St. Mary’s Church has been a vital part of the story of the Central District for more than a century. Even the Food Bank at St. Mary’s has its own story. Those stories are about to diverge.
Seattle’s longstanding St. Mary’s Church is closing. The Archdiocese of Seattle announced April 19 that it is restructuring five central and South Seattle churches; St. Mary’s will merge with St. Therese, which is in the Madrona neighborhood and two miles northeast of St. Mary’s. The Archdiocese said the structuring is part of a strategic plan precipitated by finances, a shortage of parishioners and a shortage of priests.
Over decades, St. Mary’s became a community fixture in the Central District neighborhood. The iconic church building and its food bank across the street have welcomed parishioners and people in need during world wars and great depressions, while becoming a venue for antiracist organizing.
When St. Mary’s Church was built in 1911, Seattle’s population was only 237,000, and mass was given in German and English because most of its parishioners were from Germany and Ireland. In the 1960s, U.S. immigration reform laws increased diversity. Instead of favoring Northern and Western Europeans, people from all countries had an equal opportunity to immigrate to the United States. According to a book commemorating the 100-year history of the parish, St. Mary’s saw an increase in attendance of Filipino and Hispanic communities between 1968 to 1999.
St. Mary’s also developed a reputation for activism. In 1968 Fr. Michael Holland, St. Mary’s first bilingual English and Spanish speaking pastor, was arrested during a civil rights demonstration. Secret meetings between the Black Panthers and Seattle police took place in the church rectory.
Founding the food bank
The Food Bank at St. Mary’s is almost as important to the Central District as the church itself. It was created in the 1940s. At first, it stored only a few canned goods in the church rectory to support neighbors and parishioners in crisis, but in the 1970s, Boeing Co. layoffs left many families in the neighborhood with no income, and more people started using the food bank to get by. It has since grown to provide groceries for 162,000 households. President and Board Chair for the Food Bank at St. Mary’s and a member of the Stakeholder’s Committee Ed Hill said, “We are the second largest food bank in the city.”
Hill said the food bank’s location, accessibility to major transportation hubs and relationships forged over the years with grocery stores and community members has allowed the Food Bank at St. Mary’s to grow into what it is today. The Food Bank at St. Mary’s is on church property but became its own 501(c)(3) organization in 1996.
A major concern for Hill is he's unsure volunteers will follow if the food bank were to move. No-cook bags, food sorting and home delivery are services supported by parishioners and community members volunteering their time.
“A lot of places know about us — that we have the ability to pick up their food, keep it fresh and provide it to our clients. If that goes away, we lose that whole area and we get a lot of funding because of the area that we're at,” Hill said.
Hill was surprised when he heard St. Mary’s was merging with St. Therese. At the moment, Hill said, the Seattle Archdiocese told him that the food bank can stay where it is, but he’s been given no guarantees about the food bank’s future.
The Seattle Archdiocese states on its website that during the merger, “the parishioners of St. Mary and St. Therese parishes will participate in the planning process. They will collaborate to set the vision for the critical Food Bank outreach, which has been serving the community since 1949.” All assets from St. Mary’s will become the property of the merged parish, which in this case is St. Therese.
Helen McClenahan, the Archdiocese of Seattle’s managing director of communications, said, “I have no doubt that the food bank will continue, but it will be up to the new leadership of the combined community to figure out ‘Do we want to keep it in that same building or do we want to move it?’”
According to McClenahan’s internal records, the majority of people the food bank serves aren’t St. Mary parishioners, but people from the surrounding neighborhood.
Relying on the service
Bruce Paul, a resident of the Central District for 62 years, said there are many people on fixed incomes like himself who rely on the food bank where it currently is. “There’s a lot of people in my position that use this place and come to get goods. This helps a lot of people,” Paul said. “I have a need and it fulfills my need.” There are at least three low-income apartment buildings nearby that the food bank helps to support. Paul says he walks to the food bank and if it moved it would have a crippling effect on his life. “It would be like pulling one of my toes off,” Paul said.
Hill has been a parishioner at the church since he was a child and even went to grade school at St. Mary’s. To Hill, closing the church doesn’t just mean he loses a place to worship, but that people lose an activist voice and a safe haven within the Central District. “We are a big social justice church, not to say St. Therese isn’t, but we have this history of social activism over the years,” Hill said. According to Hill, Seattle’s El Comité, a social justice organization that advocates for civil, labor and workers rights, started at St. Mary’s.
Hill is also frustrated that the needs of a growing Latinx community are being ignored. The merge will unite two Catholic branches: one traditionally Black, the other Latinx. “The Latino community has been basically disregarded,” Hill said. “We had to add a second Sunday service because that community is growing.” Through the years, the church has become known as a hub for immigrants and refugees to meet, and approximately 60% of its parish primarily speaks Spanish. “When they come to the U.S. or come to Seattle, I don't know how, but they find St. Mary’s,” he said.
Hill thought the church was in good standing until he received a letter from the archbishop stating that St. Mary’s was no longer financially viable. St. Mary’s had a long-term tenant, the Giddens School, but it moved into a new building in December 2019. Since then, St. Mary’s was doing upgrades in preparation for a new tenant.
“We spent our reserves doing all these studies and everything to make sure that everything was good. So then, when it finally came down to signing the final papers and getting this tenant in there, the Archdiocese said that we couldn’t rent the place to another school that would compete with Catholic schools or would go against Catholic doctrine,” Hill said.
McClenahan, on the other hand, sees the closures as a necessity to keep parishes full and prosperous. “Seven percent of Catholic parishes have closed across the U.S. in the past decade, and there’s just a drop of participation and engagement,” she said. “In South Seattle specifically, we have a high concentration of parishes within a mile of each other and overall, not necessarily enough resources of all kinds.” McClenahan said St. Mary’s parishioner base has declined over the last 20 years.
McClenahan also noted that it takes a lot of money to keep old churches operating and that churches are falling into disrepair. The Holy Rosary in Tacoma had a partial ceiling collapse, needing an estimated $18 million to make structural and roof repairs.
“There are certainly a number of parishes around the Archdiocese that have had property that they’ve sold off because they said ‘We are a church; we are not a landlord.’ So in certain cases, they’re getting rid of those properties because it’s not helping them serve the mission,” McClenahan said.
The development of the area around St. Mary’s Church and the school have made property values very high. According to Redfin, the property used for the food distribution center alone is estimated at $1.6 million.
In an email to Real Change, McClenahan stated there is no specific time frame as to when St. Mary’s will be closing; she said that will be one of the discussion points for the two stakeholder groups when they start working together. “All of the pastoral leaders at all parishes change on July 1 of each year so that could be a potential time for a change next year.” McClenahan also wrote that “it would be incorrect to automatically assume the building will be sold, although that may be an outcome.”
For the time being, the food bank will stay where it is and continue to distribute close to three million pounds of food a year to families in need in central Seattle.
Samira George covers real people living real lives in the Puget Sound. Follow her on Twitter @samirakgeorge.
Read more of the Aug. 11-17, 2021 issue.