Future of iconic Holy Rosary Church and its parish community being discerned

A chain-link fence surrounds Tacoma’s iconic Holy Rosary Church. In November, it was decided to close the church building because the danger of falling debris made it unsafe to enter. Photo: Courtesy Holy Rosary Parish A chain-link fence surrounds Tacoma’s iconic Holy Rosary Church. In November, it was decided to close the church building because the danger of falling debris made it unsafe to enter. Photo: Courtesy Holy Rosary Parish

TACOMA – After pieces of the ceiling fell at Holy Rosary Church last fall, work began to assess the condition and safety of the iconic building near Interstate 5.

In a letter distributed to parishioners March 23–24, Archbishop J. Peter Sartain called it “an all-hands-on-deck response of parish leadership, Pierce County deanery leaders and archdiocesan staff.”

The assessment led to an awareness of “current challenges to the vitality of your parish, including the inability of the parish to cover the cost of day-to-day operations,” Archbishop Sartain wrote.

“These realities make the situation much more than a matter of raising funds to stabilize and repair a building; in reality, they present an important opportunity to discern where you are as a parish,” the archbishop said.

Deacon Jim Fish
Deacon Jim Fish

He laid out a plan for the parish: During April, Holy Rosary’s pastoral coordinator, Deacon Jim Fish, will meet weekly with archdiocesan staff, then meet regularly with Holy Rosary’s parish and finance councils. They will review information about the building’s condition, explore options and evaluate groups that are offering financial assistance for the building, the archbishop explained.

At the end of April Deacon Fish, the councils and archdiocesan representatives will meet to formulate “feasible options for the long-term future of the building and parish,” information that will be presented at a parish-wide informational meeting on May 15.

The archbishop noted this has been a difficult time for the parish community and assured them of his prayers, support and deep concern.

Long history of water issues

The problems with the church are greater than some pieces of ceiling that fell back in October, Deacon Fish said. The building has a history of water issues including a variety of leaks, plaster falling off the walls of the stairwells, flooding in the steeple that has been repaired twice, and brickwork that needs repair or replacement and doesn’t meet today’s seismic standards.

“We can’t use the downstairs because it flooded twice,” Deacon Fish said, so Holy Rosary has no parish hall space.

When a team of experts examined the building, they found “the entire roof was compromised in numerous areas,” Deacon Fish said. The roof is 28 years old and overlays an asbestos roof, which has resulted in significant water damage.

According to the archdiocese, initial repair estimates by engineers exceed $10 million.

In November, it was decided to close the church building because the danger of falling debris made it unsafe to enter. The archdiocese paid to have a chain-link fence erected around the church, Deacon Fish said.

Since then, most Sunday Masses have been celebrated in the auditorium at Holy Rosary Bilingual Academy on the parish campus.

Changing demographics

Holy Rosary Parish has about 296 registered households, with about 200 people attending Mass each weekend, Deacon Fish said.

This is the same faith community whose priest administrator, Father Michael Wagner, died last May after collapsing during Mass, having suffered an inoperable brain hemorrhage.

So the problems with their beloved church building and parish finances (the parish is dipping into savings to pay current expenses) have been “a real hardship for the parishioners,” Deacon Fish said. “It’s really challenged them to their core.”

Although the archdiocese paid for the costs of the safety assessment and the fencing, Holy Rosary Parish is responsible for repair expenses.

“The church repair is beyond us,” Deacon Fish said. “We don’t even have the money to reoccupy the building.”

As Archbishop Sartain noted in his letter, Holy Rosary, like many other parishes, is confronted with “a dramatically changing demographic in the area it serves,” a reality rooted in shifting economic and sociological conditions. “These factors may also be why the regular income of the parish does not make ends meet and has not done so for a long time.”

In early March, Deacon Fish spoke to parishioners about hope during a Mass in the school auditorium.

“My hope is in you,” he told them. “I know that God is with us. He is calling us to be with each other, to be people of prayer and people of action/responsibility. Our hope is in the opportunity we’ve been extended” to show that “we want to be a viable parish.”

He asked each parishioner to commit to giving more financially and reminded them that “a church is not a building, it’s a group of people committed to Christ Jesus … open to prayer and worship in any space — even this auditorium.”