Val Dumond-Wheelehan, "Steilacoom's Church," Steilacoom Historical Museum Quarterly. XII (Spring, 1983) p. 3-5.

Steilacoom's Oberlin Congregational Church, celebrating its 100th Anniversary this year, grew out of a twofold need in the Community - the need for both a school and a church.

After the closing of both the Methodist-Episcopal and Presbyterian churches in the mid-1870s, there was no formal church. Nor was there a school. All of the former attempts at offering formal schooling disappeared during the exodus of the l870's when Steilacoom's population disappeared along with hopes of a railroad terminus.

Some kind of schooling had been provided the children of Steilacoom since the mid-1850's, when families began to settle in the town.

In January 1860 a "public school" was opened in Steilacoom. Mrs. A. Veeder, from Port Townsend, was the teacher for the girls. James P. Stewart taught the boys, as well as conducted a night school for men on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 7 to 1 0 p.m.

Then in September, 1860, the Rev. C. W. Sloan, the Presbyterian minister, started an academy for boys and girls, offering Primary, Junior and Senior grades. The following year, 1861, a private school was opened by John V. Meeder, offering reading, penmanship, grammar, natural philosophy, algebra, history, arithmetic and vocal music. 

Providence School, conducted by the Sisters of Charity, was established in 1864. With an extensive curriculum it attracted boarders from as far away as Victoria and California. None of these schools survived the 1870 decade of population loss that occurred when the railroad by-passed Steilacoom. Schools and churches were abandoned as people moved away.

The Methodist-Episcopal Church, the first Protestant Church north of the Columbia River, had officially closed its doors in l875, the Presbyterian Church, begun in l860, was disbanded in l876. 

Occasional church services were conducted by visiting pastors for the townspeople.
Family-minded people became concerned about the lack of schools and churches as the town entered the 1880's. Therefore they welcomed the Congregational Society's decision to establish an academy here.

When the Congregational Association of Washington Territory met for its second annual meeting in August 1880 at Fidalgo Island, a committee was formed to establish a second academy. The first was Alden Academy, at Fidalgo. Dr. George H. Atkinson headed the group, chose Steilacoom as the site, and directed the organization to start "as soon as possible."

The Normal Academy opened in September 1881 with minimum accommodations. Plans for a more permanent school proceeded and the TACOMA NEWS TRIBUNE reported on September 28,1882:

"The people of Steilacoom are pleased with the prospects of having a college established here. The old courthouse has been purchased by the Congregational Society for that purpose, who will soon begin to work on the building and will be ready to open school on the first of January. Long may the enterprise prosper and may the people here and elsewhere show their good judgment in assisting it all they can."

And thus the excitement and expectations of this new undertaking grew throughout the community. The new Congregational Academy was taking root and growing.

Arthur T. Burnell and his wife Mary A. Frayer Burnell, moved to Steilacoom from their mission at Skokomish (near Hood Canal) on February 6, 1883. Both Burnells were graduates of Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio-Arthur with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1875, and Mary with an "L. B." (Bachelor of Letters) in 1876. 

Arthur was described as a "cultured young divinity student from Maine. "Mary was an artist and teacher. The newspaper stated they had "chartered the steamer Gem of Union City to bring them direct hither with their household effects." It would be six months before the newspaper would report: "Prof. Burnell's new house at the upper town is beginning to assume fair proportions, and will add much to the appearance of the place." 

The Burnell house, located at Saltar's Point, subsequently was sold to the Claussen family. (The house still stands, 410 First Street. It is listed as a primary site in the Historic District.)

Mr. Burnell was ordained as a Congregational minister soon after his arrival in February, 1883, and was subsequently chosen as the first pastor for the newly organized Congregational Church. The official ordination took place at the Lakeview Congregational Church.

Organization of the Steilacoom Congregational Church took place in the spring of 1883, culminating in its incorporation on April 27. Four of the eight founders were associated with Oberlin College. Besides Mr. and Mrs. Burnell were Lillie M. Wallace and Mrs. Mary E. Wells.

Pastor Burnell served the Congregational Church at Steilacoom until September l4, 1884, when he preached a "Farewell Sermon" and requested to be relieved of his duties in order to devote full time to serving as academy principal.

The academy was running at full steam during 1883-84. Early in 1883 THE TACOMA NEWS reported:

"A convenient and commodious building has been purchased, fitted, and furnished, with 'standard' desks, blackboards, charts and maps for the opening of a graded school and academy on Wednesday, February 7, 1883."

In April it reported:

"The Steilacoom Academy under the charge of Professor A. T. Burnell, principal, seems to be in a very flourishing condition. Several pupils are in attendance from abroad and the entire number enrolled numbers about 65. It is said that rapid progress is being made by students of all grades. Several eastern families have lately settled in Steilacoom and vicinity .

In May 1883: "The Steilacoom Academy is just closing the first term of school for 1883. Sixty-six pupils have been in attendance most of whom reside in the county but a few of them are from other points. All the branches required by the school laws are taught and also history and physiology. The next term begins on Monday."

The first school vacation occurred on August 1 and lasted until September 25,1883.

The Academy closed its doors in l886 and the Burnells transferred their church membership to "Eureka" (state unidentified).

The church lived on and is observing this Centennial Year with a weeklong celebration from Sunday, April 24 through Sunday, May 1.

Val Dumond-Wheelehan, "Steilacoom's Church," Steilacom Historical Museum Quarterly, XII (Spring, 1983) p. 3-5.

The Church of the Immaculate Conception Steilacoom

Lou Dunkin, "The Church of the Immaculate Conception."

The Church of the Immaculate Conception now located in Steilacoom was the first church to be erected in Washington Territory. The building was erected by the soldiers at Fort Steilacoom starting in 1852 and completed in 1856. It was after the Indian uprisings of 1855 and 1856 that the Catholic soldiers of the fort decided to erect a chapel as a convenience for the missionary priests who traveled up and down the sound making their headquarters at the fort and visiting Catholic families in the vicinity. The buildings gave the priests a place to hold services, and as a result they stayed longer which made Steilacoom a center for Catholic activity.

In the early 1860s it was rumored that Fort Steilacoom might be abandoned. The soldiers and townspeople decided to dismantle the church and move it to Steilacoom City. The building is of frame construction and that is why it could be moved board by board from its Fort Steilacoom site to its present location in Steilacoom. 

The pews are the ones put together by the soldiers with the seating capacity being for sixty. Bishop A. M. A. Blanchet, Bishop of Nisqually, blessed the church as the Church of the Immaculate Conception in 1865.

In November of 1863, the Sisters of Providence arrived and established St. Joseph's Convent. The church was moved to the corner lot beside the convent. The school thrived for a while but eventually was moved to Cowlitz, Washington, in 1874. From 1863 to 1879 there was a resident pastor. The parish was divided in 1879 and from then until 1915 services were few and far between.

When the historical marker was placed on the grounds in 1918 by the Washington State Historical Society, attention was focused on its history. The Catholic Women's Improvement Club of Steilacoom restored the church and services were resumed. The church is the oldest church in the state. The Stations of the Cross were painted by an early soldier-artist and are a real gem of early devotion. They hang in reverence and blended coloring in the church today. 

Lou Dunkin, "Church of the Immaculate Conception."