Parish at Seattle’s center ‘has seen it all’

Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Seattle. Photo: Ray Meuse Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Seattle. Photo: Ray Meuse

Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish sits in the long shadow of the Space Needle, a living reminder of a bygone era with its own colorful past.

The oldest active parish in Seattle, Sacred Heart’s neighbors today are the Experience Music Project, the Pacific Science Center, upscale condo dwellers and hundreds of the city’s poor and homeless.

Although it is a remnant of Seattle’s early history, the parish is not a relic. Nestled inside a tiny island of property salvaged after a legal fight over development of Seattle Center, it remains a vibrant source of life in the heart of the city.

The parish marked its 125th anniversary in 2014 with several celebrations. And its long history gives it a lot to commemorate, including construction and destruction of two church buildings, longstanding relationships with religious priests, brothers and sisters who staffed the parish and school, and groundbreaking charitable efforts to house the homeless and feed the hungry.

Sacred Heart today

The days when this urban parish at the foot of Queen Anne Hill included affordable family homes are a distant memory. The parish demographic today includes a transient population of young urban professionals as well as a core group of mostly older people who have “been here two, three and four generations,” according to Redemptorist Father Binh Ta, Sacred Heart’s current pastor.

“We continue trying to reach out and find ways to serve unmet needs,” said Father Ta. “We see ourselves as a center of healing for physical and sacramental needs,” he said in an attempt to explain the parish’s emphasis on both corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

Sacred Heart School cornerstoneToday the Sacred Heart School building constructed in 1927 is mostly vacant, except for a women’s overnight shelter housed in the basement. Photo: Greg Magnoni

Sacred Heart has operated a food program since 1952. The parish’s St. Vincent de Paul conference eventually took over the sandwich program and food bank, and it operated continuously until it closed briefly in 2011 and then reopened as the Queen Anne Food bank at Sacred Heart in 2012.

The parish also sponsored one of Seattle’s first women’s transitional housing facilities, the Sacred Heart Shelter, in 1980. Originally only a few rooms located in Seattle’s Morrison Hotel, and later moved to the convent building adjacent to the church at 232 Warren Ave. N., the family shelter currently provides temporary housing for adults who are pregnant or have children. The parish also operates a women’s overnight shelter in the basement of the now-vacant school building.

Sacred Heart also places a pastoral emphasis on the spiritual needs of the downtown community and a small contingent of former parishioners who have relocated to more affordable neighborhoods. The sacrament of reconciliation is available two or three times each day.

Legion of Mary volunteers make home visits once a week to parishioners who have relocated, checking in on those who are homebound, bringing groceries, helping with cleaning and assuring that they are able to receive the sacraments until they connect with their new parishes.

The Redemptorists’ charism has led in part to the parish’s commitment to using the sacraments as instruments of healing, Father Ta said. Redemptorist priests and brothers have staffed the parish almost from its beginning.

Parish history

When Bishop Aegidius Junger laid the cornerstone for the first Sacred Heart Church at Sixth Avenue and Bell Street in June of 1889, Our Lady of Good Help was Seattle’s only Catholic parish.

The first Mass in the church was celebrated on Christmas Day 1889 with founding pastor Father E. Demenez among the celebrants. Demenez, a diocesan priest, soon found the parish’s extraordinary debt, approximately $16,000, “unmanageable,” and the parish was offered to the Redemptorist Fathers in 1891.

church tower being razedThe second Sacred Heart of Jesus church was razed to make way for the Denny Regrade project. Photo: Archdiocese of Seattle archives

A succession of Redemptorist pastors followed Belgium-born Father Demenez over the years, beginning with Father Charles Sigl. The latter was instrumental in embellishing the first church, a Gothic-style brick structure. According to a parish history written by Redemptorist Father Edward J. Power, during Father Sigl’s pastorate “the church was frescoed and adorned with three elaborate chandeliers, a new organ installed, two large bells were obtained.”

The church was destroyed by an alleged arson fire on Sunday, March 19, 1899. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer lamented, “The loss on the church building is between $25,000 and $35,000 with only $10,000 insurance.”

In the days that followed, The Catholic Progress reported that “The fire was undoubtedly of incendiary origin, probably the work of some cowardly, religious fanatic.” Newspaper reports quoted firemen at the scene who said that four previous attempts had been made at setting the structure ablaze.

The parish met in the school until the second parish church was built on the original church site. Bishop Edward J. O’Dea laid the cornerstone for the second church on Aug. 11, 1899, and presided at the dedication July 8, 1900. In 1928, that church was razed to make way for the Denny Regrade project. That same year, the parish moved to its current location at Warren Avenue and John Street, where a new chapel and school were dedicated. 

First ‘native son’ ordained to priesthood

Services were held in the school hall for more than 30 years until the current parish church was constructed at a cost of $400,000. Redemptorist Father Gerald Bolger was pastor at the time of the church’s dedication on Nov. 27, 1960, by Archbishop Thomas A. Connolly. Located at Second Avenue North and Thomas Street, the church was constructed and occupied just ahead of the 1962 Century 21 Exposition, also known as the Seattle World’s Fair.

Sacred Heart School opened in 1891, staffed by Dominican Sisters of Pomeroy, who later moved to Tacoma. Bishop Junger asked Mother Thomasina Buhlmeier, foundress and superior of the community, to lead the school. Mother Thomasina and three sisters opened a three-room school with 107 students ranging in age from 6 to 16.

archival Sacred Heart class photoSacristan Pat Nolan’s mother, Jacqueline Rose Zadra (front row, second from left), attended Sacred Heart School. Her family dates its membership in the Seattle parish from 1918. Photo: Courtesy Pat Nolan

Within days the student enrollment increased to 147, and two additional classrooms were added in 1892. The Dominican sisters remained at Sacred Heart School for three years before they moved their motherhouse to Tacoma in 1894. Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary took charge of the school and remained there until its closure in 1969 due to low enrollment.

Among the noteworthy footnotes in the parish’s long history, The Progress reported in 1939 that Sacred Heart parishioner James Cunningham “left the parish to become the first native son ordained from the city of Seattle.” And one of the parish’s Redemptorist priests, Father Francis X. Marion, was the first priest to be buried in Seattle. As a result, the Redemptorists are credited with establishing Seattle’s Calvary Cemetery in 1893.

Remembering the past, welcoming the future

Today, parishioners continue the parish’s long tradition of outreach to the poor and homeless, while acknowledging that the Denny Regrade, the World’s Fair and urbanization have forever altered the character of what was once a family neighborhood.

Mike Harrington, who chaired the 125th anniversary celebration committee, said the urban parish has very few children and “the parish community tends to be older people.”

As a result, the parish school, which once enrolled more than 400 students, is now largely vacant. The parish convent, once home to the Holy Names sisters who staffed the school for 75 years, is now headquarters for the Sacred Heart Shelter and the Queen Anne Food Bank at Sacred Heart.

Pat Nolan, the parish sacristan, is especially nostalgic about Sacred Heart Parish, its neighborhood and history. Both of his parents were baptized at Sacred Heart, went to the parish grade school and were married there. Nolan and his wife, Roberta, were married at Sacred Heart, as was his sister, and Nolan’s mother’s family, the Zadras, trace their parish membership to 1918.

Redemptorist Father Lyle Konen, a former pastor now in residence at Sacred Heart, hired Nolan in 1976 to be parking lot attendant because they had so many people attending Sunday Masses. He handled parking duties for three years, and became the afternoon secretary in the office when he was in high school. One of seven children with a working mom, Nolan appreciated the work — and the snack — he received after school.

church bellAfter the original Sacred Heart Church was destroyed by an alleged arson fire, what remained of its two bells were sent to a St. Louis foundry and recast into a single bell. It now sits in front of the present day church. Photo: Greg Magnoni

“Here I was, 14 years old and I’ve got keys to the rectory and church,” Nolan said. “For a kid in a tough situation it was very helpful.”

Today, he and Roberta are active at the parish, with Pat serving as sacristan, a position once held by his grandfather, Dan Nolan. Roberta is parish council chair and a liturgical minister, and serves on the board of the food bank at Sacred Heart.

She said even though her family lived in St. Anne Parish when she was growing up, they attended Sacred Heart. “When we were living here on Queen Anne, we didn’t have a car. It was an easier bus ride to Sacred Heart than to St. Anne’s.”

“I love this church,” said Roberta, part of a large Filipino population at Sacred Heart. She said Sacred Heart meets the needs of many living in the community, which includes homeless men who can get a free sack lunch from the food bank.

“It serves a very diverse community,” Roberta said. “Many, many different ethnic groups come there and feel at home,” including travelers from cruise ships.

The transience of the community does not undermine the parish’s sense of community, she said. “Our stability actually is the group of people who go through there on a regular basis. They’re our stability. They’re our families. They’re part of our community.”

John Sana, who was part of the anniversary planning committee, has been a sponsor for RCIA and works in the soup kitchen, echoes the assessment of others about the special character of the urban parish.

“It’s not homogeneous,” he said. “It has such diversity in age, education level, economics. It shares its facilities unbelievably with so many people. It’s a blessing. It expands who the body of Christ is.

“I’ve always been impressed. It enlivens my spirit when I see people worshiping at Mass, looking different, and it just brings the body of Christ to life,” Sana said.

All the transitions the parish has been through mirror the transitions of the city of Seattle, he said. And, he adds, as the parish in the center of the city, Sacred Heart “has seen them all.”

Greg Magnoni

Greg Magnoni was the founding editor and associate publisher of Northwest Catholic until 2018.