By Eleanor Boba
The following is the fourth in a series of guest blog posts submitted by members of the Historic Seattle community. The views and opinions expressed in guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Historic Seattle.
Here Is the Church
It started with a small wooden church on a hill between the Rainier Valley and Seattle’s Central District named for the patron saint of Germany. St. Boniface was built, probably sometime in the 1890s, by and for German Catholic immigrants to the city who hoped to worship in their own language.
Information on the little German church is scarce. The 1901 and 1902 Seattle Polk Directories list “St. Bonifacius, German Roman Catholic” at 28th Avenue South and Massachusetts, along with the words “no services.” Later additions of the directory make no mention of the church at all. The 1912 Baist map show the church alone on the hillside except for a small house immediately to the north. Anecdotal evidence indicates that a succession of caretaker families lived in the basement of the church, some German-speaking, some Italian.
The Italian Transformation
By 1910, the area surrounding St. Boniface was made up largely of Italian immigrant families – so much so that the area was nicknamed “Garlic Gulch” – and thus the little church was the natural choice for an Italian parish. Seattle Bishop Edward John O’Dea called on the Jesuits to minister to the growing Italian community in the city. On September 10, 1911, Fr. DeRop, S.J. said the first mass in Italian at the church. The diary of the Jesuit order notes that two weeks later Fr. DeRop took “some of our old pews” to the new Italian church. About this time the church’s name was changed to Our Lady of Monte Virgene, after a well-known church in Caserta, Italy. A sketch rendered by University of Washington graduate student Nellie Roe in 1914 depicts the church and school surrounded by a fenced garden. The caption states that “102 Italian children” attend the school.
In 1913 Fr. Lodovico Caramello arrived to take over for the ailing Fr. DeRop and immediately began to fast track plans for a new, grander edifice in the Florentine style of his homeland. The fruition of this project in 1915 is credited largely to Fr. Caramello’s commanding personality and his contacts in his native Italy.
The Italians built their church just to the west of, and back-to-back with, the old German church. The 1916 Sanborn map shows “Mt. Virgin R.C. Church” almost touching the “Old Church.” The small house is labeled “School,” although it was also the parish rectory. With the tower removed, St. Boniface became the parish hall and later served in a number of capacities, including as a gym, kindergarten, and workshop, before ultimately being torn down about 1970. Army surplus buildings, placed on the church property in the 1940s, became the Mount Virgin School where local children received instruction from Irish Dominican nuns and sometimes from the priests themselves.
For several decades, Mount Virgin and Father Caramello were the heart of the Italian community in Seattle. Long-time resident Ralph Vacca recalled:
The church in the Italian community, at least in that generation, was the center. And Father Caramello was God in America. You could take a string or measuring stick and go out whatever distance from Mount Virgin Church and there would be a lot of Italian names and families.
Vincent LaSalle spoke of the Italian culture that defined the church:
I was raised in the Catholic school with the Dominican nuns, Mount Virgin, the little Italian parish. And I became an altar boy when I was only in about the fourth grade and Father Caramello says he’s “gonna make an altar boy out of me.” So I became an altar boy; I was number one! And you never seen anything like it – such beautiful boys! You know the altar boys at the end of the year, they used to have a great big party, you know, all the Italian kids. They were all Italian, all of them.
To this day Our Lady of Mount Virgin is designated as a “national parish,” one without traditional geographic boundaries. Specifically it was, and is, an “Italian National Parish,” one of several in the country created to serve a specific immigrant community.
Opening the Doors
In the last decades of the 20th century, the Italian population in Garlic Gulch began to disperse, pushed out by the I-90/Mount Baker tunnel projects and changing demographics. Many Italian-Americans had already moved out to the suburbs by the time the second major freeway expansion began in 1979. Attendance at mass dwindled steadily and there were fears the church might close altogether. However, in that same year the first of several waves of Laotian Catholic refugees arrived in the Rainier Valley. Assisted by an Italian Catholic group working with the tribal people of Laos, these refugees were adopted into the parish, bringing new life to the little church.
Mount Virgin also has a special relationship with Native American Catholics in Seattle. For a number of years the parish offered a special mass for Native Americans. Today it continues to reach out to immigrant communities, particularly Laotian, Chinese, and Vietnamese communities, while still honoring its Italian origin. During the current Covid-19 crisis, no masses are scheduled, although the church is open for quiet contemplation during specified hours. It is located at 1531 Bradner Place South, just off MLK Jr Way, in the shadow of the Mount Baker lid.
Things have changed for Mount Virgin, but there is hope for the future as the church embraces the Catholic tradition of “adopting and adapting” to new circumstances and cultures.
Information for this story is drawn from the archives of the Seattle Archdiocese, Special Collections at the University of Washington, Puget Sound Branch of the Washington State Archives, and oral histories collected by the Rainier Valley Historical Society.
Eleanor Boba is a public historian who writes about historic places off the beaten path at Remnants of our Past. A stint at the Rainier Valley Historical Society gave her a deep appreciation of Southeast Seattle.