From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Pullman parish extends warm welcome through parishioners and cat alike

by Bonita Lawhead, Inland Register staff

(From the March 22, 2001 edition of the Inland Register)

A large, attractive sign stands in front of Sacred Heart Parish in Pullman, replacing the smaller one that had been attached to the building. Since it is bigger and closer to the street, the sign is easily read by anyone driving by, especially those looking for the Catholic Church.

Pullman is home to Washington State University, which has over 17,000 students, plus faculty. The parish congregation reflects their presence with a large turnover of people each year. So parishioners and their pastor, Father Edgar Borchardt, have put a special emphasis on making their parish inviting and welcoming. Hospitality is extremely important in a university city where people make a temporary home while they attend school.

Like most Catholic parishes in the first days of Washington Territory, priests traveled to serve Catholic settlers. Among those early Pullman-area pioneers were Thomas and Margaret Savage. The couple arrived in 1878 to settle on land near the fledgling community. Margaret was already a devout Catholic (Thomas later converted) and they opened their home for Mass every five weeks.

Washington State University was started in 1890. In 1903 Father Brucker, who was pastor at Rosalia, bought the Christian Church on State Street, across from the former Gladish High School, and it was used for Masses once a month. Later, under Father V.W. Fitzgerald, Mass was celebrated twice a month.

The first resident pastor was Father E. Frederick, who came in 1913 to serve not only Pullman but Palouse. Father Frederick organized a student group with 45 Catholic young people, but his successor in 1916, Father M.P. Shiel, is credited with starting the Newman student club at the university.

Father Carl Phillip was next in line. He arrived in 1920, and is the pastor who saw the need for “a more adequate space and more convenient location.” Under his direction, the parish’s approximately 200 families raised the money to buy the property and build the elegant brick church still in use. Father Phillip had to resign in 1933 because of ill health, however, and was not able to oversee construction.

Father Oakley O’Connor succeeded him and the correspondence between him, Bishop Charles D. White, and architect John Maloney in Yakima was voluminous regarding the church’s design and construction. (This is the same Father O’Connor — later named a monsignor — who built St. Charles Church in Spokane in 1950.)

The church is an English Tudor-style building, located at the corner of Maple and Ash in a quiet neighborhood on Pullman’s north side. A Sacred Heart statue is visible in a corner niche in the exterior brick above the side entry door.

The walls inside the church are brick, except the back wall, which is knotty pine. Dark open wooden beams criss-cross the white ceiling. There are leaded windows with gold panes and hanging lamps that look like lanterns.

The stations of the cross were carved in the 1930s by Betty Whiteman Feves, an art student at WSU. She also carved the crucifix in the sanctuary. Jim Boesel of Palouse carved the maple statue of the Holy Family in the 1970s.

When the church was built in 1935, it cost $18,475, and the property on which it was built cost $8,700. Bishop White dedicated the new church May 24, 1936.

The congregation continued to grow and by the 1950s, had outgrown church space. Catholic students at WSU attended Mass at Sacred Heart, since they had no separate St. Thomas More Newman Center Chapel until the 1960s.

To try to meet needs for space, a brick addition, “the annext,” was built on the northeast corner of the church to make an “L” shape building at a cost of $33,000. So far, the space is equal to the need of the parish’s 425 families.

In the late 1970s, when Father Severyn Westbrook was pastor, a new social hall was built. This was connected to the south side of the annex. The former social hall in the basement of the church was renovated into classrooms.

Also during Father Westbrook’s time, a window made by Spokane artist Harold Balasz was installed in the choir loft. The glass in the window is gold, matching the windows in the nave. An attractive courtyard in the center of the church complex, built when Father Tom Caswell was pastor in the 1980s, allows additional space for parishioners to linger after Mass or other social events during sunny weather to visit and get better acquainted.

Among the projects the parish has done recently to make the buildings more inviting include the sign, which was installed about a year ago; additional lights in the church, which are unobtrusive and do not detract from the lanterns; new tile in the entryway; and new painting and carpet in the parish office.

A parish is more than its buildings, however attractively designed. Sacred Heart has a full complement of activities, ranging from religious education to Lenten services to social justice events to weekly coffee hours.

But the emphasis on hospitality as envisioned by the parish is new.

Father Edgar Borchardt was considering the idea of a ministry of hospitality when parishioner Mary Johnson came along looking for a project for her master’s degree in pastoral ministry. Most parishes have greeters and newcomer welcome events, but Sacred Heart is one of the first to recognize hospitality as a special ministry. Johnson serves part-time in the post, and her duties include arranging “Welcome Home” sessions for inactive Catholics and hand-addressing bulletins mailed to newcomers. She has a crew to help her in late summer when students and faculty arrive for the new school year.

Parishioners, old-timers as well as newcomers, including one who is not yet Roman Catholic, agree that hospitality is important.

“We have lots of new faces,” said Rita Swindal, who has been a parishioner for 50 years. “Father Borchardt has us greet each other right before Mass starts, which helps foster the idea that ... no matter where people are from, they are welcome.”

She also commented on the many people of other cultures, usually WSU students, who attend Mass at Sacred Heart. “It’s really unique,” she said. “We have people from everywhere.”

Greg and Diane Schmiesing came to Pullman recently from Newport, Wash. Greg hopes to attend WSU’s veterinary school. “We moved on Saturday,” Diane Schiesming said, “and at Mass the next day, a couple of people at church picked us out as new. We felt very welcome.” She also praised the reverent spirit of the congregation. “We really appreciate that.”

Another attribute parishioners talked about was the small-town attitude of everyone getting to know almost everyone else. “To a lot of people our parish feels like family,” said life-long member Norma Ellsworth. She edited the parish bulletin for many years and is still involved with the parish altar society. She explained the parish “Dinners for Eight,” which is a way for parishioners who sign up to become acquainted. They are assigned to groups of eight, and from September toMarch, they take turns hosting a potluck meal.

Gena Diltz will become a Catholic at the Easter Vigil Mass. She is also a student at WSU, where she is studying for a master’s degree. She said she had not been in a church for 30 years and found a nurturing, welcoming spirit in her new parish. She came under Johnson’s purview in the RCIA program and said she has been blessed by how she has been received.

Another way of welcome, especially useful in a campus community, is providing parish information on the internet. Sacred Heart is one of the few parishes in the diocese to have its own web site. A colorful photo of the church sign with several young people posed around it greets visitors to the site. Information includes Mass times, the names and phone numbers of parish staff and committee members and links to other Catholic sites. The weekly bulletin is also posted, along with the parish council minutes, helping the technically savvy to stay current on church happenings.

On occasion the parish cat is the first to greet visitors, and she sits calmly on the porch of the office, waiting for them to come up the stairs and give her a pet. While one might think the cat, named Blair, is there expressly to welcome them, what Blair actually wants is inside the door. As Father Borchardt put it: “Happiness for this cat is being on the other side of any closed door.”

But the welcome by Blair and Father Borchardt is cordial, and parish doors open even more readily for people than they do for the cat. In that can be found the parish’s greatest strengths: people welcoming and caring for each other, even those only in the parish for a short time; its lay involvement; its sense of lay ownership.

Sacred Heart Parish history highlights
  • In 1926, Father Carl Phillip joined with the Protestant ministers in Pullman to organize what a newspaper reporter called “a spiritual chamber of commerce, to work for the spiritual harmony of all.” Also joining in the organizing efforts were representatives of every fraternity on the WSU campus, the president of the student body, the secretary of the YMCA, and a delegate from the student interchurch organization. The article also included a comment by one participant who questioned whether such a meeting “could be held in any other town the size of Pullman in the Northwest.”
  • Bishop William Skylstad began his priestly ministry in Pullman. He was assigned there as an assistant pastor after his ordination in 1960. He served from 1960 until 1961.
  • The St. Thomas More student chapel is the former Greystone Presbyterian Church, which was purchased in the 1960s. The church was remodeled over a period of years and dedicated in 1980. Father Thomas Mele is the Newman Center’s present chaplain.
  • The parish tithes 10 percent of its income. The Caritas Committee decides where the money will be distributed. Fifty percent of the money remains in Washington state and the rest is donated to national and international charities.

Inland Register archives

© The Roman Catholic Diocese of Spokane. All Rights Reserved