-language Mass there, pending the archbishop’s approval.

“I cannot say enough about how grateful and fortunate we are,” Tseng said, adding that his group’s trust in the archdiocese has been rewarded.

The Rev. Scott Connolly, who serves at St. Peter and three other churches in South Seattle and Skyway, said other refugees from Our Lady of Mount Virgin and St. Mary have arrived in his parishes, including as many as 200 Vietnamese speakers from the closed Mount Baker church.

Longtime St. Mary parishioner Felipe Maqueda, in contrast, said he isn’t rushing to another church. When it came time for Mass on the first Sunday after St. Mary closed, he tended to his houseplants.

“I’m taking time to process what just happened,” he said.

Maqueda said he has lost trust in the archdiocese.

“The Latino community was ignored from day one,” said Maqueda, who emigrated from Mexico.

When the archdiocese announced its initial intention to close St. Mary, it offered a plan to merge with St. Therese without mentioning where those attending Spanish Mass could go.

When it became clear some Spanish- and English-speakers were offended – St. Mary prided itself on forging a unique, bilingual community – the archdiocese offered another choice: St. Edward Catholic Church, a church under Connolly’s domain in Columbia City, which has a Spanish Mass.

Some were put off, however, when they heard the pastoral council of lay leaders overseeing Connolly’s four churches would have no openings until 2023, when current members’ terms expired.

Most St. Mary parishioners indicated in a survey they would prefer to merge with St. Therese, which they viewed as more welcoming, according to John Reid, who started going to St. Mary in 1986.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced churches to stop meeting in-person, he helped organized a Zoom prayer service. It’s still going strong, part of what is keeping many in the St. Mary community together despite the closure.

For the moment, Reid said, “That’s the spiritual community that I’m putting energy into.”

McClenahan, the archdiocese spokesperson, said Catholic church closures across the country indicate some attrition is inevitable.

“A lot of times, the people who leave do eventually come back,” she said.

Continuing to fight

That’s assuming the closures are a done deal.

From the start, some parishioners were determined to fight. Therese Bianchi and Diana Sciola-Warczak, for instance, helped organize a surge of interest among Seattle’s Italian Americans to save Our Lady of Mount Virgin, drawing some 200 to a meeting with a bishop, they said.

The archdiocese didn’t really listen, Sciola-Warczak said. “It was basically all monologue.”

Likewise, despite a series of meetings with affected parishioners, the St. Patrick’s appeal complains of a “predetermined outcome” and St. Mary’s of a decision “imposed upon us from above.”

The appeals, formally known as “recourses,” give parishioners one more chance to lay out their cases – and to argue their church communities have been vital, even if relatively small in numbers.

Churches around the country on occasion have won such appeals, those filing them here say. But the Vatican in June denied an appeal of Etienne’s decision to merge Tacoma’s Holy Rosary and St. Ann parishes, an interim step in a larger July 1 merger taking in two additional parishes.

Still, Seattle parishioners say they’re not giving up.

Aurora Antipolo, who used to worship at St. Mary and now goes to the weekly prayers outside the archdiocese chancery, said: “I am hoping for a miracle.”