Seattle Church Closure Provokes Pushback

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Our Lady of Mount Virgin Church, Mount Baker, Seattle (Photo: Mike James).

“This isn’t your church. This happens to be our church. It will always be our church. We will do everything we need to do to keep this church.”

That was the cry from one speaker, echoed by many others filling a parish meeting hall just weeks ago, come to protest the pending closure of Our Lady of Mount Virgin Church in Seattle’s Mount Baker neighborhood. Founded in 1911 to serve the city’s Italian community, Mount Virgin has evolved over the decades into a parish for Catholic immigrants from China, Laos, Vietnam, and other countries. Mass is celebrated in several languages.

On July 1, 2022, the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle will lock the doors of Mount Virgin and end its pastoral ministry. In a letter to parishioners, the archdiocese makes that decision clear: “there will be no priest presence and ministry will cease.”

The reasons, at least on paper, make arguable sense. Church attendance is in decline, so are baptisms, confirmations, and marriages, but most alarming for the Seattle archdiocese is a coming and staggering loss of priests. Over the next dozen years, given retirements and a falling number of candidates for the priesthood, there will be only 67 priests to serve 168 parishes. For the archdiocese, the answer is consolidation — close parishes and move members to other congregations in hopes of revitalizing faith and finances.

Seattle Archbishop Paul Etienne, in his original letter to the Mount Virgin community, said the intention is not to shut down congregations but “to increase vibrancy by creating thriving parishes of engaged parishioners — to re-envision our pastoral mission.”

The local Italian community is buying none of it. To them Our Lady of Mount Virgin is more than a church; for over a hundred years it has been a home, a physical symbol not only of faith, but of the Italian community itself.

Mount Virgin protest meeting, February 26, 2022 (Photo: Mike James).

Aroused now by the looming threat of closure, the wider community organized, filling the church hall that night to confront Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio Elizondo. “Why are you doing this?” they asked. “Mount Virgin has been the heart and soul of this community” was heard again and again. One speaker gave testimony to a common history: “I was baptized here. My grandmother got married here. Removing this church would be like removing the roots of the Italian community.” Another remembered that his great-grandfather hung the bell in the church tower.

Of the archdiocese’s plan to merge parishioners with another church, one Italian said, to loud applause, “We can’t feel as if we’re shuttled off to a place where you just do mass. You want it in your community.”

The simple question that evening — “What do you and the archdiocese need us to do to continue to keep our church open as an active parish?” — brought polite answers from the archdiocese, letters careful to underline the larger goal, a reborn faith, but also blunt. The decision to shutter Mount Virgin is final; the only remaining choice for the church’s Italian and other ethnic communities is to decide which parishes they will join now.

In a recent letter, Auxiliary Bishop Elizondo dismissed the outpouring of regret and outrage at that February community meeting, noting that few of the attendees were actual parishioners, repeating again that the future of Mount Virgin is settled. “Our focus in the phase we are in remains on the people in the parish and how we can support them given that keeping Our Lady of Mount Virgin open as a parish is untenable.”

With time running short — final closure of Mount Virgin is now just weeks away — the archdiocese’s rejection of all pleas has not diminished opposition, nor a campaign to save the church. Leaders of the fight, including Diana Sciola-Warczak, have filed petitions, mounted a Save Mt. Virgin Facebook page, and worked to bring more community members back to church on Sundays. In multiple letters to the archdiocese, they’ve asked for time to rebuild the parish.

Sciola-Warczak, who participated in stakeholder meetings affecting the future of Mount Virgin and several other churches marked for closure, now says there was never really a dialogue in the meetings — “it was all monologue” — as the decision to close the parish had already been made. Her questions at meetings were met with silence. On that persistent question from the Italian community — What does the archdiocese need us to do to avoid being merged and closed? — she writes, “This is a question we have asked multiple times and it has never been answered. We feel ignored, dismissed, and unheard.”

Our Lady of Mount Virgin – early 20th century.

Complicating this quarrel is a reality that Italian community attendance fell off in the parish as decades passed, as the immediate neighborhood changed, and as Rainier Valley, once known as Garlic Gulch, became home to Vietnamese and Laotian communities as well. Mount Virgin is today a mix of more recent immigrants, and once again the missionary church it had been a century ago.

In response to these now awakened Italian parishioners, the archdiocese recalled recent history — that though Mount Virgin once had a strong Italian presence, “very few” are now active, and “the larger Italian Catholic community appears to have only recently learned about this process, which has been well underway.”

In a May 4 letter, the archdiocese communications office said that strategic planning for South Seattle parishes began eight years ago, with stakeholders then assembled to determine the best choices following closure. When conversations shifted to discussions about saving Mount Virgin, “the stakeholders themselves brought the conversation back to the true focus […]”

As of this writing, it seems certain that Mount Virgin will close in several weeks. In a letter responding to a Post Alley request, the archdiocese communications office said again: “The direction for the parish has been set and now it’s up to the people to determine how they would like to move forward.”

It’s also certain that Italian community resistance will persist in all its efforts to save a historic connection to Mount Virgin, a defiance that includes not only bringing Italians to Sunday mass but also keeping those immigrant communities the archdiocese is already moving to other parishes. There’s also talk of a direct appeal to the Vatican.

Until the end, until the doors close on July 1, the questions from that February parish meeting will hover over the long history of Mount Virgin: “Why does everyone — Chinese, Laotian, Vietnamese, Italian — have to be separated, moved. Why can’t we be together — as we are?”

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Mike James was a long-time anchor newscaster at KING TV.

10 COMMENTS

  1. The Catholic Church is a business and when the finances do not pencil you adjust your expenses. That parish, along with others, lost its’ way when, because of finances, closed their
    elementary schools.
    If the Cathedral is next, then the “Faithful”will rebel and force “The Church” to cash in some assets and support the parishes that has supported them.

  2. Thanks for a thoughtful piece, Mike. In this instance regrets about the rapid pace of change in Seattle have added poignant feelings due to the sense of loss for religious and ethnic communities. But such regrets about changes in land use are city wide. Perhaps in this instance we could find a “sacred” repurposing of the 72,000 sf parcel on which the church sits, plus the 40,000 and 24,000 parcels the diocese owns to its immediate east and south. That’s a rare 136,000 sf opportunity to find land not in private ownership which, repurposed, could provide affordable housing for the many in our community who cannot afford rising housing prices. Multiply that by the many other religious institutions which are facing similar attendance and financial pressures and a lot of land we could put to excellent use could become available.

    • Good thoughts, Doug. At this point, the Archdiocese says it’s not starting planning yet re what to do with the assets of Mount Virgin and several other churches soon to close. They do insist that the Archdiocese will not profit. The Communications Office wrote us the following:

      “In reality, the Archdiocese has no financial gain in any of these strategic planning changes, and will actually lose money over the long-term. The effort here is focused on the best pastoral care possible for all people in the archdiocese.”

      As you might expect, some parishioners don’t buy it, but the proof will come as these properties are dispersed over time. At Mount Virgin, though the church will close, there are rentals at adjoining properties that will continue for now.

  3. “… few of the attendees were actual parishioners”.

    Apparently, the Italian (?) community values the church in a way that doesn’t mean much to the hierarchy. Now that the hierarchy is bailing out, the community should buy it, and repurpose it into the secular institution that serves their needs.

  4. Surprisingly, the church doesn’t seem to have been designated a historic landmark; that would have made it much more difficult to redevelop once it’s closed down. Of course, it’s not too late for someone to rush through a landmark designation…

    • Some faith congregations in central Seattle treasure the historic landmark status of their religious ” homes,” such as Epiphany Episcopal Church in Madrona, built in 1911. Epiphany submitted to the landmark process voluntarily many decades later. But other Seattle religious groups in recent decades have strongly objected.

      But that offers no protection. Please check with Historic Seattle Preservation and Development Authority and others who battled unsuccessfully to preserve the historic designation of downtown’s architecturally and culturally significant 1st Methodist (Protestant) Church which, sadly, succeeded in its vicious fight against historic listing.

      FIrst Methodist thus gained Constitutional protection for its power to avoid its building’s historic designation, allowing it to destroy the building for profit. Only through the heroic efforts of Kevin Daniels, a saintly developer, who probably almost lost his shirt in the process, saved that historic and de-sanctified sanctuary, incorporating it into his high rise development on 5th Avenue.

      The Seattle Methodists took their money and built a GOLD FACADED structure for their worship on Denny Way, just south of the Seattle Center.

      One would hope the Roman Catholic Archdiocese would find a new purpose for the much-loved Mt. Saint Virgin – perhaps as retreat/conference center with a worship space? An ecumenical shelter and focus for surrounding low income/emergency shelter? Secular uses of religious structures (in concert with worship) are part of western culture. Developer Daniels recently repurposed and preserved a Roman Catholic seminary on the NE shore of Lake Washington as a hotel.

      • We’ve already seen this shift happen multiple times, when a congregation moves out of an older, sometimes legacy building as their demographics shift and they need to make choices about how to use their resources. Sometimes those buildings have been repurposed by the rest of the community (Langston Hughes Center, Town Hall) and sometimes they have not — I remember the long conversations when the Methodists decided to sell their flagship building. The gist of the comment that stuck with me is that they felt their job as a congregation was to serve the community, not to act as a conservator for a building. The Methodists went through a similar process more recently, when they decided to sell their U District building, which had been a hub for community services as well as a home to their congregation. Again, they said they could do more with the money than they could with the building. In the case of Mt St Virgin, the archdiocese has a big job ahead of itself to combine these congregations, but it’s hard to see how they could pull off making a different decision.

  5. You’d think the Catholic church would have better things to do than take people’s parish churches away from them.

  6. Several decades ago, I met with parishioners to discuss plans to use some of “their”excess property for affordable housing. We were directed to the Bishops office were we were politely informed that while the parishioners viewed the church as theirs, it belonged to the central authority. What was once the core strength of the this church, it’s deep connection to the local Italian community, is now a weakness, as that community has evolved and devolved.

    (Historic note: in meeting with the local priest, we had to introduce ourselves. We were from SEED, a local community development group. Another group also was active at that time called SESCO, an edgier, Saul Alinsky type organization run by the Jesuits. The first thing the priest wanted to know was whether we were affiliated with the Jesuits. Although fearing that we would be sidelined, we answered “no.” The priest looked relieved. “Well,” he said, “that’s good news!” That was an introduction to the politics of large organizations.

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