St. Martin of Tours Parish marks 75 years, commemorates Japanese internment

  • Written by Michelle Bruno
  • Published in Local
Father Michael Radermacher, pastor of St. Martin of Tours Parish in Fife, blesses the cross he made to commemorate the parish’s 75th anniversary. He made the cross with wood from two historic school benches; the vertical member was part of a bench from the Japanese language school that became the first location of the parish. Photo: Courtesy St. Martin of Tours Parish Father Michael Radermacher, pastor of St. Martin of Tours Parish in Fife, blesses the cross he made to commemorate the parish’s 75th anniversary. He made the cross with wood from two historic school benches; the vertical member was part of a bench from the Japanese language school that became the first location of the parish. Photo: Courtesy St. Martin of Tours Parish

FIFE – Students rang the bell of St. Martin of Tours Church 75 times the morning of May 3, then again that evening — bookends to a celebration connecting the parish to its beginnings 75 years ago.

That was the spring of 1942, when the Japanese language school in Fife stood empty. The young students, who normally filled the classrooms weekday afternoons to learn the Japanese language and culture, had been sent with their families to an internment camp under federal Executive Order 9066.

In the meantime, local Catholics had been without a church since the 1936 closure of St. George’s Indian Industrial School, which included a chapel (see box). According to archdiocesan archives, many of the area faithful were not able to attend Mass in either Puyallup or Tacoma, so the diocese set out to form a new parish in Fife. 

Tragedy gave way to opportunity when the Japanese community offered to rent the empty school indefinitely for $15 a month. Pews and other furnishings were brought to the school from the old St. George Mission chapel, and the first Mass of the new St. Martin of Tours Parish was celebrated on May 3, 1942.

“The ultimate sacrifice was Christ on the cross, but the sacrifice of the Japanese became a great blessing for the Catholics of the area,” said Father Michael Radermacher, pastor of St. Martin’s.

St. Martin of Tours anniversary event
Parishioners of St. Martin of Tours in Fife gather outside their church as their pastor, Father Michael Radermacher, blesses a new cornerstone encasement at the end of an all-day 75th anniversary celebration May 3. Photo: Courtesy St. Martin of Tours Parish

Putting the puzzle together

While most people knew the bigger picture of St. Martin’s history, more details came to light during the anniversary planning. As the parish cleaned things out, historical items were found.

“People generally were not aware certain things were preserved,” said Terri Nido, pastoral assistant for faith formation. By looking at old photos, the planning committee was able to determine when and why something was used. “All of a sudden it’s like a puzzle; we could see the pieces, and in putting them together, had an understanding of how the church came together,” Nido said. 

One of those found items was an old bench from the Japanese school. Father Radermacher, who was a carpenter for almost two decades before entering the priesthood, naturally thought of a good use for it. 

He crafted a cross, using wood from the bench for the vertical piece. He made the cross members from another school bench, taken from the now-closed Providence Academy, built by Mother Joseph, in Vancouver. (Father Radermacher acquired the bench when he was pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes in Vancouver.) The cross, which he blessed during the anniversary celebration, now hangs in the Fife campus of All Saints School.

Also discovered was a 1947 coin, minted to commemorate installation of the cornerstone for the new St. Martin of Tours Church. Nido said it inspired members of the planning committee to create a 75th anniversary coin with images of the church on the front and its patron saint on the back. Nearly 500 coins have been sold, with proceeds paying for a new granite face to cover the old cornerstone, whose inscription was so weathered it was barely legible. 

replica Camp Harmony
In just one day, Father Michael Radermacher, left, and his father Eugene built a replica of a Japanese internment camp at the Fife campus of All Saints School. A few weeks later, it was dismantled and rebuilt at the school’s Puyallup campus. Photo: Courtesy St. Martin of Tours Parish

Immersing students in the internment

St. Martin’s got its name from its first pastor, Father William Quick, who named the new parish after his home parish in Philadelphia, according to a history on the St. Martin of Tours website.

After nearly six years of Masses celebrated in former Japanese school, the new church was dedicated Feb. 22, 1948. Since its founding, the parish has grown from fewer than 50 families to nearly 500 households today.

In 1993, the school building that had once held faith formation classes became the Fife campus of All Saints School. Today, it serves students in preschool through second grade; grades 3-8 are served at the main campus at All Saints Parish in Puyallup (where Father Radermacher is also pastor). 

The entire student body participated in the anniversary celebration by attending the morning Mass on May 3 and producing artwork for a commemorative banner.

Along with St. Martin’s faith formation students, they learned about the Japanese internment, getting a hands-on understanding through a half-size replica of internment camp living quarters built by Father Radermacher and his father.

The pastor designed the replica to demonstrate the living conditions of Japanese-American internees at the Puyallup Assembly Center, also known as Camp Harmony. Parents and parishioners helped furnish the quarters with items like World War II-era blankets and trunks, said Debbie Morgan, administrative assistant of the school’s Fife campus. She said Father Radermacher even fashioned a believable wood stove out of an old garbage can. 

“I wanted the kids to have an immersion-type of experience to understand the hardship,” Father Radermacher said, “so they could see what it was like to live in a space with only what you could carry.”

Each class of All Saints School took a tour of the sparse quarters, Morgan said. Students saw that Japanese families had to live in a space that was 20 feet by 24 feet, with gaps between the wall boards and a single light bulb for illumination.

To further understand the reality of internment, students from All Saints and the faith formation program were divided into groups: One group imagined being teenage internees, the other friends or teachers from outside the camp. The first group wrote letters describing what life was like inside the camp, and the second group wrote about what life in the community was like without them.

“It was surprising for some of the kids,” said Nido, the pastoral assistant. 

St. George’s Indian Industrial School

St. George’s Indian Industrial School was established in 1888 by Father Peter Hylebos, according to an Archdiocese of Seattle timeline. Most of the funding came from St. Katharine Drexel.

A chapel was built on the site in 1904, and local Catholics attended Mass there until the school closed in 1936. The land was dedicated as Gethsemane Cemetery in 1975. Signs at the cemetery mark where the school buildings used to stand.