Tacoma’s Holy Rosary Parish celebrates 125 years

  • Written by Michelle Bruno
  • Published in Local
A line of altar boys lead a procession to Holy Rosary Church on the occasion of its golden jubilee on Oct. 19, 1941. Seattle Bishop Gerald Shaughnessy is near the rear of the procession. Photo: Courtesy Holy Rosary Parish A line of altar boys lead a procession to Holy Rosary Church on the occasion of its golden jubilee on Oct. 19, 1941. Seattle Bishop Gerald Shaughnessy is near the rear of the procession. Photo: Courtesy Holy Rosary Parish

TACOMA – In 1891, many German Catholics in Tacoma wanted to hear homilies preached in their native language. Banding together, they raised funds to buy land and build a church. Then they appealed to their bishop for a German-speaking Benedictine priest. 

On July 16, 1891, Benedictine Father William Eversmann arrived in Tacoma; three days later, he offered the inaugural Mass in the newly completed wooden church, according to Archdiocese of Seattle archives. Father Eversmann was the first of nine Benedictine pastors that served Holy Rosary Parish for more than 100 years.

Now marking its 125th anniversary, the parish has a lot to celebrate: It has survived wars, recessions, epidemics and urban growth — including Interstate 5 being built through the parish property in the 1960s. According to a parish history, Holy Rosary has supported its parish school and five mission churches, given birth to two other parishes and fostered many religious vocations, including two men who became Holy Rosary pastors.

The parish has also expanded well beyond its German-speaking roots. Today, Holy Rosary is ethnically diverse and includes a Vietnamese community assisted by six Vietnamese sisters who live in the parish rectory. Father Nicholas Wichert, who has been pastor since September 2015, described his parishioners as “faithful, committed Catholics who love the church” and help the needy.

Oldest operating Catholic school

Holy Rosary’s school also had humble beginnings in 1891 — in the choir loft of the church, with a dozen students taught by the church organist, according to the archdiocesan archives. Benedictine sisters soon arrived to teach at what was Tacoma’s first parochial school.

Holy Rosary Church
Holy Rosary’s Gothic Revival-style church was completed in 1921, after the original wood church was outgrown and condemned. The church spire is visible from Interstate 5 in Tacoma. Photo: Courtesy Holy Rosary Parish

Now Holy Rosary Regional School/Juan Diego Academy, the oldest operating Catholic school in the state, provides bilingual education for its students. Since the program began five years ago, enrollment has surged to just over 200 students. 

“The Fulcrum Foundation has been a huge part of our success,” Principal Katie Dempsey said, referring to the archdiocese’s Catholic education foundation. Fulcrum not only helps with the additional cost of providing curriculum materials in English and Spanish, she said, but it also helps “fill the gap in tuition assistance.”

The parish is also key to the school’s success, according to Father Wichert. Holy Rosary “is very committed to offering an education to everyone,” he said. “Everybody pays something, but we work with them to fundraise the full amount, and subsidize grants for families who otherwise couldn’t afford it,” he explained.

‘The mother church’

Holy Rosary interior
Francis Xavier Schaupp and Magdalene Leibenger were the first couple married at Holy Rosary Church. Their wedding on Oct. 29, 1891, began four generations of family history at the Tacoma parish. Photo: Courtesy Michael Barclay

A few years after Father Eversmann arrived from St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota, the Minnesota Benedictines sent enough monks to start a new monastery and school, St. Martin’s Abbey in Lacey, according to a history of the abbey. This led the local Benedictines to refer to Holy Rosary as “the mother church,” according to the parish history.

Twenty years after Holy Rosary was founded, two significant things occurred: It had grown so large that it was split to form another parish, Sacred Heart, and it began printing its bulletin in English (although sermons were still in German). During World War I, some people felt using German was unpatriotic, and by 1918, preaching in German occurred only at Holy Rosary’s Friday Masses, according to the parish history. 

But the German-speaking abilities of an assistant pastor, Benedictine Father Anselm Lenzlinger, were called into play during World War II. Every Monday, Father Lenzlinger celebrated Mass in the stockade at Fort Lewis, where several thousand German-speaking prisoners were being held.

Over the years, Holy Rosary supported mission churches in Spanaway, Steilacoom and Shelton, and continued growth led to the creation of yet another parish, St. Ann, in 1924.

Passing it to the next generation

When Michael Barclay moved to the Tacoma area 15 years ago, it was natural for him to join Holy Rosary Parish: His family has four generations of history in the parish. 

Barclay’s great-grandparents, Francis Xavier Schaupp and Magdalene Leibenger, were the first couple married at Holy Rosary, on Oct. 29, 1891. His grandmother graduated from the parish school in 1916, his maternal grandparents were married at the church, his mother was baptized there and his parents renewed their 50th wedding anniversary vows at Holy Rosary. 

“It’s like coming home,” said Barclay, who serves as president of Holy Rosary’s pastoral council. “To be there is so important to me; I can’t really go anywhere else.”

Barclay reflected on the Catholics who came before him at Holy Rosary, and its parishioners of the future.

“It’s wonderful to be able to honor what they gave to establish the church,” he said, “and to do my part to keep it going for the next generation.”

Holy Rosary interior
The same blue used for the interior of the original Holy Rosary Church is seen in the Gothic Revival church built to replace it in 1921. Many of the stained-glass windows are connected to the parish’s German and Benedictine roots. The windows traveled by ship from Belgium and around Cape Horn to reach Tacoma. Photo: Courtesy Holy Rosary Parish

Celebrate 125 years with Holy Rosary

Holy Rosary Parish marks its 125th anniversary with a Mass at noon Oct. 16, celebrated by Bishop Eusebio Elizondo. Concelebrants include Father Nicholas Wichert, Holy Rosary’s pastor, as well as former pastors and Benedictine priests from St. Martin’s Abbey in Lacey. The church is located at 424 S. 30th St., Tacoma. 

After Mass, a potluck lunch will be served in the school auditorium. Families are encouraged to bring a favorite ethnic dish. The parish will provide chicken, cake and beverages.

The parish’s anniversary committee is compiling an anniversary book that will include a parish history, photos and parishioners’ memories. The book, expected to be completed by December, is a fundraiser for the church’s restoration fund. Look for details on the parish website.