Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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St. Patrick Parish, Walla Walla, begins 150th anniversary celebration
by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the Jan. 15, 2009 edition of the Inland Register)
This year, Walla Walla’s St. Patrick Parish will celebrate 150 years of existence. Coincidentally, the parish was established in 1859, which is when the town of Walla Walla was started, too – though before it was Walla Walla it was Steptoeville, and later Waiilatpu.
Father Patrick Kerst, the current pastor of St. Patrick Parish, explained that five events will be held to celebrate the parish’s 150 years. On Jan. 30 there will be a formal dinner to begin the anniversary year. Proceeds from ticket sales for this dinner will go to support a parish outreach ministry plus the other four events which will all be free.
On Sunday, March 15 the parish will observe St . Patrick’s Day, including an ice cream social.
The most important of the five events will be the rededication of the parish on Sunday, May 24, which will include a roving prayer service around the parish grounds and a pot luck dinner. On Sept. 13 there will be a parish carnival, which will be given an anniversary “spin.”
Finally, on Dec. 12, the parish will celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which will take on a special anniversary character. All are invited to attend these events, but a special invitation will be extended to all priests, Sisters, and lay ministers who have served at St. Patrick Parish. An anniversary booklet with historical photos and essays will be published.
The present parish church is the third to have been used by parishioners of St. Patrick. According to the history of the parish written for the upcoming centennial observance, “The first (church) was a rude, planked shack, located on the south side of West Birch Street between South Third and South Fourth Avenues.”
Quoting Catholic Institutions of the Walla Walla Valley, by Sister of Providence Anna Clare Duggar (1963), the essay continues: “This first St. Patrick’s church was comparable indeed to the stable at Bethlehem. It consisted of planks stuck in the ground and covered with shakes. It had no floor and its only seating facilities consisted of one bench.’”
The second church to serve St. Patrick Parish was located at the southeast corner of South Seventh Avenue and West Poplar Street. It was dedicated in August of 1865 and was a wood frame building.
With the continued growth of the Catholic population of Walla Walla – by this time, the parish community numbered about 1,200 – in June of 1870 parish leaders began discussing plans for a third and more permanent parish church. That year the parish bought new property, a square block between West Alder and West Poplar Streets and between North Sixth and North Seventh Avenues. With various delays, however, the new brick, Gothic design church’s cornerstone wasn’t installed and blessed until July, 1881, and construction wasn’t complete until March of 1882.
In 1864, the Sisters of Charity of Providence, now called the Sisters of Providence, founded a Catholic school system in Walla Walla, and both Assumption Catholic School and DeSales Catholic High School thrive there today. These schools serve Walla Walla’s three Catholic parishes, St. Patrick, St. Francis (1915), and Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1953). The parish school at St. Patrick was closed in 1969, and a few years later the decades-old school building was demolished to make room for the new parish activities center which occupies that space now.
In August, 1916, the parish church was seriously damaged by a fire which was later shown to be started by an arsonist who set flames going in both the choir loft and behind the main altar. While repairs were made, including a new main altar and communion rail of Carrara marble from Italy, the parish gathered for Sunday Masses in a theater on East Main Street, while daily Masses were said in the nearby convent chapel.
In 1950, the church’s two oak side altars, undamaged by the 1916 fire, were replaced with marble altars to match the main altar. The bricks of the exterior church walls, which were made locally, were re-mortared, and the interior of the church was re-painted, a new lighting system was installed, and the nave and transepts received new asphalt tile flooring. A public address system was also installed for the first time.
Finally, in the decades following the Second Vatican Council, in the mid-1960s, on two occasions St. Patrick Church underwent major interior renovations which included new pews and the removal of the old marble altar rail. Along the way, too, in recognition of the growing numbers and influence of Hispanic parishioners, a painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe was given a prominent place. All the stained glass windows have undergone a major restoration that took not months, but years, to complete.
Today, Father Kerst said, one of the unique characteristics of Catholicism in Walla Walla is the extent to which the city’s three parishes share and cooperate in all kinds of ways.
“Virtually every program we have is tri-parish and based at St. Patrick,” Father Kerst said, “because we have the facilities, and we have the staff. We have a wide variety of ministries and outreach programs and the like. With regard to demographics, probably the most significant development in the last 50 years has been the increase in Hispanic presence in the parish. Today probably half the parish is Hispanic.”