Visitation School


3314 South 58th St., Tacoma, Washington 98409 (map)

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The History of Visitation Parish

The history and growth of Visitation parish closely parallels that of what today is called South Tacoma. The most significant event for both came in 1891, when the Northern Pacific Railroad located its machine and car shops in the small farming community then called Edison. Growth was so great in the ensuing years that by 1895 Edison became part of the rapidly expanding city of Tacoma. This unprecedented growth was a cause for concern for Father Peter Hylebos, then in charge of all of what today is Pierce County, south to Olympia. There were not enough priests to minister to the growing number of faithful and to expect them to continue making the all day journey to celebrate at Holy Rosary parish, the nearest place of worship since the closing of St. Mary's on December 24, 1891, was unrealistic. The priest shortage was also a cause of concern for then Bishop Junger who had for years been in contact with the Benedictine Abbey of St. John's in Collegeville, Minnesota, trying to convince them to establish a priory in his diocese. The pleas were heard, and in 1891 a certain Reverend Wolfgang Steinkogler, OSB was dispatched to Washington with the express mission of locating a site suitable for the establish-ment of a priory known to this day as St. Martin's Abbey.

It was this same Father Steinkogler who, on August 21, 1892, with seven people present, celebrated the first Mass in what soon would become Visitation Parish. It was an inauspicious beginning, taking place in an empty store front at 54th and Warner. But a beginning it was! Slowed by years of recession, it was not until 1899 that enough money was collected to fulfill the dream of a permanent home. In the meantime Mass was celebrated either in the old Edison Hotel or the Oddfellows Hall. In 1899, enough money had been raised, land was purchased, and on February 1, a permanent church building was constructed on the corner of South 56th and Birmingham, a building which still stands today. The people and Father Steinkogler saw their common goal come to fruition as the church was dedicated to the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. There was still, however, much work to be done.

As the population of the area continued growing it became apparent that the parish would soon outgrow its original church. The people envisioned a structure which would become a beacon and a symbol for miles around of the power of faith, a haven and a home for all who entered. Until 1903 a mission of Holy Rosary, the Visitation parishioners were given a boost, when, in 1903, Reverend Mark Wiechman, OSB, became their first resident pastor. Between 1903-1907, Father Wiechman arranged the purchase of eleven lots of land at South 58th and Warner and a new church was built with a sacristy and sanctuary being added. Achievement of the goal was within reach.

In addition to receiving a permanent pastor in 1903, Visitation parish received its bell. In that year a group of parishioners contributed money and the solid, two-toned bell was cast by the Henry Struckstede Bell Foundry Company of St. Louis, Missouri, in 1904. It remains today a glorious reminder of the power of faith. It was displayed in front of the original church until such time that enough money could be raised to pay for lifting it into the tower, a feat which was accomplished by charging individuals 10 cents to ring the bell twice. It took until 1912 to raise the necessary amount. Etched on the bell are the names of those original contributors: the Franzer Brothers, Garceau, Ed Gratzer, Pete Leonard, Pete McCann, William Mooney, J. Morley, Pat O'Leary, Father Portmann, and Art Seifert.

On June 1 5, 1913, with Father Steinkogler acting as Master of Ceremonies, Visitation Parish's present church was dedicated. The dream was fulfilled when "with all the pomp and ceremony of an elaborate ritual, Bishop Edward J. O'Dea of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Seattle, dedicated the Church of the Visitation. The bishop and clergy had assembled at the church and with the mystic ritual of the oldest church in Christendom, they marched around the building, stopping at every corner to bless it with the words that have been used for centuries in hallowing Catholic churches throughout the world". (Daily Ledger, June 16, 1913. "The building was of brick construction, 50 by 145 in dimensions, with a spire rearing to a height of 150 feet. Architect C. Frank Mahon designed the structure which cost $31,212.64. (Daily Ledger, June 15, 1913). The stained glass windows, made in Germany and shipped around Cape Horn to the port of Washington, were purchased at a cost of $5000 for each large one and $2000 for each small one. The church will remain forever grateful to those parishioners who donated time and money to make the windows a reality. Their names remain engraved for all to see, at the base of each window.

In 1924, with a population of over 200 families and 220 children, the Pastor Demetries Jueneman OSB realized the necessity of a parish school. Ground was broken in October, 1924, and on August 23, 1925, Visitation Catholic School was dedicated. It was "a very modern and up-to-date structure with eight classrooms, a complete oil-heating plant, two lavatories and two halls to be used for parish activities" (Progress, August, 1925). The school opened on September 8, with an enrollment of 170 students at a cost of $1.00 per month for in-parish families and $1.50 for those out of parish. Father Jueneman was the first principal. The school was staffed by the Benedictine Sisters of St. Benedict's Convent in Minnesota. These dedicated sisters made the school a success and must be thanked for gracing Visitation parish for so many years. The last, Sister Margaret Mary, departed in 1990.

To make room for the sisters, Father Erkens, OSB, who had replaced Father Jueneman when the latter became principal, converted the old rectory behind the church to a convent. At the same time, the present rectory was added where it is today.

In 1948, with an enrollment of 381 in a building originally built for 250, an addition to the main school building was needed. For the sum of $7000, two lots behind the school were purchased, one with a house. The house was moved next to the convent and the construction was begun. The new addition was dedicated on Sunday, September 18, 1949. By 1957, the school reached its peak enrollment of 567 students.

The same day that Bishop Thomas A. Connally blessed the new school addition, he also blessed the church's new pipe organ. Consisting of 705 speaking pipes, this impressive instrument was dedicated to the memory of deceased Catholic War Veterans. The organ was first played by Eugene Kallenberg, OSB, head of the music department at St. Martin's Abbey.

With the school and other facilities, filled, there was a desperate need for more space. For this reason, the two small churches across from Visitation church were purchased in 1952. The larger of the two buildings was converted to a parish hall and the smaller to class and meeting rooms. The new hall was opened for use on November 14, 1953. Under the chairmanship of Miss Sadie Foye, a dinner and festival were held, celebrating the dedication. Father Gabriel P. Donohue, OSB, pastor from 1944-1962, officiated at the ceremonies.

The next three decades were a time of consolidation and further change. In 1956, the rectory was remodeled to its present state. The mid-1960's saw the simplification of the altar in response to the dictates of Vatican Council II. In 1984, the convent was razed and replaced by what is today "Berntsen Park". 1984 was also a painful year for the parishioners of Visitation Parish. On June 30 of that year, the Benedictine priests, who had guided the faithful since that very first Mass in 1892, finally departed. Father Ross Fewing assumed the pastoral duties in the name of the Archdiocese of Seattle.

In November, 1925, the Tacoma Times editorialized that "the Church of the Visitation in South Tacoma is more than a church. It is an institution that carries its work into the homes of more than 200 families of the district." In the same year, 1925, then Pastor Albert Erkens, OSB, commented: "I have been in the church for 34 years and in that time I have seen a great change in religious ideas. More and more the church, in this modern, progressive age, realizes that it must offer more and more to its members if it is to grow." The people of Visitation have not lost sight of that admonition. The Church of the Visitation retains the vision of the original seven and remains an institution reaching out and welcoming all who come to share its celebration of God's love.

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