STEVENSON, Wash. — There are exceptions to every rule, and in the small Columbia Gorge town of Stevenson at the farthest corner of the Archdiocese of Seattle, there is the exception to the rule on the high cost of Catholic churches.

Completed in 1995, the new home for the 110 families of Mary, Star of the Sea Parish contains a spacious church, offices, classrooms and a hall. The 8,000-square-foot wood and stone structure is nearly four times the size of the simple 1915 wood frame church it replaced.

It also cost the parish $585,000 to build, or approximately $73 per square foot.

Completed in the middle of a decade-long economic downturn that shut down the town's main employer, a plywood mill, and pushed the community's unemployment rate to more than twice the state average, the new church is a symbol of the determination and support of the parishioners and the frugal creativity of Father Ronald Belisle, the former pastor, and the late Thomas Nathe, a former deacon who died in 2000.

“My dad always had the dream of building a new church,” said Tom Nathe, son of the former deacon. “It was more of a pipe dream until one of the parishioners came forward and said he had $100,000 worth of timber on his property and would donate the money from the sale to build a new church.”

Aware of the fact that their financial resources were extremely limited, the pastor and deacon dispensed with the approved practice of hiring an architect, establishing a master plan and developing a fund-raising analysis. Instead, they conceived a plan for a nave twice as large as their existing one, surrounded it with essential offices and meeting space and sought a nearby builder's advice on design and costs.

“RSV Construction of Vancouver said it could be built for less than $600,000,” Nathe said.

The proposal was then submitted to the archdiocese, which notified the parish of the obvious: Their plans were well below the expected costs associated with construction of a Catholic church and there was absolutely no chance they could raise the $1.5 to $2 million necessary to build a church campus at the normal rate.

“The archdiocese looked at the local economy and the contribution numbers,” Nathe said. “Based on that, they said we couldn't afford a new church.”

Convinced their construction budget was correct, Father Belisle, Deacon Nathe and the parish received the reluctant approval of the archdiocese, who warned the parishioners they could expect no loan assistance from the revolving construction fund. They didn't need it.

The parish found a buyer for the old church property and other major donors. “One woman who had been a cook in a logging camp wrote a check $10,000,” said Kay Wright, a member of the parish since 1951 and one of the coordinators of the construction project. “We had other big donors and the pledges were paid off in a year.”

“Money was donated,” Nathe said in agreement, but in a scene reminiscent of the 1963 movie Lilies of the Field, parishioners and community members came forward with materials and labor. “Whenever anything was needed, somebody always came forward.”

Slightly more than three years since the June 13, 1992, campaign kickoff, the new church was dedicated in October 1995.

Philip S. Moore