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Pending Vatican appeal, St. Mary's Catholic Church in Seattle to close after 120 years

A formerly Black parish in Seattle has been merged with a nearby multicultural parish—though parishioners are seeking a reversal from Rome.

(Jennifer Buchanan/The Seattle Times)

A 120-year-old parish in Seattle, once home to a thriving African-American population, is set to close its doors amidst prayerful protests and a still ongoing appeal to the Vatican.

St Mary’s Catholic Church, known more recently for its Hispanic influences, was merged into St Therese Catholic Church effective July 1st, according to an official decree from Archbishop Paul Etienne.

“While the population of Seattle has exponentially grown, the parish community of St. Mary’s has not followed the same trend,” he said in an accompanying letter on May 27th, using boilerplate language shared with at least one other letter sent to a soon-closing parish in the Archdiocese of Seattle.

“These factors, including several others, such as the lack of engagement in the sacraments and faith formation, and dwindling Mass attendance among other things, led to the recommendations for me to merge the parish.”

An initial announcement of the St. Mary’s fate had come well over a year prior, when Etienne announced the planned merger in April 2021, following a viability review process across the South Side Deanery which began in 2015 under a previous archbishop.

The move, characterized as “sudden” and unexpected, prompted outrage from parishioners and the local community, which had long been served by the parish’s food bank and other outreach activities.

Formerly known as a Black parish—one of three in the significantly African-American Central District neighborhood—St. Mary’s reportedly hosted a secret meeting between the Black Panthers and Seattle police during the Black Power Movement, and—according to the city's late Black Catholic activist Walter Hubbard Jr.—helped organize justice marches with the Catholic Interracial Council.

Around the same time, the parish began to see a surge in its immigrant population, eventually becoming associated with various non-Black minority communities following its founding as a haven for European Americans at the turn of the 20th century. Its first bilingual priest arrived in 1968 and Spanish has since remained a second language therein.

Etienne’s decree notes that St. Mary’s proximity to another Hispanic parish, its high commuter population, and its declining revenue generation factored into the decision to merge the church into St. Therese, another parish known in part for its connection to the local African-American community.

However, a recent remodel at St. Mary’s and relationships with local schools renting out church facilities only exacerbated the strong reactions to the announced closure, including protests endorsed by other local Catholic churches on their respective website. The most recent event was held on June 29th outside the archdiocese’s offices.

Despite the merger date’s passage a few days later, certain services have continued to be held, including funerals, as an appeal to the Vatican challenging Etienne’s decree will reportedly take months before reaching a final conclusion.

As is often the case with seemingly sudden Catholic parish closures, the announcement of St. Mary’s merger came within months of the latest multi-million dollar sex abuse settlement in Seattle, with the archdiocese announcing a $3M payout in December 2021 concerning cases from the 1960s to 1980s.

Several other suits peppered the preceding year, and smaller payouts were announced as recently as late April.

“We see this as yet another example of the clericalism in the Church that has prevented open dialogue and serious movement toward reform,” reads a statement last fall from Heal Our Church, a group supporting abuse survivors in the state of Washington.

“It is sad that parishioners were [not] informed of the closure decision, not involved in the decision making, and many are concerned that the value of the real estate and/or political considerations are motivating the closures.”

Archbishop Etienne framed the decision as one which could help St. Therese avoid closure in the future.

“Welcoming parishioners from St. Mary’s will help this parish revitalize under the new leadership of Father Woody McCallister,”  he said in a press release issued on May 30th.

“We simply cannot continue with the status quo. We want active living parish communities to foster missionary disciples and so I accepted the recommendations to make parish changes.”

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).

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