Sarah Lillegard Staff Writer
It is finally spring in Lacey. With this season of new growth and changes upon us, this edition of SMU history will examine the early beginnings of Saint Martin’s.
In the years before Saint Martin’s was established, the population was vastly smaller than it currently is in Tacoma and the surrounding area. Ministering to Catholics and providing a place for a Catholic education presented logistical and financial burdens that were prohibitive until the late 1870’s. Many railroads were still being built and were not up and running, and the road system was nothing like what it is today.
Just getting enough priests to do masses for all of the parishes in the region was a chore.
The Benedictine Order had been ministering to the people of this region for some years prior to Saint Martin’s College and Abbey being officially opened in 1895. The Benedictines from the mother abbey, Saint John’s Abbey and College, in Collegeville, Minn., had been supplying the region with priests from time to time and on a rotating basis for some years. In particular, this abbey was able to supply German-speaking priests to the German-speaking populations on the west coast, many of whom had travelled out from the Midwest themselves to make a life here.
The population of Catholics in this part of the Pacific Northwest was not thought to be large or collected enough to support a larger presence until the 1880’s.
By the 1880’s the Catholic population in Tacoma and the nearby areas was asking for more of a presence, including schools and a greater number of priests.
A call went out to Saint John’s Abbey in Minn. The call was for another priest to minister to the German-speaking parishioners and for a school to be established for the largely German-speaking Catholics of the area. The population of German-speaking Catholics in this area was significant at the time. However, within a matter of a few short years, the demographics changed. Irish immigrants began to be a larger presence at the Catholic churches, and this change determined what kind of educational institution was to be established.
Sermons began to be preached in English at most masses and the Irish population came to rival the German population in size.
When Saint Martin’s College, as it was known then, was opened to male students, on Sept. 11, 1895, the school was English speaking right from the start as a result of the rapidly changing population growth in this region. The original building, which was still under construction in the spring of 1895, had both the monastery and the school in one building.
Saint Martin’s College was described with a great deal of enthusiasm in local papers, and it was hoped that it would be a boon to the local economy to have both the monks and a larger number of Catholic families in the area who would choose Olympia and Lacey because of Saint Martin’s College and Abbey.
Several sites were examined before choosing the land on which Saint Martin’s currently stands. Property closer to Tacoma was considered, and property in Lewis County was even considered. The benefits of being more in the country versus in the city were weighed and eventually, after months, the matter was put to a vote. This land in Lacey, which used to be far more rural, was developed as the new site for a permanent Benedictine presence in Washington.