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

Assumption Parish, Walla Walla: a community ‘awakening to new possibilities’

Story and photos by Bonita Lawhead, Inland Register staff

(From the July 3, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)

The stained glass art, right, adds to the prayerful atmosphere in Assumption Parish’s church. (IR photo)

Father Tim Hays (left) is pastor of Assumption Parish, Walla Walla. (IR Photo)

Assumption Parish on East Alder in Walla Walla will celebrate its 50th anniversary on Friday, Aug. 15, the feast of the Assumption of Mary. A display of photos from the past 50 years has already been put together, showing parish growth from its simple beginnings in 1953.

The parish was established to accommodate the growing number of Catholics in the city, particularly in that section of town. Father Albert Austen was the first pastor. He and his parishioners celebrated their first Mass in Pioneer Junior High School on Aug. 30, 1953.

For a time the congregation worshipped in a building that belonged to the East Gate Lions Club. Assumption School was built in 1954, and after its completion, Catholics worshiped in the gym – the first Mass there was on Easter, April 10, 1955 – until the church was built in 1967. Pastor during the church building project was Father John J. Kelley.

The church is a modern structure, in strong contrast to the other two Catholic churches in Walla Walla. St. Patrick is the oldest parish in the diocese, dated 1859, and St. Francis of Assisi was started in 1915. Both churches are on West Alder, on the other side of Walla Walla.

The church’s most striking feature is the huge wall of windows featuring a work titled the “Outpouring at Pentecost.” The building’s front entry doors are a part of the work. Sherry S. Carson of Spokane created the window art, replacing the clear windows that were in the original building. Laura Kamp donated the the piece.

In the center of the window wall is a tall white cross. The predominant color is the blue of the sky. Just below one arm of the cross is a white dove with pink halo and rays that go out over the landscape. There is also a stream that divides the landscape of the window. On either side are olive trees and grapevines. Mary and the Apostles, including Judas, are depicted. A brochure is available at the church that explains the work and its many symbols.

A second beautiful feature at the church is the rose garden out in front, in full bloom on a late spring morning. The garden was started by Father Otto Koltzenburg, the pastor who served the parish the most years, from 1988 to 2002.

The church’s interior walls are white brick. At the top of the north and south walls are narrow panels of colored glass. Wood was used extensively in the nave, giving warmth to the large, spacious room. The statues are also made of wood and tinted to give them a subdued color.

The nave has a gently sloped, semi-circular seating arrangement, with the sanctuary on the east wall. The huge crucifix, which has a new cross made of purple heartwood, hangs on a pink background with large white banners on either side. On either side of the banners are statues, Mary on one side and Joseph on the other.

The parish hall is on the south. The structure includes a big kitchen, for any event parishioners might plan. The hall was built onto the church in 1995.

Father Tim Hays is pastor. He is no stranger to Walla Walla; he served the first three years of his priesthood at St. Patrick Parish. He has been at the church a year and finds the people at Assumption to be “a tremendous group. A lot of people are involved in many activities.”

Some of those activities come from the school. Students have a weekday Mass, stations of the cross, a May crowning and Christmas programs. “There’s a strong commitment to Catholic education within the parish,” Father Hays said.

But there are other activities, including prayer and social ministry. The parish has had Eucharistic Adoration for nine years. It begins on Thursday of each week and continues until 5 p.m. Mass on Saturday. “This is well attended,” said parish secretary Mary Rogers.

A group of parishioners is devoted to the particular spirituality of St. Faustina. Many men of the parish are involved with the Knights of Columbus Council, which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. The parish also has a prayer chain.

An Altar Society is active in caring for the church; a court of the Catholic Daughters of the Americas involves parishioners. There is a special bereavement committee that helps with parish funerals and memorial services, providing food for the family.

The outreach extends beyond parish borders. In a recent bulletin there was a flyer seeking assistance for a family in Waitsburg whose father had been injured and needed extensive recuperation.

Bob Owsley has been in Walla Walla all his life; his grandfather homesteaded in the area. He has been a member of the parish since it started and his connections are deep. One of those connections is with the school. He was a member of Assumption School’s first graduating class in 1960. The parish, he said, is “just like home.”

Tom Fenton is a parish newcomer and a transplanted Easterner. He used to live in Waterbury, Conn., and would come west to visit his sister in Walla Walla. “I just fell in love with the place,” said the retired teacher. He likes the smaller size of the parish and the friendliness of parishioners. He cited the parish coffee hours as an example. “You don’t find that in the churches back East,” he said. “People come and go quick” after Mass.

Bonnie Fine is another long-time parishioner. She and her family moved into the parish in 1965, two years before the present church was built. She fond memories of Mass in the gym. “I remember we had folding chairs with kneelers. It was a little noisy, but otherwise it was fine,” she said.

She describes her parish as “active, with a lot of young families,” a community that gives “a lot of support” wherever it’s needed.

Fine taught religious education for many years and remembers that her parish joined forces with the other Catholic churches to combine students. “We used to meet at St. Pat’s,” she said. The high school youth continue that custom, meeting at St. Patrick Parish for their religious education. As Owsley described it, “One larger group is more effective than three smaller ones.”

Even beyond religious education, there is much interaction between the three Catholic churches. Assumption School, which goes through fifth grade, draws students from all three parishes. Father Hays helps out with Spanish-language Masses at St. Patrick. Owsley said parishioners have family members and friends in all three churches.

Michelle Acock is the school’s principal. She grew up in the parish and she, too, remembers having Mass in the gym of the school where she now teaches.

She has the added recollection of knowing just where in the school all the church furnishings had been located. For instance, “The sacristy is now an office,” she said. As time passes, circumstances and needs change. Just as the school gym is no longer used for worship, the convent next door that once housed the Tacoma Dominican Sisters who ran the school is now used for Educare and other parish needs.

A second Religious order also ran the school. The Marianists were a presence in the community for 17 years, from 1971-1988. The school had been closed for a year and the Marianists reopened it. One of their priests, Father Raymond Malley, served as pastor from 1984-1988.

Acock calls her parish “a part of my home, a part of my family and my community. I feel a sense of belonging there.” She, too, sees the generosity of parishioners, perhaps more so than some because of her position at the school.

“That’s their greatest strength,” Acock said. “The caring and compassion they show when someone needs help. People are concerned and they want to help.”

Parish secretary Mary Rogers has been in the parish since 1952 and in her post since 1982. She has seen the changes – of worship spaces and pastors. She said the parish has grown “a lot. It’s a wonderful mix of young and old.” She’s seen another change, this one in parishioners: “People linger longer after Mass than they used to,” she said. That’s a small change, perhaps, but one that contributes to the sense of family.

What does Rogers see as her parish’s greatest strength? Their liturgy, and sharing Eucharist as a people.

The parish currently has over 500 families. “It’s a wonderful worship community,” Father Hays said, “and one that is still awakening to new possibilities.”


Parish’s golden anniversary celebration begins Aug. 6

The commemoration of Assumption’s 50th anniversary will start Aug. 6 with a novena. There will be evening prayer starting at 6 p.m., followed by a social time, and Mass each morning at 8:30.

Father Koltzenburg, now of Seattle, will be in the parish to lead the evening prayer Tuesday, Aug. 12, and will preside at Mass the next morning.

The celebration is scheduled for Friday, Aug. 15, starting with a Mass at 5 p.m., followed by a potluck picnic and barbecue about 6.

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