Bidding farewell to a country chapel

Joanna, Louis and Tim Jovanovich (top), a longtime parish family, take a look at St. Patrick’s shortly before it was demolished this week. Helen Brocard (above) ties a ribbon around a Cyprus tree that her godmother Helen Puz planted with seeds from Croatia.  - Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo
Joanna, Louis and Tim Jovanovich (top), a longtime parish family, take a look at St. Patrick’s shortly before it was demolished this week. Helen Brocard (above) ties a ribbon around a Cyprus tree that her godmother Helen Puz planted with seeds from Croatia.
— image credit: Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo

For more than a decade, St. Patrick Church has been a darkened fixture on Maury Island — an increasingly dilapidated reminder of a bygone era of baptisms, bazaars, weddings, potlucks and other gatherings of the Catholic faithful that once took place in Dockton.

Now, emptied of its statuary, stations of the cross and other sacred content, the rustic 1923 country chapel is about to be demolished, stirring memories and emotions for some longtime Islanders.

According to Constance Walker, pastoral assistant at St. John Vianney Church, the building was beyond saving.

“The foundation was rotten and infested with pests,” she said. “There was asbestos, lead paint, the floor was completely rotten and the roof was leaking.”

The historic house of worship was condemned in 2001, after a massive infestation of termite-like insects laid waste to its timbered foundation. At that time, only Saturday vigil masses were being held at the church — all other services were being held at St. John Vianney, which was built on nearly 60 acres purchased by the Archdiocese of Seattle in the 1950s in anticipation of a proposed bridge from the mainland to Vashon.

The bridge was never built, of course, and the archdiocese eventually scrapped plans for a Catholic school and a convent next to St. John Vianney. But still, the more centrally located church became the parish seat when it opened in the mid-1960s. St. Patrick’s was relegated to the status of a mission until the building was condemned.

And with the failure of a year-long effort in 2007 to raise funds for a restoration of St. Patrick’s, led by St. John Vianney’s late pastor, Rev. Richard Roach, the tiny church’s fate was sealed.

Last week, on a rainy morning, workers contracted by the Archdiocese of Seattle arrived with a bright orange excavator to begin the process of tearing down the church — the first step of which was to remove asbestos and make sure that underground oil tanks had not leaked into the surrounding soil.

“They are doing a good job to keep everyone safe,” Walker said, adding that the archdiocese would be in charge of any environmental cleanup work deemed necessary on the site.

As the workers tore away the front steps of the church, neighbors and former parishioners arrived one by one to bear witness to the proceedings.

Helen Brocard, an Islander in her 70s who remembers having her first communion at the church, was one of those standing in the rain outside the structure, lost in memories. Brocard, whose family ran a berry farm, remembers a childhood in the 1930s and 40s that was in many ways centered around the small church.

“We never worked on Sundays, no matter how desperate we were to pick the berries, so we always looked forward to going to church. It was very full for Mass — just about everybody in Dockton was Catholic, except for a couple of stray Norwegians,” she said with a laugh.

Brocard had come to the demolition site to mark a Cyprus tree behind the church that had been planted by her godmother Helen Puz, an Islander who is one of the last surviving charter members of St. Patrick’s. The tree, which workers plan to spare during the demolition, had grown from seeds Puz gathered in 1970 on the grounds of a village church in Croatia, Brocard said. The tree was later blessed by a priest and dedicated to all the Croatians who helped build St. Patrick’s.

Puz, 99, reached by phone, said she was sad to hear the church was being torn down.

“I have many wonderful memories of the church,” she said. “I had my first communion there, and I was married in the church in 1936. My dad died in 1933 and we had the funeral there, and two of my children were baptized in that church. My sister was married there.”

Puz came to Vashon from Croatia in 1919, when she was 10 years old, and remembers when the church was built in what was then a thriving community of Croatian immigrants. Many of the immigrants had arrived to work in the shipbuilding and repair industry, which boomed on Dockton around the turn of the century.

Puz recalled lively bazaars held by the ladies at the church and raucous church-sponsored spaghetti dinners that attracted Catholics and non-Catholics alike from all over the Island.

One of the big draws of the dinners, she said, was a chance to drink wine.

“All the Croatians made wine, so every family was asked to donate a jug of wine and a chicken,” she said. Bags of groceries, donated by Dockton Store owner and pillar of the church Theodore Berry, were also raffled off at the events.

Both Puz and Brocard also remember the arrival of a group of nuns that visited the Island each summer from Tacoma.

“They stayed all summer long in a beach cottage and seemed to enjoy the break from Tacoma,” Brocard said. “One of my fondest memories was when we went to catechism there, and we got marmalade and peanut butter sandwiches on Wonder Bread. My mother always made bread, so getting Wonder Bread was special.”

Other Islanders have more recent memories of the church, originally a wooden structure that was sided with bricks and augmented with a belltower in 1950. Chris Jovanovich, who moved to the Island 28 years ago with her husband Tim and has raised seven children here, recalled the 13 years the family lived near and attended the church in Dockton.

“It was a pretty cool thing — the church was a big draw for us,” said Jovanovich, a parishioner. “Our kids used to ring the bell, and we have a lot of good memories. It’s the end of an era, and that’s why we’re really sad. The whole chapter has closed.”

Walker said St. John Vianney staff and volunteers have worked hard to make sure that the memories of the church are preserved.

“The whole process has been really respectful of the historical significance and what the first Catholic church on the Island has meant to Catholics here,” she said.

Walker worked with a team of volunteers to track down families who had donated statuary and other items to the church so that they could be returned.

Brocard retrieved a statue of St. Joseph that her family had given to the church, and another Islander, Marcia Horswill, said she was glad to receive something her family had donated — the large crucifix that hung above the altar.

St. Patrick’s baptismal font went to Arlene Parks, the only grandchild of church founder Theodore Berry.

The church’s tabernacle, a box for holding the Eucharist that is placed on the church’s altar, will be on display in a case at St. John Vianney’s vestibule.

The church’s bell, which was originally used in Dockton’s shipyard to call workers, has also found a place of honor in the community — it was recently hung in Dockton Park as part of the installation of the Dockton Historical Trail.

Now, the last step in the process — the sale by the archdiocese of the six and a quarter acres of property where the church sits — will be initiated as soon as demolition and cleanup is completed. The property includes a rental house once used as a rectory and three water shares. A sizable portion of the proceeds will go to St. John Vianney, Walker said.

For her part, Chris Jovanovich said she hopes the Archdiocese will find a buyer who will use the property in a way that is respectful of the past, and suggested that the site would be ideal for a hospice or Catholic cemetery.

“This is holy ground,” she said.


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