The little Latvian church that survived light rail expansion

The Seattle Latvian Church in Northgate, which was threatened by Sound Transit’s new light rail route. (Photo by Walker Orenstein)

Pastor Daria Cilnis holds her thumbs inside her fingers, turns her head over her left shoulder and spits three times.

Well, she fake spits anyways. Her smile brightens the cozy and carpeted lounge of the Seattle Latvian Church and community center, surrounded by religious paintings from Latvian artists and an enormous framed aerial photo of Riga, Latvia.

In Latvian culture spitting over the shoulder is akin to knocking on wood; thumbs nestled between palm and digits is like crossing fingers.

In years past, Cilnis may have needed the good luck to help her with an aging and dwindling Latvian community. This winter, it may have been directed toward the near condemnation of the Church by Sound Transit’s proposed light rail lines heading straight through its property.

But after Seattle’s Latvians came together to protest their church being taken away Cilnis is hoping that things stay the way they are now: Stable. A word not often taken for granted by Latvians anywhere.

Displacement, unfortunately, isn’t new to Latvians in Seattle or Latvia.

In the World War II era, Latvia was invaded and occupied by the Soviet Union, then Germany, and again by the Soviet Union. After being a sovereign nation before the war, Latvia’s independence wasn’t re-established until 1991.

During the occupations, many fled Latvia in hopes of keeping culture and language alive in a less tumultuous environment. They also worried that those in Latvia would totally assimilate into Russian culture.

Those who showed up in Seattle built a strong church, and a strong community. But once again, outside forces pushed them aside. Seattle took the church’s land via eminent domain in 1969 in order to build the Wallingford Playfield.

At the time, this seemed like a setback. But it was actually a pivotal moment for Latvians in Seattle.

Maija Riekstins leads choir practice at the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church of Seattle. (Photo by Walker Orenstein)
Maija Riekstins leads choir practice at the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church of Seattle. (Photo by Walker Orenstein)

The talented and driven congregation members built their new church in Northgate completely with volunteers. Everybody pitched in unique skills, time, and love to raise the beautiful wooden building still tucked away in Northgate. They brag about every piece of the building — Cilnis says the man who rigged the lighting designed the “bump” on the top of the Boeing 747 airplane.

Although Seattle paid for the new part-church-part-community-center property, the funds for the building materials were raised on long term, no-interest loans from Seattle’s Latvians. Eriks Raisters, vice president of the congregation, said most just considered it a donation in the end.

“I think that really energized the community then,” Cilnis said. “There were people coming every weekend and somebody was paving. And somebody was nailing. And somebody was cooking something… The community was just going.”

The church has a Latvian school in the basement for younger kids, a stage attached to an enormous wood-floor common space, a modest-yet-striking room for holding mass, and more.

“That was one of our issues now is [Sound Transit] said ‘well you could just have another church somewhere,’” said former leader of the center’s Latvian folk dance group Inese Raisters. “Yes, if it was just another church you could. There is so much that goes on here.”

The first move for the Latvian Church may have been a net positive. But with the new threat, members of the church were certain that destruction of their current treasured building would signal the end of the church, and by extension, and end to the familial closeness of many Latvians in Seattle.

Volunteer construction isn’t as easy or accepted by the city due to stricter construction regulation. And many of those whose talents crafted the Northgate church are too old to redo the task. Younger Latvians have many skills, but they’re in other veins than they used to be.

Plans for Sound Transit's light rail expansion, including the route to Lynnwood that threatened the Latvian Church.
Plans for Sound Transit’s light rail expansion, including the route to Lynnwood that threatened the Latvian Church.

So when Sound Transit sent the Latvian Church notice of their plans, relocation was no longer an option for the church.

The community center sits right next to I-5, the building settled at the back of a dead end street.

The light-rail trains were meant to be stuffed between I-5 and the church, running through the driveway and the house of a caretaker. Without a driveway, the church would have no entrance.

“Despair, anger, disbelief,” Inese said of her emotions after learning about potential displacement last summer. “A real mix of a lot of things. That [Sound Transit] can’t really understand our situation. That they can’t possibly comprehend the whole scene and what all goes on, and what it would imply not only to the Latvian community but to the Baltic community in general.”

The community was united: To organize and push back was the way to go.

It re-energized the community,” Eriks said. “We had been starting to lag without a doubt.”

The very first thing the center did when Sound Transit sent its original notice was to hold a meeting at the center. The outcome was something Cilnis would have never imagined.

“I saw people here that I haven’t seen for all the years I’ve been here,” she said. “People just responded. Middle of the summer, and it was just packed.”

The extended community that uses the Church and center includes Lithuanians, Estonians, and Scandinavians. Throughout summer and fall they crowded into meetings and hearings about the light rail, making their presence more than known.

Eriks believes they had half of all comments in light rail meetings, no matter the setting.

“I think that’s what amazed Sound Transit more than anything else,” he said. “They said we were the first group that showed up at every single open house that they had. Not only showed up — we were up in Lynnwood, Shoreline, Mountlake Terrace, and we were the majority of people that showed up to those meetings. And we always signed up to speak.”

When Latvian president Andris Berzins visited Seattle as part of an economic-development tour in North America, he spoke to 140 people at the church about the need to allow the church to stay. Support also came from the Latvian ambassador to the United States, Andris Razans.

The pressure eventually made Sound Transit reconsider. They’ve proposed alternate plans to move the driveway where the caretaker’s house is currently located so access to the church will remain. The existing sound wall between the highway and the parking lot will move in on the parking lot and be raised higher.

“It was good that Sound Transit was willing to work with us,” Eriks said. “We’re willing to compromise to accomplish that.”

Pastor Daira Cilnis, who has led the congregation for 12 years, moved from Latvia to the U.S. at age 3. (Photo by Walker Orenstein)
Pastor Daira Cilnis, who has led the congregation for 12 years, moved from Latvia to the U.S. at age 3. (Photo by Walker Orenstein)

Added Inese: “You see the drawings now, you heard your comments but I think we have to be constantly vigilant about how it’s progressing. And they’ll make a mistake if they think that we won’t be.”

Before the threat, attendance had been dwindling at the church — like at many churches these days — and the average age of congregants was rising.

But since the victory, the Latvian community has seen a resurgence around the center.

Senior members of the church trade anecdotes of people they barely remembered showing up to join the cause. Since the community center has so many functions as well, connecting them all united the center and church in a great way.

“There were separate groups,” Inese said.  “The Latvian school parents supported Latvian school but maybe didn’t do other things. The younger crowd supported folk dancing but maybe didn’t do other things. But now everybody is starting to realize that we really are all in this together.”

So for now, Cilnis holds her thumbs and spits three times. For her, things should keep right where they are.

“There’s something satisfying about passing down your heritage,” Cilnis said. “And I think that’s something that motivates all of us.”

Their beautiful building may need retouching at some point. But cherished memories hiding in each corner of the church are likely here to stay.

“It means survival for the community there’s no doubt about it,” Eriks said. “If we had been forced to move it would have been doubtful we would have been able to survive, even with the re-energization of the community. I think we’re very lucky we’ve been able to stay.”

5 Comments

  1. I am a first generation Latvian form Indiana. It is so wonderful to read this success story. The building of the Church and the Community Center brought back wonderful memories of how the Indianapolis Latvian Community Center was built. It truly is great to know that all over the country, Latvian culture is very much alive. BTW, my family and I attended the Latvian Song Festival in Seattle in 1962…the year of the space needle. We took a train cross country in order to attend. My dad was a choir director, so of course he wanted to attend. Our relatives lived in Portland and San Francisco, so it was a no-brainer for vacation plans. Congratulations for winning over City Hall, a feat perhaps only Latvians can accomplish.

  2. I am not Latvian but I have visited the church a few times. This is wonderful news that the community stood up to Sound Transit and won! Good for them for not allowing ST to bully them into submission. Way to go, Latvian Community!!

  3. So rewarding to see this wonderful article and thank you to all who did so much. Yes, I shed tears of memories reading it and hope we can keep our heritage for our grandchildren and more, as does the Scandinavian community in Ballard. This adds to the richness of the Northwest in general and to our county overall, the USA, and the world as well. Belonging to something, even a small community, is healthy for one’s self as well as the population at large. Thank you all.

  4. I remember reading about the Latvian church property being disputed. The story of your congregation is a proud heritage of determination. Continue to hold to your values and determination…….

  5. My compliments to the organizers and participants of the Christmas Bazaar!! We attended several this year, including the NW Art’s show. Yours was the BEST!
    Do you have a notification list for both the bazaar and rummage sale! If so, please place my name and email on it!

    Thank you
    Darlene

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