St. Patrick Church claims the distinction of being the oldest church building in Portland still being used as a church. It all began in 1885 when Archbishop William Gross saw the need for a new parish center in Northwest Portland to serve the families of the many lumber mill and dock workers there, which included many Irish immigrants. A tworoom building was constructed at 1930 NW Savier Street to serve as the church and school. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart, it was a Mission of the Cathedral. Very soon, 130 students were enrolled in the school, taught by the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary.
In 1887, Archbishop Gross purchased the adjacent lots from the Glisan family for $4000. He asked Father Patrick Gibney, a devoted Irishman, to supervise the construction of a church. Fr. Gibney agreed if the parish could be renamed St. Patrick.
On St. Patrick’s Day 1889, over 5,000 people, many of whom had sloshed through mud streets from the downtown Cathedral at SW 3rd and Stark, stood in the rain while the 500-pound Clackamas-quarried basalt cornerstone was placed at NW 19th and Savier Streets. Oregon’s governor Sylvester Pennoyer and Archbishop Gross arrived together in a carriage. Archbishop Gross shouted to the crowd, “When St. Patrick’s Day rolls around again, let it rain as it pleases. We will gather you inside that church, the first in Portland to be named in honor of Ireland’s patron saint.”
After two years, only the basalt rock shell of the church was finished. But on March 17, 1891, it was dedicated “To the glory of God in honor of Ireland’s Apostle, St. Patrick.” Again there was a procession from the downtown Cathedral, with the Order of the Royal Hibernians, the Marquam Silver Cornet Band, the Cathedral and St. Patrick choirs, and a full orchestra for the pontifical high Mass. Many clergy attended the ceremony, and after the Mass, everyone enjoyed a medley of Irish tunes.
Lathe and plaster were finally applied to the interior walls in 1899, under the direction of Father Edward Donnelly. The parish debt was $20,000. In 1904, Fr. E.P. Murphy took charge of the church and pushed to finish the interior for the Silver Jubilee in 1914. New altars and pews were added, and the sanctuary was remodeled. Swiss artist Prof. Staheli painted the frescoes of the Transfiguration, St. Brigid, St. Patrick, and 13 Irish saints copied from pictures at Trinity College, Dublin. Despite St. Patrick’s financial deficits, St. Andrew Catholic Church on NE Alberta Street, records that the small group of Irish immigrants that started that parish in 1907 received financial help from the parishioners at St. Patrick Church across the river!
In June of 1918, Fr. Charles M. Smith succeeded Fr. Murphy as pastor. He saw the need for a proper school, and demolished the old tworoom schoolhouse behind the church and built a new one. Attendance peaked at 280 pupils, under the direction of the Sisters of Mercy. Father Smith was the first to hire a school bus to pick up the many students in Linnton and on Nicolai Street. He built the wooden additions on the back of the church to house the bells and remodeled the 1887 rectory building for the Sisters of St. Francis, who took over the school in 1925 and stayed in charge until the school closed in 1957. Seven nuns taught eight grades, the 7 combined. Total enrollment had risen to 340 students.
Fr. George Dum wrote in his homily for the 90th church anniversary that “Fr. Smith was a small man in stature, but a giant in his zeal and achievements.” With his own family funds, he financed a chapel van that he drove to outlying areas to establish or serve new missions that later became full-fledged parishes. One of those was St. Birgitta in Linnton, which became a mission parish to St. Patrick’s in 1938. Father Smith had been editor of the Catholic Sentinel, and he built and managed its printery, making the Archdiocese of Portland one of the leading centers of Catholic literature in the United States. Fr. Smith resigned in 1927 to devote his energy to the Catholic Truth Society.
Father Theodore Bernards took over in 1927. He was the builder priest. He oversaw the installation of a new heating system, replaced antiquated wiring, laid new floors upstairs and down, installed new light fixtures, had new outdoor steps built, often doing the work himself. When he went to the local electric company to get a permit, they asked who was going to do the work. He replied, “I’m going to do it!” It was reported that there were 350 families in the parish and 1400 souls! Two hundred children attended the school.
Father Robert S. Neugebauer, a St. Patrick school graduate, became the assistant priest in 1932. He devoted his energies to working with the young people. Youth clubs flourished and provided many wonderful outings and memories for St. Patrick students.
During these early years of the century, a new wave of immigrants came to the United States, from Eastern Europe. Notable at St. Patrick’s were mainly the Croatians, and also Slovenians and Slovaks. To serve these new immigrants in the area, Archbishop Edward D. Howard appointed four Croatian priests and one Slovak priest to help administer the sacraments. For the immigrant women, language barriers were overcome by their involvement with the Altar Society and activities at the school.
In 1934, Father Louis A. Sander was appointed to take Fr. Bernards’ place. For the upcoming 50th Anniversary in 1939, the main altar, painted white and gold, was returned to its natural golden oak. Oak benches were donated for the sanctuary. Unfortunately, contractors painted out the marbleized pillars, stenciling and other original decorative details. A large, round gold cloth canopy was installed above the altar (which was removed in 1972). Father Sander’s wish list included a remodeled rectory, a pipe organ, and a library for the school, which was added in 1935. The Altar Society was in full swing with a mix of Irish, German, Croatian, Slovenian and Slovak women.
In the 1930s, changes became apparent in the neighborhood. Industrialization started to encroach, especially north of the church. Parish residences were destroyed to make way for businesses and light industry. Many families from the old “Slabtown” neighborhood, named so because of the piles of slab wood drying infront yards, were forced to relocate. School enrollment dropped to 152 students.
More big changes in the parish. At the beginning of WWII, many families emigrated to Portland and Vancouver to work in the shipyards. One large war housing development was at Guild’s Lake, just below the Montgomery Ward building. For a while St. Patrick enjoyed a surge of new people and activity. Many shipyard workers sent their children to St. Patrick School, and enrollment jumped to 350 students.
Also during this time, many men of the parish left home to serve in the military. When they returned, they saw the old neighborhood disintegrating due to encroaching industrialization, and decided to move to other Portland neighborhoods. The Guilds Lake war housing closed, and those families left for other Portland neighborhoods or returned home. School enrollment dropped to below 100 students.
In 1944 Father John P. Mitchell transferred to St. Patrick’s from St. Mary’s in Corvallis. Though parishioner numbers were greatly diminished, the community flourished with new activity under Fr. Mitchell and his assistant Father Paul Zeller. Both were sports enthusiasts and many teams were formed, including a boxing team. Father Zeller bought team uniforms from his personal funds. With the roar of the crowds from the Vaughn Street Ballpark in the neighborhood, many boys grew up too under the spell of baseball. John Pesky and Mickey Lolich were two famous national league players from the parish. The Mothers Club organized a Brownie club, cooked hot dog lunches, and organized the safety patrol, school carnivals, parish bazaars, graduations, and first aid classes for parents. They sewed for overseas missions, and served weekly lunches to the local industrial workers to earn money for the parish.
The heart of the parish was strong, but extremities were weakening. In 1957, the school was closed due to low enrollment and a dilapidated school building. The last 8th grade class of 18 students graduated, and the remaining 55 students were taken in by the Cathedral parish school. The school building was torn down in 1966 and the property sold to the neighboring trucking firm, Consolidated Freightway. Also at this time, a new freeway and the Fremont Bridge were constructed next to the church, further disrupting the neighborhood.
In 1964, assistant pastor Father Wang instructed the Altar Society ladies in the liturgical changes of the Mass, and asked them to sit in the front rows to lead the congregation.
Receptions were held for school graduates Louis Urbanski and Leo Remington in honor of their ordinations. Another school graduate, Father Neugebauer had been ordained in 1933. Fr. Mitchell, after 50 years a priest, officially retired on Dec. 1, 1966. “Charity was his password for eternal happiness” commented Bishop Leipzig, “and his door was open at all times to his brother priests and the poor.” For almost two years, St. Mary’s Cathedral supervised the affairs of St. Patrick parish.
Father Francis Schubert arrived in 1968 to be pastor. A new momentum was generated by his love of people, humor and music. He and the Altar Society split the cost on a piano, and the old hall resounded with music and laughter. It was at this time that the relics of St. Flavia, a young girl and Roman martyr, came to be placed under the altar. Archbishop Norbert Blanchet, in 1846, had climbed down into the catacombs in Rome to retrieve relics from four saints, to bring to North America. St. Flavia’s relics, in a silver box, were encased in a lifesize wax figure in Montreal, and then brought to Portland in 1888, to be placed under the altar at St. Mary’s chapel downtown. When that St. Mary’s Academy building was razed in 1969, the figure came to St. Patrick’s, which had been designated an historic landmark by the Portland City Council.
After only four years, Fr. Schubert was transferred and St. Patrick’s, in a reversal of roles, became a mission church to St. Birgitta in Linnton under Father Milan Mikulich. The parish was down to 60 families! Archbishop Robert Dwyer challenged the parish to come up with funds for needed repairs, or the church would be sold! A small committee of devoted past and present parishioners met with Fr. Mikulich, and voted unanimously to restore! Many fund raising activities were planned—dinners, bazaars, and mailings to solicit funds. There were plaques to recognize those who sponsored pews and windows and $50 contributions. Monies went to reconstruct the roof and cupola, to steam clean walls and the cornice, to clean the murals, and to repair the original and beautiful Povey Brothers stained glass windows.
In May of 1980, a third immigrant group came to St. Patrick’s. Bishop Paul E. Waldschmidt had been looking for a church to serve the Hispanic population in the Portland area. St. Patrick was the only church that had room for a Sunday morning Mass, so it became the Mission San Juan Macias for about 150 Spanish speaking people throughout Portland and East Multnomah County. In 1985, Father Frank Knusel, known as Fr. Francisco, was appointed Administrator of St. Patrick Parish for the Spanish and English congregations. Father Mikulich left St. Patrick and continued to serve St. Birgitta’s parish in Linnton. On his leaving, he told parishioners, “I offer my thanks to the Good Lord for giving me health, strength and stubbornness in persevering to the end of St. Patrick’s restoration!….the church that had served my Croatian people so well.” The Spanish congregation continued to grow and enrich the parish with the celebration of feast days like Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexican festivals, language, music and food. Also, legal assistance was available through the Federal Amnesty and Legalization Program.
In June of 1985, in an arrangement with Bishop Waldschmidt and Fr. Knusel, the Latin choir, Cantores in Ecclesia, under the direction of Dean Applegate became choir in residence at St. Patrick, providing Gregorian chant and sacred polyphonic music for the Saturday evening Solemn Latin Mass. A new, enthusiastic congregation was born, supporting many liturgical feasts and church events. Music came alive in a new way with the sounds of the newly expanded organ and the voices of the three choirs in the nearperfect acoustical environment of St. Patrick Church. The highlight for the choir came in 1987 when, on a European tour with Father Knusel, they sang for Pope John Paul II at St. Peter’s in Rome!
Through the close of the 1980s, St. Patrick parish was a rich tapestry of people, music, liturgies and celebrations generated by the English, Spanish and Latin congregations. The 100 seen as the golden opportunity to raise funds for needed repairs: new steps, new
wiring and paint for the church and rectory, and handicap access. An enthusiastic
Restoration Committee planned a capital campaign, bazaars, dinners, breakfasts,
and bake sales to raise money. On March 17, 1989, a gala dinner was held at the
University of Portland to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone in 1989 was seen as the golden opportunity to raise funds for needed repairs: new steps, new wiring, and paint for the church and rectory, and handicap access. An enthusiastic Restoration Committee planned a capital campaign, bazaars, dinners, breakfasts, and bake sales to raise money. On March 17, 1989, a gala dinner was held at the University of Portland to celebrate the 100th Anniversary, attended by hundreds of past and current members of the parish. An 80-page history book of St. Patrick was available for purchase. New stone steps and other renovations were completed.
Father Knusel left the parish in 1998, succeeded by Father Michael Patrick, and then Father James Mayo from 2000-2002. Cantores in Ecclesia took up new residence at St. Stephens Church in SE Portland. Father Robert Loughery from the downtown Chapel served the parish from 2002-2004. Then Father Tim Murphy came to stay at St. Patrick for 6 years. His main job was Principal at Central Catholic High School where he had graduated. Many of his old friends and high school classmates followed him to St. Patrick, and once again a new group brought new life to a faltering parish. Ever faithful to their old classmate and priest, Father Murphy’s lively cohort provided needed skills to plan and update repairs to the church and rectory, which became possible because of a very generous money gift in the will of an old St. Patrick School graduate. The long awaited lift for the handicapped was installed in 2009. Monsignor Murphy was transferred to St. John Fisher parish in 2010.