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

Rural parishes find unique sources of community strength, despite distance

by Bonita Lawhead, Inland Register staff

(From the Dec. 6, 2001 edition of the Inland Register)

Father James McGreevy is pastor of four parishes. He serves Catholics in the communities of Sprague, Ritzville, Washtucna and Lind.

Three of Father McGreevy’s four parishes, Lind, Washtucna and Ritzville, are in Adams County; Sprague is in Lincoln County. The four towns are located in the south central part of the state, an area formed geologically by volcanoes, floods and erosion. A loop between the four communities is a drive of about 120 miles. He said he travels from 200-300 miles a week serving parish needs.

Mary Queen of Heaven Church at Sprague with its 26 families is the oldest of the four parishes. It was founded in 1882. Its church, built in 1902 and listed on the National Historic Register, was the second of the diocese’s Jubilee pilgrimage churches. Its history was published in the Inland Register in February of last year.

St. Agnes Parish in Ritzville, with 40 families, originally was a mission of the Sprague church. St. Agnes did not have a resident priest until 1915. As years passed, parish boundaries changed and St. Agnes became the “mother parish.” Sprague was added to St. Agnes in 1982.

The first Ritzville church was a small building, constructed by volunteer labor in 1899 on “Nob Hill.” In 1904 a violent windstorm so severely damaged the church that it had to be torn down and replaced. The second church, a much larger structure built in the same location, was dedicated in 1908 and named for St. Agnes. In the intervening years, Catholics attended Mass at Ott’s Hall, which is now the Eagles’ hall.

Eventually, the congregation outgrew their church and a third church, the one currently in use, was built across town by the school in 1965. Father Walter Abel was pastor, and the architect was John P. O’Neill of Spokane. Bishop Bernard Topel dedicated the church May 9, 1965.

The church was built in an A-frame style and can seat 230 people. Perhaps the church’s most striking feature is a 27-foot stained glass window, designed in a geometric pattern of panels in white, blue and gold glass. Another is the exterior cross that stands just to the left and above the window.

The stained glass is beautiful from the outside, but from the inside, when the sun is shining, the window’s colors turn luminous —brilliant gold and blue. A dove, measuring six feet by eight feet, hangs over the altar, symbolizing the Holy Spirit. The rectory next door is where Father McGreevy hangs his hat and in the basement is St. Agnes’ parish hall.

Holy Trinity Church in Washtucna presently has 12 families. The church was built in 1967 at a cost of $43,000. Carroll Martell of Spokane was the architect and Father James Grant was pastor.

The building was the congregation’s first church. Up until that time Catholics had attended Mass in private homes and occasionally in the O.W.R.&N. Railroad Depot. Parishioners built a parish hall in 1964 and used it for Mass until the church was built three years later. Now the hall is multi-purpose, and during the week is used as Washtucna’s medical clinic.

The church building incorporates brick as a key design element and Providence literally brought the bricks to town. A truck loaded with thousands of dollars worth of bricks tipped over near town, losing its load. Holy Trinity benefited by being able to acquire $1,000 worth of the bricks. They were used to build the tower, on which hangs a cross, and also the back wall of the sanctuary, on which hangs a crucifix.

A unique feature of Holy Trinity Church is the ornately carved doors of the entrance. The sacristy is located to the right side of the church in the back, which is not usually the case with most Catholic churches built at that time.

St. Ambrose Parish in Lind counts 19 families. The parish was named for a Doctor of the Church.

The first St. Ambrose Church was built in 1928 when Father Lawrence Noldin was pastor. He started a fund drive to build the church in 1923. According to a newspaper clipping, this church had the distinction of being the smallest in the diocese.

The second St. Ambrose church, built of brick in 1954, when Father Charles Depiere was pastor, was designed by architect Carroll Martell of Spokane. Cost to build was $20,000.

A cross with intertwining circles around the arms stands at the peak of the church roof. An ornamental iron rendering of St. Ambrose, made by Spokane artist Harold Balasz, hangs over the entrance doors. The beautiful blue crucifix in the sanctuary, reflecting the crucifix of San Damiano, and the stations of the cross, were made of tile in Belgium. Parishioner Annie Smart made the metal processional crucifix.

About seven Hispanic families have increased the census at St. Ambrose. Providence played a part in providing for their spiritual needs since Father McGreevy spent several years in Guatemala and speaks fluent Spanish. Consequently his weekly Saturday night Masses at St. Ambrose are bilingual.

The two pastors who served the parish longest were Father Depiere, from 1941 to 1957, and Father Theodore Bradley, from 1977 to 1995. Father McGreevy replaced Father Bradley.

Activities in the three parishes are typical for rural parishes. Coffee hours, also known as “Doughnut Sundays,” are held regularly, and potlucks are popular events. Religious education classes are held each week with Father McGreevey and parishioners as teachers. Parishioners take care of church needs, doing cleaning and maintenance.

The four towns are small; Ritzville is the largest, with a population of 1,700. The communities’ demographics are changing as the economy, primarily agriculture, changes and residents move elsewhere.

In small parishes, everyone knows everyone and many parishioners are related. They usually see each other elsewhere during the week, which gives a deeper meaning to the words “parish family.”

Ecumenism takes on a different meaning, too, since everyone knows everyone else in their town as well as in the churches. Washtucna has a church directory which features photos and lists members of the town’s three churches. In Lind parishioner Annie Smart teaches an ecumenical youth group with up to 25 young people. In Ritzville St. Agnes Parish hosted a community Thanksgiving service, which are common in the diocese’s smaller towns.

Parishioners in small parishes say that their greatest strength is their community. But that also can be a hindrance, since that means people must do all the ministries. But the fact that parishioners carry on with them to the best of their ability shows their dedication and commitment. They have years of experience in living out their faith, and they will do what they can to keep it alive and hand it down to the next generation.

Parishes include expanse of Eastern Washington

A newspaper article dated Nov. 26, 1943, details St. Agnes’ title as the largest parish in the Spokane Diocese and one of the largest in the Northwest. It included four churches, parts of three counties, 13 towns, and 2,766 square miles. Among the communities served were Ritzville, Lind, Othello, Connell, where Mass was offered in a church rented from the Methodists, and Kahlotus, where Mass was offered in the Grange hall.

Father Depiere was pastor during that time. He made the rounds of his parish twice a month, traveling an average of 2,000 miles. He became known as “The Flying Padre,” since he had a pilot’s license and did some of his traveling by plane. He held four council meetings each year, rotating them “between the four church towns.”

The two bricklayers who worked on St. Agnes Church in 1965 were also pilots who commuted to Ritzville each day, bringing with them two hod carriers.

Father Bradley opened the Ritzville rectory to travelers stranded on Interstate 90 when Mount St. Helens erupted in May 1980. Among the guests were a family with nine children and a couple with a nine-day-old baby.

Father Walter Abel, pastor at Ritzville, conducted a survey among parishioners to find out that “Yes, we do read the Inland Register.” Twenty-nine of the 42 respondents read it regularly, and most liked the bishop’s column.

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