Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church has a storied history as one of the oldest congregations in the Wedgwood neighborhood of Seattle, second only to Wedgwood Presbyterian Church.
A Catholic parish called St. Ignatius began in the neighborhood in 1929. When the Wedgwood neighborhood really started growing in the 1940s, the Catholic congregation moved to a new site at 8900 35th Ave NE and became Our Lady of the Lake. The church began a building program to expand their space for church services and add a school for the children of the parish. In 2019 Our Lady of the Lake celebrated 90 years as a parish and 70 years as a school.
Catholic services begin in 1929 at a log house
Before it became Our Lady of the Lake in 1940 the St. Ignatius parish was established in 1929 by the Jesuits of Seattle University. The Jesuits bought a forty-acre property on the west side of 35th Ave NE which had only one structure, a large log house located at about NE 81st Street.
The Jesuits had planned to move Seattle University and build a new campus at this northeast Seattle site, but the nation-wide economic crash which began in October 1929 caused them to put their plans on hold. In the meantime, the log house was furnished with an altar and pews, and the Jesuits established Mass held there. The first service was held in November 1929 with an unexpectedly high number of attendees, 128 people, more than could fit inside the log house.
By 1940 the Jesuits had changed their minds about moving Seattle University away from First Hill where it is still located today. The Jesuits sold the remote northeast Seattle St. Ignatius property to a developer, Albert S. Balch.
The birth of the Wedgwood idea
Balch, who was 37 years old in that year of 1940, had cut his teeth in construction and real estate in the View Ridge development. That project had been done house-by-house and a few streets at a time. The new piece of property which Balch bought from the Jesuits afforded him the opportunity to plan the whole site of forty acres (a five-block square) all at once. The property was from 30th to 35th Avenues, NE 80th to 85th Streets, and was outside of the Seattle City Limits at that time.
Balch filed a plat map with King County which was a layout of streets and house lots for his new development. Plats have names, and the story which Balch recounted in a 1956 neighborhood newsletter article was that he had let his wife Edith choose the name “Wedgwood” for his new housing development.
Albert & Edith Balch did not deliberately set out to name the whole neighborhood “Wedgwood.” At that time (the 1940s) there were not any other strong place-name associations nearby, and gradually as businesses sprang up near the new Balch houses, business began naming themselves “Wedgwood.”
The Catholic parish re-establishes itself at NE 89th Street in Wedgwood
As soon as the log house property was sold in 1940, it became the responsibility of the regional Catholic Church authority (the diocese) to find a new location for the church to meet. The parish (a geographical designation) was defined as from NE 75th to 110th Streets, 20th Ave NE to Lake Washington, and the growing Wedgwood neighborhood seemed to be the center of the parish and the best place to look for a new site.
Property was found on the east side of 35th Ave NE at a very accessible, visible location at the corner of NE 89th Street. While a new church building was under construction, the congregation chose a new name, Our Lady of the Lake.
The new church building was finished in February 1941 and was designed to hold 350 people for Mass on Sundays. In hindsight, it is hard to know if the church and its original architect, Paul Thiry, thought that this size of building would be adequate – because it wasn’t.
In the 1950s Our Lady of the Lake had nearly 3,000 parishioners. Growth of the parish can be attributed directly to the growth of northeast Seattle after the end of World War Two in 1945. Albert Balch and other developers were building “starter homes” for returning veterans who married, bought houses and had children. In 1948 at Our Lady of the Lake a parish school was started, which got its own building in 1949. The attraction of Catholic school education brought more and more families to the parish in Wedgwood in the busy growing years of the 1940s and 1950s.
A new and much larger church building in 1961
After only twenty years, 1940-1960, the decision was made to tear down the first church building to make way for a larger structure. A different architect, Roger Gotteland, was commissioned to design a new Our Lady of the Lake Church, which is the present building at 8900 35th Ave NE.
The first problem in designing a new church building for Our Lady of the Lake was to make it large enough within the existing space on the site. The goal was to have capacity for at least 800 people to be seated. Another essential need was to ameliorate the possible traffic noise since the church building fronts on the busy arterial 35th Ave NE. For that reason, entrances to the building are on the sides, not opening out onto 35th Ave NE.
The height of the building is a little more than 40 feet, designed to give the interior a feeling of space via the high ceiling. The width of the building is 80 feet and the length is 134 feet with the altar at the east end. The exterior brick work was designed to give unity with the other buildings on the site as of 1960, the school, rectory and the courtyard on the NE 89th Street side.
The framing of the building was precast concrete, with precast roof arches and roof slabs covered by built-up roofing and rigid insulation. The bell tower close to the corner of NE 89th Street is also made of precast concrete, 80 feet tall and topped by a 15-foot cross. The cross and the three bells at the top of the tower are made of aluminum. The bells have speakers connected to an electric bell cabinet inside the building.
At the base of the bell tower is a shrine to Our Lady of the Lake with a statue and a reflecting pool.
Our Lady of the Lake is an active parish
Today Our Lady of the Lake is an active parish of more than 800 families. Improvements to the church and school buildings have been ongoing. The school has been expanded with a new gym, and in 2014 a new community gathering space called Jubilee Hall opened. All was done without incurring any long-term debt, as the congregation continues to be very vigorous and involved in the parish.
Our Lady of the Lake historical archives. Architectural description from page 7, Our Lady of the Lake church dedication program, 1961.
In 1960 when the first Our Lady of the Lake building was torn down, the demolition contractor attempted to get rid of the debris by dumping it in a nearby ravine. A group of Wedgwood housewives came out and formed a human chain at the edge of the ravine, taking a stand to prevent the dumping. This event in Wedgwood history, known as the Day of the Apron Ladies, led to the formation of a neighborhood association for the protection of the Maple Creek Ravine. Today much of the ravine is in a protective covenant to preserve it.