Saint John the Evangelist Parish (Seattle)

  • By Chris Jarvis
  • Posted 12/31/2008
  • Essay 8875

Saint John the Evangelist Parish was established as a Seattle parish in the Greenwood neighborhood in 1917. Its founding priest was Father William Quigley (1879-1951). The first Masses were held at an amusement hall at 85th Street and Greenwood Avenue. In 1918 a frame church was built on the church's present site -- 121 N 80th Street. In 1923, the Saint John the Evangelist Parish School was built at 120 N 79th Street. A Romanesque-style church designed by architect Abraham Albertson (1872-1964) opened in October 1931. A convent for the parish was completed in 1944. In 2008 the church is newly renovated. The parish maintains an active ministry in the Greenwood neighborhood, operates the school, conducts an active ministry among the homeless, and maintains a relationship with a sister parish in Peru, as well as deep connections to Malawi.

Father Quigley's Parish

From a humble infancy followed by a sometimes unsettling adolescent growth spurt, Saint John the Evangelist Parish has achieved in its maturity a special place in one of Seattle’s most vibrant neighborhoods.

Its success is due largely to the faith and devotion of an Irish-born priest who took his mission to heart: to serve the spiritual and educational needs of a working-class community made up mostly of mechanics and laborers seeking little more than to better the lives of their children.

The shepherds that followed the Reverend William Quigley as pastor -- the Revs. John Egan (1891-1966), born in County Tipperary, Ireland; John Murphy (1884-1985), also born in County Tipperary; Thomas Pitsch (1914-1978); James McEachern (1927-1982); Edward Boyle (d. 1987); James Picton (b. 1948); and William McKee (b. 1947) -- carefully nurtured what Father Quigley planted, and each left an indelible mark on the parish through times of tumult, of technological progress, church reform, and societal change.

The Working-Class People of Greenwood

The roots of Saint John the Evangelist Parish are traced to 1916, when a seemingly unsolicited letter from one of the neighborhood’s non-Catholic women, a Mrs. Anna Mitchell, found its way to the desk of Bishop Edward O’Dea (d. 1932).

“Dear Friend,” she wrote, “I want to take up enough of your valuable time by writing you this letter ... . I am taking this liberty in writing you so I can put a very serious matter before you such as the Catholic condition in the North End of Seattle.”

Many of the neighborhood’s Catholic children, she wrote, couldn’t attend Mass as there was no Catholic church nearby.  

 “The people are all poor working class and have large families ... . One of the Catholic women came to see me and I promised her our help, but I wasn’t able to sleep thinking of the conditions so took this liberty in writing you as your being the head of the church.  

“There are several little homes for sale out here which could be turned into churches or at least rented out for temporal use ... . You might want to send someone down to look around.”

She didn’t want her name mentioned by the bishop or his agents, however. Her husband, she explained, was an area businessman and she didn’t want him to suffer fallout from anti-Catholic sentiment.  

But if there was a fountain of tolerance, it was within her. “God Bless all such good men as you and your followers,” she closed.

Whether by coincidence or design, she was not the only area resident thinking of the “Catholic Condition” on Seattle’s northern frontier.

The following year, after a census of the Greenwood area, several area men petitioned Bishop O’Dea to form a new parish.

Thus, in 1917, Saint John the Evangelist became the newest Parish in the Diocese of Seattle. Bishop O’Dea named Father Quigley, a 47-year-old diocesan priest and native of County Limerick, Ireland, its founding pastor.

The first Mass for this young parish was celebrated in an amusement hall in the Ajax Building at N 85th Street and Greenwood Avenue. Father Quigley, with the help of several parish men, spent the predawn hours each Sunday clearing the hall of evidence of the previous night’s levity so Mass could be celebrated after dawn.

Clearly, the new parish filled a need in the community. Needing more room, Mass was moved to another building at 83rd and Greenwood. The following spring, a new frame church was built at the present site of Saint John (121 N 80th Street). Its sanctuary could be cordoned off to provide space for church socials, bazaars, and catechism classes -- which helped provide the financial and spiritual nourishment for the new community.

The Mission to Educate

With a worship space able to accommodate immediate growth, Father Quigley and church leaders turned their attention to their most important charge -- providing for the new parish’s children.

On September 4, 1923, Saint John the Evangelist Parish School -- the first permanent parish building -- was opened to a waiting throng of 220 children, only 120 of whom were registered for classes. With a capacity of 400 students, the building cost $100,000.

Unlike today, Saint John’s familiar Marymount plaid, khaki pants and blue sweatshirts were not seen on Greenwood streets. With anti-Catholic sentiment whipped up largely by the Ku Klux Klan, Father Quigley feared for his students’ safety and refused to require school uniforms.

The Klan tried to close the school through claims that its ventilation system was faulty -- just part of a more widespread, coordinated anti-Catholic campaign quashed a year later in 1924, when Washington voters soundly defeated the Klan-backed Initiative 49, designed to close all private schools.

A New Church

His school’s future secure at least for now, Father Quigley then turned his attention to building the Crown Jewels of his new parish -- a new church and rectory. In 1926, a new two-story rectory was built at the corner of N 79th Street and 1st Avenue. And in the early years of the Great Depression, Father Quigley’s dream of a new church was about to become reality.

But his hopes were dashed in 1930, when another parish (now Christ the King) was created north of Saint John, which removed nearly 100 families from the parish’s membership rolls.  

“The people have made heroic self-sacrificing efforts to maintain the parish and school, but now find it practically impossible to continue,” Father Quigley pleaded with Bishop O’Dea in a letter, explaining that the school would have to close some classrooms.

Bishop O’Dea explained that his decision, though a hardship on the young parish, was final. Undeterred, Father Quigley persevered,

“A fine new church to accommodate 650 persons is to be constructed immediately for Saint John’s progressive parish of the Greenwood District, which has established a record for extraordinary achievement in the 13 years since it was organized by its present pastor, the Rev. William Quigley,” trumpeted the Catholic Northwest Progress in the spring of 1931.

“Under the inspiring leadership of the Rev. William Quigley, Saint John’s Parish has progressed remarkably during its brief history, and the zeal and enthusiasm of its parishioners and their power to accomplish have become bywords and an inspiration throughout the diocese.”

In April 1931, barely a month after Father Quigley’s announcement of the new church’s construction, ground was broken.

The new Romanesque-style church was designed by Seattle architect Abraham Albertson (1872-1964), whose other works include the Northern Life Tower Building (now Seattle Tower) in downtown Seattle, the Everett Municipal Building, the original Condon Hall (now Gowen Hall) on the University of Washington campus, and the Stuart Building, which once stood on the site of Rainier Square in downtown Seattle.

After a summer of construction, the first Mass was celebrated in the new church in the fall of 1931.

In 1944, parishioners banded together again, this time to build a convent. In 1948, the convent, now known as Quigley House, was completed.

In 1957, Father John Egan, Saint John’s second pastor, decided it was time to provide Saint John children with a facility suitable for them to expend their energies and hone their athletic skills. He established the Saint John Athletic Association and oversaw construction of the gymnasium and parish hall that bears his name.

The Parish Today 

In 1968, 50 years after its founding, Saint John’s celebrated its Golden Jubilee, with Archbishop Thomas Connelly, Saint John’s Pastor John Murphy, and 10 former Saint John students who’d entered the priesthood in the previous half-century concelebrating the jubilee Mass -- just a portion of the nearly 70 former students who’d entered religious life over the parish’s history. Also in attendance were several of the sisters who established and staffed Saint John’s Catholic School.

Much has happened over the 91 years since that unsolicited letter landed on Bishop O’Dea’s desk. Eight pastors, many young priests, and a handful of priest-administrators have helped guide the parish community. The church, the city, and the neighborhood have changed, but the parish mission has not.

With a sister parish in Peru, deep connections to Malawi and an active homeless ministry, the influence of Saint John the Evangelist and its parishioners extends far beyond its Greenwood-area roots.

Father McKee (b. 1957) leaves a legacy of an essentially new church building (renovated in 2008) built on the foundation lovingly laid by Father Quigley. Its altar and ambo are now a part of the community gathering and its state-of-the-art ventilation and heating systems designed to last well into a new century of parish and school growth.  

The newly renovated church, Saint John School, Egan Hall, and Quigley House, are nothing more than brick and mortar. But all are symbols of community, of home. 

As long-time parishioner Relta Gray says, “I look at the young people -- you feel the comfort of a home place. It’s my parish, I’m not going anyplace.”  

Pastors of Saint John the Evangelist Parish

  • William Quigley (1879-1951); served 1917-1951
  • John Egan (1891-1966); served 1952-1966
  • John Murphy (1884-1985); served 1966-1971
  • Thomas Pitsch (1914-1978; served 1971-1976
  • James McEachern (1927-1982); served 1976-1980
  • Ed Boyle (d. 1987); served 1980-1985
  • James Picton (b. 1948); served 1985-1992
  • Bill McKee (b. 1957); served 1993-2008
  • Father Crispin Okoth (?); served as Priest Administrator 2008-present

Principals of Saint John Catholic School

  • Sister Mary Antonette, served 1929-1932
  • Sister Mary Conrad, served 1932-1938 and 1944-1950
  • Sister Mary Claudine, served 1938-1944 and 1950-1959
  • Sister Mary Terresetta Murphy, served 1959-1965
  • Sister Mary Eileen Healy, served 1967-1971
  • Douglas Arthur, served 1979-1984
  • Daniel Sherman, served 1984-1999
  • Agnes Jacobson, served 1999-present

Sources: Mrs. Anna Mitchell to Bishop Edward O’Dea, April 1916, RG 700 Parishes: St. John the Evangelist, File 1: Correspondence General Vol. 1 (1916-1949), Archdiocese of Seattle Archives, 710 9th Avenue, Seattle; "Heart and Center of Fine Parish," Catholic Northwest Progress, April 25, 1930; "Fr. Quigley Tells Plans for Edifice" Ibid., March  20, 1931; "Architect's Sketch of St. John's New Church" Ibid., April 10, 1931; "Saint John's New Church Is Completed," Ibid., October 16, 1931;  Photos, Ibid., October 23, 1931; "Archbishop to Preside at St. John's Jubilee" Ibid., May 3, 1968; Rev. William Quigley, "Parish History," typescript dated December 14, 1942, Archdiocese of Seattle Archives; "Golden Jubilee: St. John's Parish (1968)," commemorative brochure and "St. John the Evangelist Parish -- 1917/1992 -- 75th Anniversary," commemorative brochure, Archdiocese of Seattle Archives;  "The Ku Klux Klan in Washington State,: the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project website (

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