Seattle Now & Then: Our Lady of Good Help

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: On the left, most likely the first photograph of Father Prefontaine’s Our Lade of Good Help at the northeast corner of Washington Street and Third Avenue, and, on the right, a late and perhaps last record of the enlarged sanctuary.
NOW: The Tashiro Kaplan Artist Lofts now fill the triangular block bordered by Third Ave, seen here, Washington Street and Prefontaine Place, which was named for the founding priest of Our Lady of Good Help.

Judging by the scrapbook* of collected stories told about him, Roman Catholic Priest Father Francis X. Prefontaine was one of Seattle’s more beloved pioneers.   C.T. Conover, himself a pioneer as well as long-time and often-quoted Times correspondent, described Prefontaine as “large, ruddy, genial and jovial with a liking for his fellowman.”   His relaxed candor included a taste for expensive cigars, whiskey, and real estate.  His reputation as a fine cook mixed well with his conviviality.

Not Prefontaine, but rather the office staff of Crawford and Conover. The partners are close on the left, with Conover, then still a future Seattle Times columnist, sitting.

There were about ten Roman Catholics living in Seattle in 1868 when the thirty-year-old priest relocated here from Port Townsend to make a try at building Seattle’s first Catholic Church, largely with his own hands.  It is mildly ironic that he named it Our Lady of Good Help, for Prefontaine was from the start a skilled persuader of Puget Sound’s volunteering distaffs – some of them Protestants – who were, in turn, persuasive in their own communities.  Prefontaine the impresario scheduled fairs and entertainments from Port Townsend to Olympia to raise funds.  Beyond permission from the bishop to build a church, as a secular priest he received no direct help from either the archdiocese or any religious order.

A detail from the 1878 Birdseye of Seattle shows Our Lady of Good Help at the top-center eight years after the church’s dedication in 1870..   The map-maker has given it the number “7” in the intersection of Washington and Third and both streets are also named on the map.  The creek off of First Hill is also seen passing behind the church where it heads south for “Gas Cove” (named for the gas plant showing in the upper-right corner) outlet onto the tideflats of EllIott Bay. The railroad tracks that cut across the bottom-right corner lead to the King Street Coal Wharf and Bunkers out-of-frame, bottom-right. . The coal came around the south end of Lake Washington from the east side mines.  CLICK to ENLARGE

Prefontaine, architect, painter and decorator, set the foundation for his parish at the northeast corner of Third Avenue and Washington Street. He recalled, “Every foot of it was covered with monster trees and dense undergrowth.”  An eight-foot thick fir that measured 230 feet was cut and planed for, at least, the sills of the church’s windows.  Behind the church the priest also built a rockery beside a stream that ran off First Hill. He kept a garden there for vegetables and flowers.  When dedicated in 1870, the little church – thirty by sixty feet – seated one-hundred.  Time’s columnist Conover adjusted this, “It would hold about 200 people if the majority were children, and most of them were.”

Looking northeast through the intersection of Third Ave. S. and Washington Street to a Our Lady enlarged with wings to both the north and south.  (You may find other views of it in the clips below.)
Walla Walla, the largest town in Washington Territory, 1876.  CLICK-CLICK TO ENLARGE

A decade later, by the evidence of the 1880 national census, Seattle had surpassed Walla Walla as the official boomtown of Washington Territory. In 1882 Our Lady of Good Help was enlarged with new wings and a spreading shingle roof that, the story goes, was somewhat miraculously saved from destruction during the city’s Great Fire of 1889.  Conover, again, “reveals” that in the midst of sparks and falling embers, an “old lady came and sprinkled some water on the front around the entrance.  A workman explained, ‘The church is safe, she is sprinkling it with holy water’.”  (A local weather watcher credited a change in the wind.)  In the Spring of 1903, on the urging of Prefontaine and others, Bishop Edward J. O’Dea moved his territorial see from Vancouver to Seattle and claimed Our Lady of Good Help as his pro-cathedral.  The Bishop, however, soon changed his mind about building the archdiocese cathedral in the place of Prefontaine’s Our Lady of Good Help.  The parish’s surrounds had become home to too many sinners: a skid road mix of both parlor and box houses.  O’Dea wrote to the Vatican, “the Church of Our Lady of Good Help is located in the most disreputable section of the city of Seattle, and is almost surrounded by houses of ill fame. A great number of Catholics object to attend it on that account.” The Bishop sold the church and looked to First Hill.


As the number listed suggests this was taken from a collection – Seattle Now and Then Volume Two. (It is long out-of-print, although it can be read in toto with this blog. Find it under the books button.)  CLICK CLICK TO ENLARGE.  BELOW – Inside the Graham building at the southwest corner of Washington and Third Ave. S.   

CLICK CLICK TO ENLARGE:  A clip from The Times for October 12, 1904. Compare the wood pile here on the far right with the one in the featured real photo postcard repeated below.

Next week we will conclude with a few more of the barely turned the pages of the Prefontaine scrapbook.*  (*THIS MAY WELL be misleading.  There is no “Prefontaine scrapbook” so far as we known.  We mean the entire opera of his work as revealed in often scattered articles and photos and such.) 

Click Click to ENLARGE. This ca. 1900 rare look at the east facade of Our Lady looks west on Washington from 5th Avenue. CLICK CLICK to ENLARGE for at least some help with reading.


Anything to add, guys?  Surely jean.  Ron has once again put up an Edge Attachment of many features that related by subject, spirit or neighborhood.   They have all appeared in past blogs.   By now you will be familiar with many of them.  Remember please my mother’s admonition.  “Repetition is the mother of all learning.”   These will be followed by a berry basket full of other features.   Which reminds us to once again appeal to some zestful reader to help us scan the remaining features for use here and elsewhere.   There are about 1400 of them. Ron has also come up with a portable scanner to help.

THEN: 1934 was one of the worst years of the Great Depression. This look north on Third Avenue South through Main Street and the Second Avenue South Extension was recorded on Thursday, April 19th of that year. Business was generally dire, but especially here in this neighborhood south of Yesler Way where there were many storefront vacancies. (Courtesy Ron Edge)

Then: The Pacific House, behind the line-up of white-gloved soldiers, might have survived well into the 20th Century were it not destroyed during Seattle’s Great Fire of 1889. Courtesy, Museum of History and Industry

THEN: The Freedman Building on Maynard Avenue was construction soon after the Jackson Street Regrade lowered the neighborhood and dropped Maynard Avenue about two stories to its present grade in Chinatown. (Photo courtesy Lawton Gowey)

THEN: A winter of 1918 inspection of some captured scales on Terrace Street. The view looks east from near 4th Avenue. (Courtesy City Municipal Archives)

THEN: This “real photo postcard” was sold on stands throughout the city. It was what it claimed to be; that is, its gray tones were real. If you studied them with magnification the grays did not turn into little black dots of varying sizes. (Courtesy, David Chapman and

THEN: Looking north from Yesler Way over the Fifth Avenue regrade in 1911. Note the Yesler Way Cable rails and slot at the bottom. (Courtesy, Seattle Municipal Archive)

THEN: Looking north-northeast from the corner of Main Street and Occidental Avenue two or three weeks after the city’s Great Fire of June 6, 1889. (Courtesy the Museum of History and Industry – MOHAI)

THEN: Built in 1900 the Corgiat Building lost its cornice and identifying sign to the 1949 earthquake. (Courtesy, Museum of History and Industry)

THEN: The Phoenix Hotel on Second Avenue, for the most part to the left of the darker power pole, and the Chin Gee Hee Building, behind it and facing Washington Street to the right, were both built quickly after Seattle’s Great Fire of June 6, 1889. (Courtesy: Museum of History and Industry.)

THEN: The original for this scene of a temporary upheaval on Mill Street (Yesler Way) was one of many historical prints given to the Museum of History and Industry many years ago by the Charles Thorndike estate. Thorndike was one of Seattle’s history buffs extraordinaire. (Courtesy, Museum of History and Industry.)












Our Lady of Good Help with its two near wings can be found in this pan that looks south from the Frye Opera House across Marion Street in the late 1880s – before the Great Fire of ’89.




You will find Our Lady in this pioneer photo from the 80s.  You will not find the Kingdome anywhere – except in the chunks of concrete both given away and sold following its implosion.  

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