A short history of St Ann Catholic Church. Written in 2002 by Ann Colford for the St. Ann Centennial Celebration, this short piece is a bit of history itself!
St. Ann’s History: Written by Ann M. Colford (2002)
When St Ann’s Catholic Church, in Spokane’s East Central neighborhood, celebrated its centennial in 2002, the memories and stories of the past 100 years were embodied by many life-long parishioners like Amelia Minelli, Rose Dimico, Adeline Mouton, and the Kelly family. Their stories conjure up the days when Monsignor Theophilius Pypers ministered to the souls of Catholics in the immigrant neighborhood as St Ann’s pastor, a job he held for more than 50 years. But other stories hover in the air as well, memories of torture and murder in El Salvador and of the sanctuary offered by St. Ann’s in the 1980s to a Salvadoran family fleeing the death squads of their homeland. From the early days of the parish’s founding at what was then the outskirts of the city, to the rebuilding of the church after a devastating fire in the early years of the Great Depression, and on to the present commitment to the poor of the neighborhood, the St. Ann’s community has shown a spirit of resilience and the courage to act in faith.
The Early Days
In October 1902, the diocese of Seattle (then called Nesqually) established the parish of St. Ann’s to serve the eastern part of Spokane south of the river, a primarily working-class neighborhood with many immigrant families. The closest church at the time was the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes, then located downtown at Main and Bernard. The Sprague Avenue streetcar did not run as far as the East End neighborhood, so the Catholics living there often had to hike nearly three miles into town to go to church.
The bishop appointed Father L. W. Ferland, the chaplain of Sacred Heart Hospital, as the first part-time pastor. For the first two years, parishioners gathered in a commercial building at Sprague and Pittsburg for services. By 1904, the 540 members of the parish had raised more than half of the funds necessary to construct a church. The parish began celebrating together in the new church building, a wood-frame structure set on four lots at the corner of First and Lee, in September 1904. Father J. Rebmann, a Jesuit from Gonzaga University, assumed the role of part-time pastor, unti September 1906 when Father Pypers, a missionary priest originally from Belgium, was appointed as the parish’s first full time resident pastor. The building debt was paid off that same year, and the new pastor began plans to build a parish rectory. He drew up the plans for the ten-room frame house himself, and two parishioners, Mr. Lorsung and Mr. Pipe, did the construction work. Once again, the cost of the building project was paid off in a little over a year.
In 1916, the parish began serious planning for the construction of its own parochial school. Father Pypers had purchased property adjacent to the church and donated it to the parish for this purpose, and parishioners raised over $10,000 towards the building in the first year of the drive. Construction was delayed first by U. S. entry into the World War One and later by a lack of available teachers. Finally, early in 1925, workers laid the foundation for the school at the corner of Lee and Pacific. The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration from LaCrosse, Wisconsin, moved to Spokane to assume responsibility for the school. At the opening of school in September 1925, 84 pupils reported to class – including current parishioner Rose Dimico, who was part of that initial first-grade class.
Rebuilding from Tragedy
By 1929, the year of the stock market crash, the parish had built both a rectory house and a school serving grades one through six. On December 7th of that year, long-time pastory Father Pypers awoke in the early morning hours to find the church aflame. The first department worked to save the wooden building, but before it was over, the upper walls and roof had completely collapsed. The next day, parishioners gathered at the site of the destroyed church and worked together to salvage the alter and pews, which were moved into the school auditorium to create a temporary chapel. A month later, the congregation met and, after much discussion, voted in favor of biding a new church. By the end of that first meeting, more than $8,000 had been committed toward the building fund, with another $7,000 to follow in the next few weeks.
Architect W. A. Wells designed a mission-style church building to honor the early Catholic missionaries to the Pacific Northwest. Construction began in August 1930. The altar from the original church was installed in the new building, and lumber from the original pews were used to build the new ones, which remain in use today. The new bell tower held the old church’s bell, recast after cracking in the fire. And just a year after the fire, in December 1930, the bishop of Spokane dedicated the new St. Ann’s church in a high mass celebrated by Father Pypers.
Little changed in the life of the parish during the decades of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, even as the neighborhood changed irreversibly following the construction of the freeway, two blocks to the south. St. Ann’s was an island of calm amid the tumultuous events in the world during those years, under the steady guidance of its patriarch, Father Pypers, who was elevated to Monsignor in 1951. After his death in the late 1960s, his long-time assistant, Father David Rosage, became pastor, followed a few years later by Father Prince, but parish life remained much the same.
Decades of Change
Following the Second Vatican Council of the mid-1960s, however, change swept through Catholic parishes around the globe. St. Ann’s was no exception, although the new practices were instituted slowly at first by Father Prince. He adopted the shift from Latin to English, turned the altar around to face the congregation, and removed the communion rail. Changes accelerated with the arrival of the first Franciscans, Father Tom Frost and Father Glenn Fellon, in the spring of 1968. They removed the traditional ornate altar and replaced it with a simple table. Some of the statues were removed from the church, and the tabernacle was moved to the side of the altar. By the early 1970s, the parish school closed and its students transferred to All Saints’ School, with students from other south-side parishes.
Beyond the physical changes, a philosophical shift began, when the Franciscans assumed responsibility for the parish. By using their first names and later pushing the altar forward so they celebrated Mass within the congregation, the Franciscans emphasized their own humanness and presented a new model of church and community. Parishioners became more involved and the parish council took on a more active role in the leadership of the parish.
At the same time, St. Ann’s began to attract people from beyond the formal parish boundaries. The new arrivals came for the music, the spirit, and the sense of community that was growing. While they infused the parish with a new energy and vision of the concerns in the wider world, the parish inevitably lost some of the close connection with the neighborhood.
Many long-time parishioners mourned the loss of tradition, as symbolized by the statues, the nuns, the communion rail, and the school. Lost as well was the sense of rootedness in the immediate neighborhood. But for members who stuck with the parish through the changes came an opportunity to participate more fully in the life of the church and a new community growing out of a more collaborative style of worship.
In the 1970s and 80s, the U.S. government supported governments and other organizations in Central America that were seen as helping to “fight communism” in the region. The support included financial and military aid that increased after the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The result was a guerilla war waged by these groups throughout countries like Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador to either maintain or regain political power.
Many clergy and church workers aided the poor, who were often caught in the crossfire, while working to promote justice in the region. The assassination of El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980 and the killing of six Jesuits brought the terror and bloodshed to the attention of many Americans who may not have been aware of the events taking place beyond our borders. In response, an ecumenical group from churches in Arizona began declaring their churches to be places of sanctuary, places where those fleeing the death squads could remain free from harassment by the INS. Reagan administration officials insisted that those leaving their Central American homes were doing so purely for economic reasons, but those who heard their stories of atrocities were moved to take action to portect the refugees from being returned by the authorities.
During 1984, a group of St. Ann’s parishioners began meeting in the chapel after Sunday Mass to talk about the Sanctuary movement and the continuing injustices they saw in Central America. The movement arrived in the northwest as the University Baptist Church in Seattle declared sanctuary, followed by St. Leos in Tacoma. A Salvadoran woman who had been helped by the group in Seattle came to speak at St. Ann’s with her translator early in 1985, only to be arrested soon after in a raid that targeted Sanctuary workers across the country. The raid galvanized support for Sanctuary at St. Ann’s, and a parish-wide vote in late January approved the declaration of St. Ann’s as a Sanctuary church. Some parishioners who did not support the decision left the community, but those who remained worked hard to turn the basement of the parish house into temporary living quarters. Parishioners signed a Sanctuary Covenant, committing the community to the principles of Sanctuary, and that book has remained in the church ever since. On the evening of the St. Patrick’s Day party in 1985, several members of the Orellana family arrived in the darkness and took up residence as part of St. Ann’s community.
Now, as it looks forward to the next century, the St. Ann’s community reflects on the past but does not dwell there. The parish maintains a connection with the neighborhood, teaming with several other churches for a weekly free Sunday lunch open to all in the parish hall and working with neighboring Grace Lutheran on an after-school program for the children of East Central. Most parishioners live outside the official parish boundaries but are drawn to St. Ann’s by its spirit of community and its commitment to living out the values of the Gospel through social justice. St. Ann’s is a far different parish now than it was at the time of its founding 100 years ago but relies on the resilience and faith of current members to carry the community into the next century.
Christmas at St Ann, 1979 – photos shared by former parishioners!