Brief History of St. Leo Parish

In 1879 Fr. J.B.A. Brondel, a missionary priest, founded St. Leo in Tacoma. His congregation, which numbered eighteen, worshipped in a 24 x 40 foot building on Division Street and Tacoma Avenue. Within the next year, Belgian-born Fr. Peter Hylebos was appointed the first pastor. Fr. Hylebos became a well-known and respected man of peace and service in Tacoma's early days. Fr. Hylebos' congregation grew rapidly; a second church was built in 1883 at South 11th and D Streets. In 1888 Fr. Hylebos traveled east to invite religious orders of men and women to assist in missionary work. The Sisters of Saint Francis of Philadelphia responded. In 1891 they established St. Joseph's Hospital.

In 1901 Fr. Hylebos purchased a political hall on South 13th Street and Yakima Avenue, from which he built a 2200-seat church. This massive building suffered total destruction in a fire in 1919. Consequently, St. Leo Parish worshipped in the school gym until late 1921 when they restored the church basement as a temporary church. Finances hampered completion; today we continue to worship in the former church basement.

The Jesuit tradition at St. Leo began in 1911 when Fr. John Cunningham, S.J. became pastor. In 1912 the Jesuits opened St. Leo's primary school for boys and girls, as well as a high school for boys. The Franciscan Sisters ran the primary school.

In 1922 St. Rita's was established within St. Leo's territory as a parish for Italian Catholics. In 1926 two brothers, David and John MacAstocker, came to St. Leo. Both Jesuit priests, the two men built Bellarmine Preparatory and moved the boys' high school to the present campus. In 1975 St. Leo High School consolidated with Aquinas and Bellarmine as a co-ed school at Bellarmine. The grade school remained open until 1976.

During the Depression, St. Leo offered a free soup kitchen and work program for the needy. Yet the parish was suffering great financial distress. When Fr. Krebsbach arrived as pastor in 1933, he found no cash on hand, an overdrawn bank account, $13,000 in unpaid bills, and untended property and buildings. During his time as pastor, "Fr. K" reduced the debt, restored the property, and improved the spirit of community involvement with huge bazaars and drama and musical productions. During World War II the parish offered hospitality to visiting service people with special breakfasts and social events. Money for a new convent was raised from the sale of war bonds.

In the 1950s St. Leo had a booming grade school and high school population, active men's societies, mothers' clubs, and the first St. Vincent de Paul Society Conference in Tacoma. Then pastor Fr. Buchanan was very involved in civic events. In 1956 St. Charles Borromeo Parish was founded; St. Leo gave up 1/3 of its territory and lost about 150 parish families.

The '60s brought loss and struggle as well as new hope to the community. Fr. Buchanan was killed in a car accident in 1960. The present rectory was completed. Racial tensions exploded in the Hilltop area; Fr. Bill Bischel served as mediator and helped groups resolve some of the tension.

The '70s began with a Vatican II renovation of the church and the founding of the Martin Luther King Ecumenical Center. In 1970 the Oregon Province Jesuits decided to nurture St. Leo as an urban faith community working for social justice. The pastoral team of Fr. Pat Hurley, Fr. Bill Hausman and Fr. Bill Bischel began their work together. The Jesuit Volunteer Corps began to serve the community as outreach workers, parish ministers, and teachers. New social outreach programs began, including New House, Neighborhood Shop, and Neighborhoods First. Frs. David Rothrock and Peter Byrne, S.J. founded our first L'Arche Community.

The ‘80s found the community involved in collaboration with Catholic Community Services to renovate the school building to house the Hospitality Kitchen, the Neighborhood Clinic, the St. Leo Food Connection, and services provided by Catholic Community Services as well as their administrative offices. This was done under the leadership of Fr. Pat Carroll, S.J. and is now referred to as the Tahoma Center.

During the ‘90s, our parish underwent a great deal of change under the direction of Fr. John Fuchs, S.J. including a major renovation of the church and the formation of parish commissions.

In 2003 Fr. Steve Lantry, S.J. was named pastor and Fr. Jim Harbaugh, S.J. joined us in 2008 as parochial vicar. Following a year of retreat and discernment, the parish adopted a new five year plan in the fall of 2008 which we hoped would carry us through 2013. Then the global economy crashed and we had to put our hopes and vision for a new parish center and Atrium space on hold. After a year of meetings and further discernment in 2012-13, the community discerned that the time was right to resume implementing the plan. In the fall of 2013 we began forming committees for the capital campaign.

On February 28, 2015, our precious friend and beloved brother, Fr. Bill Bichsel passed into new life. And though he would no doubt have protested our desires, we decided that it seemed very "good in the Lord" to name our new facility the Fr. William Bichsel, SJ Hall—or "The Bix" as we fondly call it! We broke ground for the building on May 26, 2015 and dedicated it on May 26, 2017, Fr. Bix' birthday!

In the late summer of 2015 we said farewell to Fr. Jim Harbaugh who shared his ministry with us for seven years as our Parochial Vicar. Fr. Matthew Kunkel, SJ arrived in August 2015 to serve as our new vicar. Fr. Matthew's gifts for language, liturgy, and laughter were most welcome as our parish embarked on the discernment of a new five year plan.

After more than a year of prayerful discernment, focus groups, surveys and parish wide gatherings, the five year plan committee presented the results of their labor to the pastoral council and the parish. The full plan can be found here: Five Year Plan (need link).

Now, St. Leo is a parish in transition. Julie Manley who served as liturgy coordinator left us just after the Easter season in 2017. In July we said farewell and thank you to Dotti Krist-Sterbick, who had served as our Pastoral Assistant for Faith Formation for eighteen years. We sent her forth with the blessing of a grateful parish community, trusting that the Spirit will refresh her and call her to new mission and ministry.

Fr. Philip Sutherland, S.J. was ordained June 10 and graciously spent the summer of 2017 ministering with us and to us. He left us in mid-August to continue studies at Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI.

Fr. Matthew Kunkel, S.J. who served as Parochial Vicar these past two years, left St. Leo at the end of August to complete his tertianship in the Society of Jesus. We miss his wonderful sense of humor, his deep compassion—especially for the marginalized—and his prophetic voice. We pray that his tertianship is grace-filled. He goes with our love and gratitude!

Even as we have sadness in the many goodbyes of this year, we are also filled with hope as we welcome new members into ministry on the staff at St. Leo. Responding to the needs addressed in the five year plan, Anne Tropeano has been appointed as Pastoral Associate; Joe Hastings has been appointed as Pastoral Assistant for Faith Formation; and Fr. Alan Yost, S.J. has joined us as Parochial Vicar.

As we enter into the 2017-2018 ministry year, we contemplate "Finding God in Transition" and all that will mean for our parish. But, too, we know well that we remain:


“A Jesuit parish, a Catholic community

centered in the Eucharist,

enriched by diversity,

committed to Gospel values,

and continually seeking to be

Christ’s servant presence in the world.”