Shining star

  • Written by Jean Parietti
  • Published in NW Stories
Stained glass at St. Mary Star of the Sea, Port Townsend. Photo: Ray Meuse Stained glass at St. Mary Star of the Sea, Port Townsend. Photo: Ray Meuse

Tumultuous past, service to others shape the 150-year story of Port Townsend’s parish

By Jean Parietti

I t wasn’t always easy being Catholic — or a pastor — in early 20th-century Port Townsend.

Parishioners at St. Mary Star of the Sea were kicked out of their church building in 1919. In the years that followed, two pastors resigned in poor health and discouragement over dissension in their flock.

Walk into St. Mary’s today, though, and you’ll find a friendly, vibrant faith community.

At the coffee hour between Sunday Masses, people may be chatting about the day’s homily, current events or Scripture readings. “There’s a lot of life, a lot of people that like each other,” said Tyler Johnson, a longtime parishioner who has served on the parish council. “It’s a continuation of the Mass and it’s always fun.”

But the parishioners at St. Mary’s do more than talk. Through parish outreach programs, they give more than $100,000 a year to people in need. And they play key roles in community-wide projects like food drives and a winter homeless shelter.

Some parishioners drive as much as an hour to be an active part of the 416-household parish, the only one in Jefferson County on the Olympic Peninsula. During the past year, they’ve celebrated St. Mary’s 150th anniversary in a variety of ways, from presenting each parishioner with a handcrafted rosary, to producing a concert of Mozart’s Grand Mass in C Minor for the community.

The parish has come a long way from its humble and troubled past.

Smashed statues and discord
It was a missionary priest — Father Louis Rossi — who built Port Townsend’s first church, the mission of St. Anthony, in 1859. It became a parish in 1864 with the arrival of its first resident pastor, Father Francis X. Prefontaine.

When French-born Father Regis Maniouloux became pastor in 1880, the Catholic community was small but outgrowing its original church. Father Maniouloux soon borrowed money from his relatives to buy land and build a new church. He named it Star of the Sea in honor of the Virgin Mary, according to a parish history researched by Rita Beebe, whose family has lived in Port Townsend for seven generations.

When the beloved Father Maniouloux died in 1919, his non-Catholic niece (the parish housekeeper) demanded $10,000 to prevent foreclosure on the church’s loan, according to a history on the parish website. She refused an offer of $5,000, foreclosed and locked the congregation out. She smashed some of the church’s French-made statues and sold other items, including vestments and the baptismal font. The church was demolished and items that hadn’t sold were stashed in a shed built from the church lumber. (The parish retrieved the church records for $85 in 1933.)

Forced to find another place to worship, the parish eventually purchased a former Methodist church for $250. But World War I, the 1918 flu epidemic and reorganization of nearby military posts meant a drop in Mass attendance, parish income and morale. The building fell into disrepair.

Despite their best efforts to unify the congregation, the next two pastors resigned in discouragement over the growing discord in the parish — eventually leading to protest meetings in town and complaints filed with the diocese. Some parishioners wanted the Jesuits, who had a house of study nearby, to take over St. Mary’s, which would eliminate the need for a housekeeper, rectory and sacristan, Beebe’s history shows.

‘Fire in the pulpit’
When Father Robert Dillon arrived as pastor in 1935, there was no official welcome from parishioners. Instead, he found a dilapidated church building and most of the parishioners fallen away. He began repairs to the church, even as some parishioners threatened to fire him and a small group petitioned again for the Jesuits to take over.

But Father Dillon forged ahead and laid down the law. He chastised parents for neglecting the religious education of their children, and preached about duty and commitment to God. “The heat from the fire in the pulpit reached across the entire town,” Beebe wrote. Now the church was packed on every Sunday and holy day. One Christmas Eve, so many people crowded into the church that it violated the fire code; the next year, free tickets had to be distributed to limit the number of Massgoers.

As the parish flourished, organizations were formed, service to the community expanded and the need for a bigger church became evident. In 1951, the current St. Mary Star of the Sea was dedicated.

In a surprise turn of events, a handful of the French statues from the original church were discovered in that old shed. They were returned to St. Mary’s, and three of them — Our Lady of Dolors, St. Joseph with Child and the Blessed Mother — were installed in the new church.

Embracing the past
Those French statues still grace the church today, a visible tie to St. Mary’s past as the parish moves into the future.

A newly dedicated vestibule, with a soaring stained-glass window of the resurrected Christ, provides much-needed space that enhances the welcoming nature of the parish community. Visitors can mingle with young families, lots
of transplanted retirees and people whose roots date to the parish’s earlier days. “You have walking and talking history every Sunday,” said Kim Hammers, chairman of
the pastoral council.

One of the blessings at St. Mary’s, Hammers and other parishioners agree, is the preaching of their pastor, Father John Topel — who just happens to be a Jesuit. A retired theology professor and administrator at Seattle University, “he’s a marvelous homilist,” said Hugh Murphy, one of the parish greeters. “I had 16 years of Catholic education and I still learn stuff when he gives his homilies.”

As St. Mary Star of the Sea’s parishioners close their 150th anniversary celebration, they continue moving ahead in service to each other and the community, adding their own stories of faith to the parish’s colorful history.

“We still embrace that past,” Hammer said. “That’s what made this church what it is.”

Read Jesuit Father John Topel’s homilies and lectures at

Listen to a recording from St. Mary Star of the Sea's jubilee concert of Mozart's "Grand Mass in C Minor"

Trouble listening? Head to our SoundCloud stream directly.