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

Italian roots evident for Walla Walla parish

by Bonita Lawhead, Inland Register staff

(From the April 11, 2002 edition of the Inland Register)

Bishop Augustine Schinner gets the credit for starting St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Walla Walla. The year was 1914, the year after the territory east of the Cascade Mountains became the Spokane Diocese. After a visit to the area, Bishop Schinner decided the Italians would receive “more adequate pastoral care” with their own church.

In the beginning St. Francis of Assisi was an Italian parish. A large number of Italians had settled in Walla Walla in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, becoming the valley’s prolific and successful commerical gardeners. The parish was named for the saint who was said to be especially venerated by Italians.

An Italian priest, Father Oscar Balducci, a well-educated man from Florence, Italy, was named pastor. He was also appointed chaplain at St. Mary Hospital. At first the hospital provided him with living quarters, since the parish did not have a priest’s residence until 1949. Later pastors lived at St. Patrick Parish until the St. Francis rectory was built.

Father Balducci was pastor the longest, serving St. Francis Parish 22 years, until his death in 1937.

It was Father Balducci who purchased the land at 722 Alder St. and guided construction of the new church. The building cost $1,700 and could seat 100 people. Bishop Schinner dedicated the church on All Saints’ Day, Nov. 1, 1915. The attendance count is uncertain, but parish families in those days numbered about 60 or so.

Those early parishioners were not wealthy. Long-time parishioner David Venneri recalled the nickels dropped in the collection plate each Sunday back then. “The real church support came,” he said, “with the pastor’s visits to bless parishioners’ homes at Easter. (The parishioners) would give a donation to the church and a glass of wine to the priest.”

Venneri also told about the division between southern and northern Italians, with each group sitting on a certain side in the church. “There was no socializing (between the two groups),” he said. The barrier finally broke down when children from the two groups intermarried. “These mixed marriages broke the ice,” he said.

Eventually there were more parishioners than space, which led to the second church building project.The late Msgr. Hugo Pautler, who was pastor at St. Francis from 1937-1942, built the second church, in 1939. It could seat about 250 people. Bishop Charles White dedicated the new church on Nov. 26, 1939. It is still in use today.

The church is a simple, unpretentious stucco building that seems totally in keeping with the spirit of the parish’s patron saint. New church doors were purchased and installed in December 1999. Over the doors is an old sign, bearing the Italian words Porta del cielo – “Door to heaven.”

The church interior, which was remodeled in 1963 under Father Victor Breznikar, retains the Franciscan spirit in a simple and traditional style. The wood of the walls gives warmth to the space as do the brightly colored stained glass windows. A criss-cross pattern of wood strips, punctuated by hanging lights, gives interest to the ceiling.

The stained glass windows depict various saints, with one larger window showing St. Francis with the wolf of Gobbio. Unlike many traditional representations of St. Francis, this window shows him beardless, with sandy-colored hair. Msgr. Pautler is said to have been the model for the window’s designer.

The parish hall is in the basement of the church, but, thanks to a couple of bequests from parishioners, construction is expected to begin soon on a new parish hall, located east of the parish house.

The parish house is the former rectory, which was built in 1949 where the old church stood. The building still serves the parish, with offices and meeting rooms. It is also home for Franciscan Sister Sharon Bongiorno, the parish’s pastoral minister, and three other Francisan Sisters.

Father Pat Kerst has been pastor at St. Francis since June of last year. He also is pastor of St. Patrick Parish, located three blocks east, on Alder.

The assignment returns Father Kerst to familiar territory. He was parochial vicar of the two parishes from 1994-96. He describes the parish as “solid,” and parishioners as “modest and salt of the earth. It’s a good parish and they have their own solid parish identity.”

St. Francis Parish joins with St. Patrick for a number of programs, such as sacramental preparation and RCIA. If a large space is needed, as for a wedding or banquet, St Patrick’s facilities can be used. The reverse is also true. Father Kerst celebrates weekday Masses for both parishes at St. Francis, since its smaller space is sufficient for the number of people participating. “It’s very helpful to have the church there,” he said.

Father Bonaventure Obisike, who was ordained last year, is the parochial vicar.

Long-time parishioner Matilda Pautler, mother of diocesan chancellor Father Mark Pautler and sister-in-law of Msgr. Pautler, is the unofficial parish historian. She wrote a parish history and narrated it for a videotape made when St. Francis celebrated its 85th anniversary in 2000. She has written articles about the parish for the Inland Register, and much of the information in this article comes from her work.

She recalled the “pot-bellied heating stove” situated in the middle of the first church. “You froze or roasted,” she wrote, depending on where you sat. Venneri remembered that the stove’s pipe went “right over the top of the Blessed Mother statue.”

For a time the parish experienced a “graying” of its congregation, but that trend is changing as young families move in. One of the young families contributing to new life in the parish is that of Kevin and Christina Magnaghi.

Christina became a Catholic just two years ago, and loves everything about the parish: the priests, the size of the congregation, the fellowship of coffee and doughnuts every Sunday, and even the statues. “They call me to a holier life and remind me that I can do it,” she said.

The couple recently had a baby, and Christina has started a ministry for new moms. “They will get a meal every night for the first week after they have a baby,” she said. That was a gift she and her husband received when their baby was born. “It’s my own small way of offering hospitality to our parish family. They were very excited for us and supportive when we had our baby,” she said.

The Magnaghi family has a long history in the parish, which gives Christina a deep sense of connection with their Italian heritage – “It’s neat to bring up our new family here.”

Echoing Christina’s sentiments about St. Francis of Assisi is Lynn Buckley, who grew up in the parish, was away for 20 years and has returned.

The parish, she said, is “very family oriented.” “When I was growing up, I helped my mother teach CCD and I sang with her in the choir. Some of the same people are still here.” Buckley sees parish strength in the “closeness of the people; they work hard together. They’re persistent and very devoted in their faith.”

“Persistent” is a word David Venneri used to describe what the parish community has accomplished, especially in regard to finances. “They lost money in the Depression and they have had to struggle (financially). But they’re very generous.”

The people who make up St. Francis of Assisi Parish have incorporated Franciscan ideals into their mission statement.

“The parish has a strong sense of spirituality, hospitality, and humilty inspired by St. Francis,” said Sister Sharon. Parishioners support several outreach efforts, including a non-denominational helpline, home visits, monthly food collections and Thanksgiving baskets, and St. Vincent dePaul in which, she said, the parish is “very, very active.” St. Anne’s Altar Society and its three guilds are also active. She agrees with Venneri: St. Francis parishioners are “very generous.”

*****

Not all Italians in the area in 1914 agreed that another church should be started in Walla Walla. Bishop Schinner was presented with a petition signed by about 50 persons asking that he not form another church. The petition said that it would be “to the best interest of the church that all of its members, of whatever nationality, shall meet and worship together in one common and united church.”

The Italian heritage of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Walla Walla is reflected in many parishioners’ names. Even up into the 1940s, the readings at Mass were proclaimed in Italian as well as English.

In the accounts of its early history, St. Francis of Assisi is referred to as a national parish. This is true according to the definition which states that such a parish has no geographical boundaries, and that membership comes from belonging to a given ethnic group. However, St. Francis of Assisi was then and remains today a diocesan parish under the authority of the bishop. National parishes were common during periods of immigration when for many Catholics, English was a second language.

For a time, Hispanic ministry was centered at St. Francis, but that community became too large for the smaller church and had to move to nearby St. Patrick Parish.

Father Adrian Van der Heyden was pastor from 1974-1990. His tenure was second only to Father Balducci. He collapsed and died Jan. 1, 1990, on his way to the church to say Sunday Mass. Since his death, St. Patrick’s pastors have served St. Francis.

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