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

St. Mary Parish has largest population in Spokane area

by Bonita Lawhead, Inland Register

(From the Dec. 20, 2001 edition of the Inland Register)

The office at St. Mary Parish in the Spokane Valley is a busy place. The phones ring, the copy machine gets a workout and people come and go. Father Steve Dublinsky, pastor, passes through, as does Father Tom Connolly, the parochial vicar. Several other people with various kinds of business are part of the flow. The activity is not surprising for the second largest parish in the Spokane Diocese, in terms of families registered.

The title of largest parish goes to St. Patrick Parish in Pasco, with 2,575 families registered. According to the latest diocesan directory, St. Mary has 1,745 families, making it the largest of the parishes in the immediate Spokane area.

The Jesuits who served in the Pacific Northwest in the 1800s are the ones responsible for bringing St. Mary into existence. In the beginning they offered Mass in private homes in the area. Before long, though, the number of people attending grew to be too many to fit in a house. A church in the Valley was definitely needed.

The Jesuits built St. Joseph Church on the north side of the Spokane River to accommodate the increasing number of Catholics in the Valley. But as more and more people built their homes on the south side of the river, the Jesuits realized it would be a good idea to build a church there, too.

Property was needed for the proposed church and Jesuit Father A.F. Ruppert of Gonzaga College purchased land in the Valley that later became the corner of Fourth and Adams. He also directed construction of the white wooden church which was dedicated to Mary, the mother of God. The church, which could seat 175-200 people, was used for 47 years.

Father Ruppert offered the first Mass there June 22, 1913, the year before the Spokane area became a diocese. In turn, St. Joseph Church became a mission of St. Mary.

Bishop Edward O’Dea of Seattle blessed the building later that same month. He noted that the territory was growing rapidly, and made St. Mary a parish not many months later. The first pastor was Father (later Monsignor) Henry Deichmann, who served the parish 17 years.

The Spokane Valley area continued its phenomenal growth and the parish outgrew its second church. In 1958, with their pastor, Father Joseph Brunner, parishioners collaborated on an ambitious construction plan for a new parish plant. What they envisioned was a school, a convent, a hall, a rectory with offices, and a church, to be built in stages over the next 10 years.

The school was built first, followed by the convent. Work began on the parish hall in 1960 and when it was finished, the parish used it for Sunday Masses until 1973 when the new church was finished and ready for occupancy. Father Walter Abel, who became pastor in 1972, guided the church’s construction. The church was dedicated at the end of May, 1973, by Bishop Bernard Topel.

The old church, judged to be unsafe, had been torn down in 1972 to make room for the new building. The entrance doors from the much-beloved old church became part of the new church’s gathering space. According to a Spokane Chronicle news clipping dated May 19, 1973, the old altar was donated to the Spokane Valley Pioneer Museum.

Volunteers played an important role in construction of all the parish buildings. Inland Register newspaper clippings from that time tell over and over of the many volunteers – over 150 men on the school project – who saved the parish thousands of dollars in construction costs.

Father Brunner was pre-eminent among the volunteers; as long as he was pastor, he helped with the work. In grateful remembrance, the parish dedicated their new hall to him. A parish history book compiled for the 75th jubilee in 1988 was also dedicated to him. He also served 17 years in the parish.

In 1995 the parish undertook a renovation of the church, adding a large gathering space on the south side, changing the baptismal font to a baptismal pool, and adding several rooms, including a kitchen, library, and family room. The space gained allowed for additional seating in the church nave. The Celtic cross designed and built by Spokane artist Harold Balazs was moved from the church entrance and placed near the walkway for the parking lot.

St. Mary Church is a thoughtfully designed worship space, one that fosters full participation by the congregation. Pews are arranged in a fan-shape around the altar, and auditorium seating allows an unobstructed view. The focal point is the white altar and reredos designed and executed by artist Balazs in a pumice and concrete mixture. In the reredos is a stylized design that depicts the risen Christ.

The candle stands and lecterns are made of the same material, to unify the sanctuary’s furnishings. A separate chapel, open 24 hours a day, houses the Blessed Sacrament tabernacle.

The most recent parish addition is a small prayer garden and fountain next to the parish center that includes a statue of the Blessed Mother and St. Francis of Assisi.

Because of its size, St. Mary Parish works hard at building community. Small church communities meet regularly and there are several groups to accommodate parishioner needs no matter what age or purpose. A few:

  • The M&Ms, which is Moms and More, a support and service group for mothers.
  • The Phoenix Club, for senior citizens.
  • The Knights of Columbus, for the men.
  • A home prayer ministry.
The school is an important component of parish life, and parents are very committed to school activities. Students number 256, from preschool through eighth grade.

Ministry extends far beyond parish borders, though. St. Mary Parish has paired up in sister relationships with Guatemala and with St. Joseph Parish on Dean in Spokane. It is part of the Interfaith Hospitality Network, hosting homeless families in need on a rotating basis during the year. It has entered into a tri-church covenant with St. Stephen Episcopal Church and Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in the Valley, sharing socials, prayer services and community service. Many parishioners are involved with the Valley Center which helps lower income people.

Two deacons are assigned to the parish: Deacon Richard Malone and Deacon Cary Heath. Pastoral minister is Arva French.

A random and admittedly small sampling of parishioners shows great devotion to the parish.

“We’re very warm and welcoming,” said Dorothy Graham. “When someone is new, the parish reaches out its arms to welcome them.” She said the parish’s greatest strength lies in the parish’s “tremendous care for each other.”

Celia Larkin, who recalled being welcomed by Dorothy Graham when she moved into the parish in 1962, says much the same. “I love that parish. It’s so friendly.” She praised the parish’s strong leadership in the pastors that have been assigned to St. Mary.

Larkin also remembered Masses in the parish hall, with folding chairs and the sometimes precarious kneelers. “You had to be careful to make sure someone was on the other end,” she said, “or they would fly up.”

At six years as parishioners, Steve and Marlo Anderson are relative newcomers. The couple has three young children. Marlo said the parish’s greatest strength is the families “who are young and excited about their church community. We’re happy to be part of the parish.”

Betty Newstrom has been a member of the parish since 1972. What she sees is that community can happen in a large parish.

“We have friends we made years ago when our kids were in school together. It is possible to get to know and be supported by a group of families,” she said. Despite size, “there really can be a sense of community and connectedness.”

Said long-time parishioner Rosemarie Romain, an unabashed parish supporter: “It’s a beautiful church with beautiful people and we work together.”


Historical notes for St. Mary Parish, Spokane

  • The first pastor, Msgr. Henry Deichmann, was the first priest in the Spokane Diocese to be named a monsignor. He received the honor in 1924. He resigned the pastorate at St. Mary Parish in 1930 because of ill health.
  • Father John Condon from St. Ann Parish was the first priest ordained, in 1924, in the newly-formed Diocese of Spokane. He was assigned to St. Mary in 1934 and died of a heart attack in 1935.
  • St. Mary’s second pastor, Father Anthony Dosch, who served from 1930-1934, was known as the safe-cracking priest. It seems Father Dosch had an acute sense of hearing and extra nimble fingers. So when entry was needed into a safe, Father Dosch would be called, usually by the police department. After his death his safe-cracking tools found a home in the diocesan archives.
    Father Dosch, who was very devoted to St. Christopher, built a shrine to the saint at the church. He started a custom of blessing the cars traveling to and from Liberty Lake, which became so popular cars were often lined up from the church clear to Sprague Avenue.
  • That spirit of blessing travelers continues in the blessing of the feet of Bloomsday runners at parish Masses the first weekend of May. The parish also holds a blessing of animals near the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, Oct. 4.
  • Father Murtaugh Shiel, from Ireland, served as pastor the longest, from 1935 to 1956. The parish history states that he had “a brogue thick enough to cut.”

    Inland Register archives

    © The Roman Catholic Diocese of Spokane. All Rights Reserved