Sacred Heart Parish at the town of Brewster – located at the convergence of the Okanogan and Columbia Rivers, and originally named Virginia City – was not added to the formal roster of parishes in the Diocese of Spokane until 1958. But that does not mean that the Catholic faithful were strangers to the area. In the 1830-40’s Catholic priests, mostly Jesuits, extended their missionary reach into what is now Okanogan County. Father Etienne DeRouge, S.J., prominent among them, established St. Mary’s Mission on the banks of Omak Creek in 1886 to serve the Native American Population. The Mission became the spiritual “home” for many a Catholic family who settled in the area. Father DeRouge offered Mass in many of the settlers’ homes, but most families would travel to the Mission for Mass, special celebrations and catechism classes, often camping there for days. For years there was no regular Mass at Brewster itself. Priests who came to the area on horseback or by buggy included Fr. Edward Griva, S.J. (well-known church builder and linguist); Fr. Kasper (from Oroville and Okanogan); and Fr. Luyten (from Wenatchee and Waterville). Other priests came from Wenatchee and Chelan. With the priests able to come only every six months or so, baptisms, weddings or other religious ceremonies would be celebrated in a short space of time.
Sometime between 1910-1914 the first Catholic church was built at Brewster to accommodate the growing number of Catholics. A stone Episcopal church was being constructed at the time; Ben Smith, a generous local non-Catholic and saloon keeper, thought it appropriate that the Catholics have a church too. He paid $300 for the lumber. Once the building was functional, Father Tritz came from Okanogan once a month for Mass.
In 1916 the U.S. Government threw open for “grabs” specified acreages in the area and more settlers came. Father Joseph Sondergeld (1922) found himself ministering to an expanding population. Both he and Fr. Gerald Feisst, who was to follow him, served out of Okanogan. His successor, Fr. Raymond Reidner, served for five years. In 1934 Fr. Carl Phillip served, followed by Fr. Cyril Feisst (1937), who built the rectory in Twisp and served Brewster from there. In 1940 he also built a church in Monse (St Louis) for the Indians. Father Martin Soden was pastor in 1941 and Fr. Raymond Klemmer came in 1943, residing in Twisp. Father Klemmer was very influential in helping a young lad, Billy Skylstad – who lived half-way between Twisp and Brewster – to attend the seminary at Pontifical College Josephinum in Worthington, Ohio.
In 1946 parishioners at Sacred Heart Parish numbered few. On some Sundays, visiting relatives or company of all the locals brought at most around fifteen folks to Mass. However, the expanding orchard industry in the Methow Valley brought more and more Catholics to Brewster in the late 40’s and early 50’s. With the orchards came scores of migrant Hispanic workers, many of whom became permanent residents. As a result today the Catholic community at Brewster is nearly two-thirds Hispanic. After nearby Alto Lake became a State Park in 1951, the community was blessed with a new phenomenon: the summer tourist and vacationer. In 1948, when Fr. Robert O’Neil was pastor at Twisp (with Brewster and Monse as missions), Bishop Bernard J. Topel suggested that he purchase land while it was still available. After consulting with the parishioners, several lots were purchased where the church now stands.
The building of Chief Joseph Dam (1949-58) brought yet even more families to Brewster. Though engineers, tradesmen, and contractors by profession, the Catholics among them proved to be generous parish workers. The men often helped with physical improvements; the women were active in the Altar Society and the many activities it sponsored. During the construction of the dam, Brewster and next-door Bridgeport needed more space for the celebration of Mass. Father O’Neil, portable altar in tow, set up “church” in a theater in Bridgeport. The exit door behind the curtain served for the confessional.
In 1952 Fr. Cornelius Verdoorn became pastor. He also celebrated Mass in the theatre while St Anne’s church was built in Bridgeport (Diocese of Yakima). The Twisp, Brewster, Monse, Bridgeport communities (covering over 130 miles round trip), were a demanding task for pastors. In May, 1956 a rectory was purchased for Brewster. A 14’x24’ building, sold to the parish for $950, was moved from Bridgeport to its location on the north end of the old church lot. A 14’x14’ combination living-room and office were added to bring the rectory to join the church wall. The structure remained in use until the new church was built.
Soon after Fr. George Morbeck was appointed pastor for Twisp, Brewster and Monse (March 1958), he took up residence in Brewster. In a few short months (October 22, 1958) Bishop Bernard J. Topel formally erected Sacred Heart Parish. Geographically, the parish was to serve the area from Carlton to Pateros, through Brewster to near Malott. Monse was to be its mission and a Fr. Ludo Van Leeuwen was named pastor at Twisp (ironically, one day the parish would become a mission of Brewster). Just two years later newly ordained Fr. William Skylstad (ordained May 21, 1960) celebrated his “first Mass” in the old Brewster High School gymnasium, since there was insufficient space in the parish church. There, obviously, was no thought at the time that the young priest would become the Bishop of Yakima (1977) and later his home diocese (1990)!
By December 1962 Sacred Heart parishioners moved into their partially completed church. Even then some said it was too small for the ever-expanding Catholic population. The Catholic Extension Society helped with part of the construction cost. The old church pews were reused and new ones made. The old church was remodeled into classrooms and a meeting hall.
Other succeeding pastors added their flourish to the expanding parish. Father James Healy (1963) added furnishings to the church; Fr. William Dugan (1967) had the old church remodeled into three separate rooms with doors and lowered ceilings; Fr. Theodore Bradley (1969) oversaw the remodeling of the old church and rectory; Fr. Charles Eis (remembered for his singing voice) started a CYO basketball team which played in a Wenatchee league (1972); Fr. John Birk served as administrator (1974-1975). Father Clifford Hulings (1975) brought liturgical renewal and taught adult Bible study classes.
The parish population grew even more at this time while the Chief Joseph Dam was raised ten feet and more generators installed (1973-79). A rather rapid succession of priests serve the faithful: Fr. David Brumbach (1979); Fr. Joseph Bell (1981); Fr. Kevin Codd (1983); Fr. Pedro Ramirez (1988); Fr. Heliodoro Lucatero (1991); Fr. Jose Luis Hernandez (2001); Fr. Jose Jaime Maldonado (administrator, 2005); Fr. Gustavo Ruiz (2008). Father Matthew Nicks was named pastor in 2011. Two men from the parish, Jose Aparicio and Bonifacio Arebalo, who were ordained permanent deacons on August 10, 2012 by Bishop Blase Cupich, now assist him. Father Pedro Bautista, who had been a pastor at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and former parochial vicar at St. Patrick/Francis in Walla Walla, is current pastor since 2015.
Each phase of growth for Sacred Heart Parish has been blessed by the generous donations of time, talent, and treasure given by its faithful parishioners. Even if they stayed for a few months or years, they have helped build more than buildings. The men’s Holy Name Society was active until a parish council was formed to take its place and the Altar Society remains active. The parish definitely has an Hispanic look to it and the frequently crowded church begs for expansion or replacement. Bishop Skylstad donated the gifts he received for his 25th anniversary of episcopal ordination as seed money for a new church. Given the limited financial resources of the area, however, for a while yet “church” will continue to be built more in lives transformed by the Gospel and less in bricks and mortar.
Source: Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Children of the Sun, Centennial 1913-2013, Editions du Signe, 2013, pg 78-79.