Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington



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


Our Lady of the Valley, Okanogan: ‘There are opportunities to be as prayerful as you want to be’

Story and photo by Bonita Lawhead, Inland Register staff

(From the June 12, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)

Visitors looking for Our Lady of the Valley Catholic Church in Okanogan have to travel a little north of the city on Highway 97, nearly to Omak.

Nearly 30 years ago, there were two churches: St. Agnes in Okanogan and Christ the King in Omak, in addition to the Jesuit parishes, St. Joseph Church in Omak and St. Mary Mission in East Omak. St. Agnes was built in 1914 and Christ the King in 1938.

By the 1970s, both St. Agnes and Christ the King were in need of extensive and expensive renovations. Even with renovation, the existing structures would be too small for their expanded congregations.

The parishes decided to join forces and funds for one church. In 1975, they purchased the former Barnes Funeral Home. The building was remodeled into a church and dedicated as Our Lady of the Valley in 1976. Father John Sand was pastor.

The church has undergone several rearrangements of its interior since then. The latest has taken place under the present pastor, Father Rory Pitstick.

Okanogan is his first assignment as pastor. At the time of his appointment he was the youngest pastor in the diocese.

Probably none of the church changes are so interesting as the story of the stained glass windows that frame the sanctuary.

The east wall of the church is rock. Built into this wall were two vertical panels of brightly-colored glass, similar to those in the church entryway. When the parish decided it would like to have stained glass windows, a search began. Old stained glass windows are not the easiest thing to find, especially if a certain size is wanted. But, thanks to Msgr. John Steiner, then pastor at St. Thomas More Parish, Spokane, some windows were found in Cheney. St. Rose of Lima Parish had built a new church and sold the old one. In their plans for the building, the purchasers did not want the windows. In a brochure for visitors Father Pitstick tells about going to see the windows:

“It was love at first sight and my prayers had been answered ... maybe. With great trepidation and tape measure in hand, the moment of truth was fast approaching. Would they fit?

“With trembling hands, I slowly stretched the tape measure across one of the key medallion windows ... and read the dimension, 27 inches. Perfect, another miracle, the windows had been designed 80 years ago for Our Lady of the Valley!”

There are a total of six windows, three on either side of the sanctuary. Each has a medallion in the center that depicts religious imagery: a chalice with grapes, Mary, the Sacred Heart, the Lamb of God, the Eucharist, and perhaps the most unusual, a mother pelican and chicks. The mother pelican is a medieval symbol for Christ, since the mother bird was believed to give her blood to her chicks as Christ did for his people.

Total cost to purchase, repair and install the windows was $15,000, which the local Knights of Columbus council is paying. The window purchase included 16 additional windows, including two with medallions. Father Pitstick said they hope to install some of the additional windows at a later date.

The sanctuary is the focal point of the church interior. Marble was installed between the two rows of windows and a large crucifix hangs in the center. At either side are traditional style statues of Mary and Joseph.

Parishioner Al Bosco, a welder who did similar work in his previous parish, built the medieval-style wrought iron tabernacle. It is an eight-sided open framework that comes to a point with a red candle underneath the peak. A white curtain hangs around the inside of the framework at the top. Flanking the tabernacle are two large, almost life-size marble angels.

Bosco is an experienced welder, but he said the point gave him trouble. “It was very difficult,” he said, “but God gives the know-how and I was pleased with how it turned out.” He also made the wooden backgrounds for the stations of the cross.

All the sanctuary elements combine to give a unified aspect to the church interior, a look that is both elegant and reverent.

Our Lady of Valley Parish has 236 families in the two communities, about one-quarter of them Hispanic. Father Pitstick served as parochial vicar at St. Patrick in Pasco for three years after his ordination and learned Spanish while he was there. The parish’s Spanish language Mass is Saturdays afternoon at 5.

At age 90 Helen Rawson is one of the church’s oldest members and also its organist. She has lived in Okanogan “all my life” and has long memories of the old St. Agnes church. “My father would get up at 4 a.m. on Sunday mornings to build a fire in the church so it would be warm for Mass,” she recalled. Even then, she said, the church would still be cold in the corners away from the stove.

Rawson was parish council president in 1975 when the church building was purchased. “We worked together,” she said about the two church communities deciding to become one. “It seemed to make more sense” to have one church.

As for Our Lady of the Valley, “I like everything about our church and its people,” she said, “the friendliness, the coffee hours ... it’s adequate for my needs.”

Newcomer Ginger Martinez, who joined the parish last fall, said the same thing. “The smaller parish makes it easy to get acquainted,” she said, “and also to get involved.” She particularly likes the international dinners held in the parish, a custom that was recently restarted. Miriam Morrissey retired as parish secretary May 29, a post she held for almost five years. She is an old-timer, having been in the parish 32 years. “I love the people here,” she said. “They are really great.” She, too, enjoys the international dinners, and recalled one meal that she and another person hosted. “I’m half Lebanese,” she said, “and we did a Lebanese dinner. We did lots of research for the menu and decorations and it was lots of fun.”

In addition to the international meal, the parish also holds a Thanksgiving dinner.

Another event which is well-known in the area, said Morrissey, is the hat luncheon. The women’s guild holds the luncheon as a fund-raiser, and everyone is encouraged to wear hats. The best hat wins a prize.

A key element of the parish congregation is that they are people of prayer. Attendance at daily Mass ranges from 15-25 people, Bosco said. “It’s a very good parish, with active people.” Bosco himself hosts a prayer group on Thursdays.

Rawson also hosts a parish group that meets weekly at her home. She said they started with the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius, and “we’ve never found anything as satisfying since.”

The parish also has an annual retreat at Immaculate Heart Retreat Center with as many as 20 people attending.

“There are opportunities (in our parish) to be as prayerful as you want to be,” Bosco said.

Another parish group is the quilters who have been meeting since 1993. Several women get together every week to make quilts, some of which are given away and some of which are sold. The women recycle old clothes, primarily polyester fabric which they cut into squares for their colorful quilts. They were hard at work on a recent Thursday, putting together a red, white, and blue king-size quilt for a customer. The quilters put their earnings in a fund and plan to make a purchase of some needed items for their church.

The parish responds to community needs as they arise. A basket of plastic baby bottles sat in the entryway, waiting for people to take home and fill with change which will be given to the Care Net Pregnancy Center. Donations of food or cash are also collected for the area food bank.

Seminarian Mike Ishida comes to the Spokane Diocese from Hawaii. He will live in the parish this summer, assisting Father Pitstick. A vacation Bible school is planned for July and the Knights will host the parish picnic July 20.

Father Pitstick said his five years as pastor have been “the happiest of my life.” What he sees as his parish’s greatest strength “is their commitment to prayer.”

Said parishioner Rawson, extending her comments to a broader perspective: “It’s a nice parish and we’ve had excellent priests all through the years.”

*****

A bell for Okanogan

The bell at the church has an interesting history, as told in a newspaper article dated December 1979 about the old St. Louis Church at Monse, Wash.

It seems the bell was donated by school children in an eastern state to be used on an Indian reservation. It was shipped by railroad to Monse where, in 1918, Frank Kammers, who lived in Oroville, loaded it on a wagon and hauled it with a four-horse team up the hill to the church. The bell was set on a wooden frame and Kammers was quoted as saying it weighed nearly a ton.

Unfortunately the bell’s weight made it too heavy for the church belfry and it was never used. It remained in the church for about six years and then was donated and moved to St. Agnes Church in Okanogan. The bell was also too heavy for the St. Agnes Church, and it was once again stored, this time for 40 years.

In 1969 the bell was taken to Oroville where in the summer of that year, the bell was hauled in parades from Canada to Wenatchee to note the 50th anniversary of the American Legion. The bell had been painted red, white and blue for its new patriotic use.

After that the bell was displayed for special occasions such as the Bicentennial and May Day parades. Eventually it made its way back to Okanogan. By that time St. Agnes Church had been sold and there was a new Catholic church: Our Lady of the Valley. The bell stands in a sturdy and handsome framework out front, and is used only on special occasions such as Christmas and Easter. It is a thoughtful reminder of that long-ago gesture of kindness by school children.


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