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
Spokane’s St. Thomas More Parish: a caring, generous community
by Bonita Lawhead, Inland Register staff
(From the June 13, 2002 edition of the Inland Register)
St. Thomas More Parish on Spokane’s north side is one of four parishes started by the late Bishop Bernard Topel in September 1957. In fact, he announced all four – St. Peter, Our Lady of Fatima, and Mary Queen – the same week. To create St. Thomas More, territory was taken from St. Francis of Assisi and St. Francis Xavier parishes.
The parish is named for the noted British lawyer, teacher and defender of the Catholic faith who was martyred in 1535 for refusing to give allegiance to King Henry VIII as the head of the Church of England. St. Thomas is the patron saint of lawyers and his feast day is June 22.
The parish’s first pastor was Father Paul Wenning, named to that post in 1957. There were 103 families in the parish at that time.
Among Father Wenning’s talents was an ability to swing a hammer and do wiring. Both came in handy with the new parish’s three-phase building schedule.
First to be built was the gym-church. The parish hall was located in the lower of the two levels. By the time it was dedicated on March 12, 1958, the parish had grown to almost 200 families.
The second phase was dedicated to the rectory, built by Father Wenning and a crew of parish volunteers. Newspaper clippings from that time state the parish saved $20,000 by doing its own work. That building is now used for parish offices and meetings.
The third phase resulted in the parish school. Once again Father Wenning put his construction skills to use.
In a reversal of the usual practice, the school started with grades five to eight and added the others as the parish raised additional funds.
In the beginning the school was staffed by Dominican Sisters from Kettle Falls. Today the school has 240 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
Father Wenning lives in the parish in a house just two blocks away from the church. At age 84 his health prevents him from getting out much, but he has sharp memories of his pastorate.
“For the first two Sundays we had Mass in a public school way out in the country somewhere,” he said during a telephone interview. “After that we used Linwood School until our church was built. We bought the chairs which the school used and they didn’t charge us rent.”
According to Father Wenning, the parish’s first collection plate came to $67. But as the parish grew, so did the collections. “The parishioners were very generous,” he said, which is borne out in the news accounts of their building projects.
Another of his vivid memories was that the parish initially had but seven teenagers in its population.
By the time Father Wenning was assigned to St. Anthony Parish 20 years later, St. Thomas More had grown to 700 families.
Father Arnold Schoffelmeer, now retired and living in Deer Park, was the parish’s second pastor. He served until 1992. During his pastorate, the number of families doubled.
Father Schoffelmeer particularly recalled the parish children. He said he met with school students every Friday after the children’s Mass and “what fun we had. The children would put on skits and they were wonderful.” A parish Christmas photo shows Father Schoffelmeer on Santa’s lap, surrounded by kids.
The parish had planned to use its gym-church for just seven years. But that got stretched to nearly 30 years before the new church became a reality. Construction started in 1986, and and Bishop Lawrence Welsh dedicated the new struction on Dec. 11, 1987. In a happy ceremony on May 9, 1993, the church mortgage was burned.
Msgr. John Steiner became pastor in 1992.
Building construction was not finished, however. Last year, a much larger parish center, comprising 16,800 square feet on two levels, was added to the church. The former hall in the gym, called Wenning Hall, is now used by the school for lunches and other activities.
The church is located on a street named St. Thomas More Way. The parish property is ringed with trees, making it seem almost park-like.
To enter the church is to enter a building beautiful in its simplicity. In the large entryway is a baptismal font with a large brass dove hanging over it. To the east is a huge stained glass window of Pentecost. Next to the window is the entry to the parish center. The elegant Blessed Sacrament chapel, which has an exquisite blue stained glass window depicting Mary, is on the north side of the entry.
Stained glass windows can be found inside the church as well. There are 14 of them, seven on either side of the nave, giving color even on a cloudy afternoon. The altar and lecterns in both the church and chapel were made by Spokane artist Harold Balasz, formed from white cement in a filigree pattern.
In 2002 the parish has 1,300 families.
Like any large parish, there are many ministries and forms of outreach. Newcomers who want to get involved can find just about anything to fit their talents and abilities. Over 400 volunteers do everything from serving on the parish council to working in the flower beds to ministries during Mass.
One example is St. Elizabeth’s Guild, whose members visit the sick and elderly – those who are homebound, in nursing homes, and hospitalized.
Supporting the Guild is the Bridge (and sometimes Pinochle) Club. Members pay $1 each time they play and the money raised benefits the Guild’s work.
The card players are continuing a long custom in the parish. A newspaper clipping dated Feb. 2, 1958 tells of two fund-raiser card parties held in the parish. College-age people are taking up the now, game, so it appears that the custom will continue.
Pat Craigen, another long-time parishioner who is currently on the finance committee, agrees wholeheartedly with others’ opinion that St. Thomas More parishioners are “very generous.” The trait was demonstrated when the fund drive began for the new church; the parish raised over $850,000, well surpassing the $750,000 goal.
Craigen also had high praise for the members of St. Martha’s Guild, who serve lunches after funerals. Because of the parish’s proximity to Holy Cross Cemetery, Craigen said, “the women often work above and beyond the call of duty.” In his mind, the guild typifies parish spirit, which comes forth to meet any need.
The needs are many and the parish is mindful of helping others. A partial list of involvements include Adopt-A-Family, which pairs families in the United States with families in Guatemala; Catholic Scouting; Crosswalk; the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
One unique characteristic is that St. Thomas More is the only parish in the Spokane Diocese to have Perpetual Adoration. For more than 12 years, someone in the parish has been and continues to be in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament 24 hours a day.
The adoration ministry was started under Father Schoffelmeer. He said the idea was born from a three-year renewal program that involved between 600-700 parishioners. “Perpetual Adoration is not an easy thing,” he said. “That’s a tremendous commitment” for the parishioners.
But it’s also a great blessing. Just ask Perry Pearman, who with his wife, Sheila, and son, Joey, joined the parish two-and-a-half years ago. “It’s great to have it,” Pearman said. The Pearmans live in Usk but wanted their son to have a Catholic school education. Pearman said when they come down for school activities, “if I have to wait, that’s the place I go.”
Msgr. Steiner agrees. “The adoration ministry was one of the joys of my 10 years here,” he said. “It’s a special blessing and I greatly appreciate those who make it happen.”
Another joy mentioned by Msgr. Steiner is the church carillon, purchased in memory of the late Ann Doherty, who was school principal. “It rings out the Angelus,” he said. “And it rings at Masses, at funerals and at weddings. The sound of the bells over the neighborhood talks about the ordinary, to remind us that the spiritual can be found in the ordinary. Death is sacred; life is sacred. God is present among us.”
Msgr. Steiner is taking a sabbatical and will leave the parish at the end of the month. He will be honored at gatherings after the weekend Masses June 29-30. Replacing him is retired Benedictine Abbot Adrian Parcher, currently pastor at Mary Queen Parish, Spokane.
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