Parish’s new totem poles depict region’s Native, Catholic history

  • Written by Louis McGill
  • Published in Local
The original fireplace was part of the Totem Room at the New Washington Hotel, now the location of Christ Our Hope Parish in downtown Seattle. The restored fireplace, now in a parish meeting space, is flanked by totem poles that reflect the area’s Native American and Catholic history. Photo: Courtesy Christ Our Hope Parish The original fireplace was part of the Totem Room at the New Washington Hotel, now the location of Christ Our Hope Parish in downtown Seattle. The restored fireplace, now in a parish meeting space, is flanked by totem poles that reflect the area’s Native American and Catholic history. Photo: Courtesy Christ Our Hope Parish

SEATTLE Long before the Josephinum building in downtown Seattle became home to Christ Our Hope Parish, it was the city's grandest hotel. Now a piece of that hotel’s former glory — a fireplace flanked with totem poles — has been restored as part of the parish’s office and meeting space.

This time, though, parish leaders decided the totem poles should reflect the local history of both the Native American people and the Catholic Church.

“We wanted to make it our own story,” said Father Paul Magnano, pastor of Christ Our Hope.

Finding the long-abandoned firebox and chimney during the renovation process became “an opportunity to reflect on the history of the church in the Puget Sound area,” said parishioner Pete Mills, a member of the pastoral council.

The new totems, carved from 11-foot-tall red cedar logs, include images of Chief Seattle, the Duwamish tribal leader who became Catholic, and his daughter, Princess Angeline. Other carvings include key Catholic leaders, including Father Francis Xavier Prefontaine, a missionary who became pastor of the first Catholic church in Seattle.

A nun in a black habit represents both Mother Joseph, a Providence sister who built 29 schools and hospitals in the Washington Territory, and St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, a Missionary Sister of the Sacred Heart who founded orphanages, schools and hospitals in Seattle. Near the top of one pole sits Pope Francis, with a dove representing the Holy Spirit above him. On the opposite pole, grapes and wheat represent the Eucharist.

totem fireplaceTlingit artist Odin Lonning, foreground, gets help installing one of totem poles he carved for Christ Our Hope Parish in downtown Seattle. Assisting him are Richard McAdams, left, Dave Kirkendall and Deacon David Olsen. Photo: Courtesy Stephen Lee

Interspersed with the human images are carvings of an eagle, whales, salmon, a wolf and a raven with a moon.

The parish used a historical photo from the heyday of the New Washington Hotel as a guide in the restoration. The original fireplace included an image of Mount Rainier in tilework over the mantel. The restored fireplace features a new tile depiction of Rainier, the handiwork of Mimi Miles, the sculptor who crafted the statues of the four evangelists that will adorn the building’s exterior (the statue of John has already been installed).

To create the new totems, the parish commissioned Tlingit artist Odin Lonning of Vashon Island. Lonning said he was interested in the project because the parish wanted to blend native and European imagery.

The original totem poles were meaningless, Lonning said, and likely made by a non-native artist. The new poles, however, are packed with meaning. It took Lonning nine months to design and complete the carvings, which reflect West Coast native art styles, including Coast Salish and Tlingit.

“Once you know the symbols and visual puns” of the style, Lonning noted, “you can say quite a lot.”

The building is listed in the National Registry of Historic Places. The fireplace project, funded by individual donations and the parish’s rebate from the Annual Catholic Appeal, is part of Christ Our Hope’s efforts to rejuvenate the historic property.

“We’re restoring the elegance and history of this building,” Father Magnano said.