Book Excerpts


St. Henry Elementary School, Gresham, Oregon

Published by: RoseDog Books

Gresham, Oregon is located twelve miles east of Portland, just five miles from the famous Columbia River, in a valley with scenic Mount Hood towering as a backdrop forty miles away.

The Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary had served in a more westerly part of the Archdiocese of Portland, namely, Tillamook, Oregon from 1897 to 1903. They were well known as educators in Portland, Oregon, where they had taught in St. Andrew's from 1909 to 1921, and were teaching in St. Lawrence Parish School and in Central Catholic Boys' High School in the 1950s when Reverend Augustine A. Meyer, pastor of St. Henry's, Gresham, began his search for sisters.

What would attract the Congregation to extend its services into this little town of then 3,100 people, and into a parish of 380 families? Certainly it was unique to be called into the heart of a multi-million dollar berry-producing region--the strawberry capital of the world, to be at the hub of the holly, nursery stock and commercial flower-raising business. Gresham was a thriving shopping center for some 40,000 people living outside of Portland, Oregon, working on the farms, in the logging or sawmill industry, or in food processing plants. All of this life and potential for growth was reflected in St. Henry's Parish. An average of nine baptisms a year between 1913 and 1952 precipitated into 203 Baptisms in 1952-1954. The 1950 census showed a 30% population increase in Gresham in four years. As Father Meyer wrote to Mother Marcella, " I really feel that this parish has a fine future . . . " (209)

In the fall of 1951, the groundwork for additional IHM Sisters serving in the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon, had been laid by the personal visit to Marywood of Reverend Martin Thielen, superintendent of Catholic Schools of the Archdiocese. It was during that visit that Mother Marcella indicated a willingness to provide additional sisters at some future time. The closeness of that "future time" was clear a few months later in a December 1951 letter from Archbishop Edward Howard of Portland:

. . . It seems advisable that the Sisters should be assigned to St. Henry's Parish in Gresham. This parish is in good financial condition and should be able to provide a suitable school and convent by September 1953. (210)

The written appeals of Father Meyer, a hard working, determined, and holy priest, were also difficult to ignore. Once he received the slightest hope that sisters might be forthcoming, he set his plans for building a school into high gear, launched a fund drive raising 50% of the total needed, and bought a house to be the future convent for the sisters. That the coming of sisters to St. Henry's was central to his plans for the future is obvious, as he writes:

I look forward eagerly to the change in the whole parish when the good effects of our school will become evident, and from many sources I have heard nothing but compliments about the Immaculate Heart Sisters, and the observation that they are parochial minded. I will certainly welcome their assistance in the parish. I think they will find my people quite unspoiled--very wholesome, and deeply reverent, with a strong affection for those who have dedicated their lives in the service of God. (211)

Sending sisters into a welcoming and promising environment was not the principal motivation of Mother Marcella, however, since sisters were in great demand everywhere and in short supply. Her motives are clearly related to apostolic ministry and community life concerns as she writes:

While sending sisters for your school will mean a sacrifice, since we never seem to have enough teachers to supply even the ordinary demands, I feel that God will bless us for taking another mission in the far West. Then, too, as our numbers in the western missions increase, the Sisters laboring there will not feel so isolated. (212)

This foresight and generosity of spirit were characteristic of Mother Marcella.

As the months of 1952 rolled on there were many exchanges of letters between diocesan officials in Portland and Mother Marcella. Several of these letters related to providing residence for the two sisters teaching at Central Catholic High School at St. Henry's upon completion of the convent. Archbishop Howard had first suggested this to Mother Marcella in his 1951 communication with her. The pastor, Father Meyer, was happy to include extra rooms in his plans. The sisters concerned were Sister Justitia Downes and Sister Barbara Dumont, who were residing at St. Lawrence Convent in Portland with the five IHMs who staffed St. Lawrence Elementary School. It seemed an appropriate distribution to add the two Central Catholic High School teachers to the two sisters to be sent to St. Henry's for the new four-grade school. Further, with the cramped conditions at St. Lawrence Convent, with seven sisters using one bathroom, with no shower facilities available, and with five sisters sleeping in a beaverboard dormitory arrangement, the plan seemed logical.

However, letters from Reverend William L. Whalen, principal of Central Catholic High School, and from Reverend Martin Thielen, superintendent of schools, set forth some of the difficulties in locating the sisters at such a distance from the high school, and made clear that Sister Justitia, a Portland native, had "expressed a definite preference for remaining at St. Lawrence.'' (213)

Mother Marcella settled the matter in a letter of September 27 acceding to these appeals and resolving the imbalance of sisters at St. Henry's by favoring Father Meyer with a third sister. (214) Thus, Sister Liguori Farnon, superior and principal, Sister Agnes McHale and Sister Genoveva Chainey were sent to open St. Henry's School, Gresham, Oregon, in September 1953. Four double grades were opened, and Sister Genoveva served as full-time music teacher.

Sister Agnes McHale recalls the people of St. Henry's as hardworking, mostly middle-class families who came from the outlying areas around Gresham. Father Meyer had organized the furnishing of the convent by providing the stores in town with lists of items that would be needed. The generosity of the people was such that everything was provided--the kitchen was completely equipped; table linens, bedding, and many thoughtful touches throughout the house were provided.

The convent was remarkable for its provision of adequate closets, storage, laundry, and freezer space adjacent to the kitchen, six ample bedrooms, a beautiful chapel, parlors, kitchen and dining room. The windows in the community room looked out on a beautiful view of snowcapped Mount Hood. While the convent was not complete at the time of the sisters' arrival, the workmen were busy evenings finishing the floors and the three unused bedrooms. (215)

Actual construction of the school had begun on January 14, 1953, so it was an amazing accomplishment that both the school and the convent were nearly completed in August. With 900 square feet of floor space, the school provided at that time four classrooms, of faculty and health rooms, office and reception rooms. The exterior both convent and school presented a striking appearance, being finished in vertical redwood siding and red brick. The auditorium was completed by November 1953 and contained both athletic facilities and provisions for stage productions and parish social functions.

Although there were only 82 pupils in four grades at the opening of school and 110 in catechetical classes, the sisters found themselves very busy as they moved into both school and convent. They planned, organized, attended professional and spiritual meetings, and called forth all their domestic talents as they prepared, canned and froze all the marvelous food products--tomatoes, corn, peaches, apricots, cherries, and much more--as the seasonal fruits ripened and the people generously provided the sisters with ample supplies. This tedious work was truly appreciated in the heart of winter when these fruits and vegetables would not otherwise be available.

Father Meyer was more than attentive to the sisters' needs. As a master woodworker himself, he prepared many surprises to enhance the beauty of the convent. He handcrafted the community room table, the pews for the chapel, and the brackets that held the sanctuary lamp. He enjoyed the cheerful and energetic spirit of the sisters and found endless ways to show his appreciation for their work in the parish.

It was April 4, 1954, before Archbishop Howard's schedule permitted him to conduct an official dedication of St. Henry's School and Convent. But this had given the sisters time to prepare the pupils for their part in the program. The IHMs, too, contributed to the program by singing "Heart Immaculate," a hymn composed by Sister Scholastica Chainey, IHM, with words written by Sister Aquin Theobald, IHM. The occasion of the dedication was marked by the presence of many visiting clergy, religious and laity. The IHM Sisters from St. Lawrence in Portland assisted in serving a buffet luncheon in the convent for the many guests. (216)

The school year 1954-1955 saw an enrollment of 138 pupils. Sister Sarita Gesler replaced Sister Genoveva whose health was not good. It was obvious that the trend of increasing enrollment was to continue, so the fall of 1955 saw the assignment of an additional sister, Sister Camilla Kirsch, to St. Henry's. Mother Kathleen Hart had been elected at the close of Mother Marcella's term in June 1955. Mother Kathleen had visited Gresham in 1953 when the school and convent were just being completed and had talked at length with Father Meyer about his hopes and plans for the future. Being aware of the anticipated growth, she did not hesitate to supply an additional sister, and, indeed, when school opened on September 6, 1955, there were 163 pupils in six grades. Four sisters were already not enough. Nor was the four-room school any longer adequate. Ground was broken in March 1956 for an addition to the school.

In light of the planned expansion, Father Meyer promptly wrote to Mother Kathleen requesting a fifth sister and backing up his request with the fact that he had built a convent large enough to accommodate a full complement of sister-faculty for St. Henry's. The happiness of the sisters who were already there, and his desire to do all he could for them and for the school provided a strong case for his request. But Mother Kathleen was unable to spare a sister for Gresham that year. Father Meyer's disappointment was reflected in his words:

I still refuse to believe it! I still feel so confident that we are going to get another sister that I refuse to accept your letter as final. Here in Gresham we feel that God won't let us down.

School opened in September 1956 with four sisters and one lay teacher, Mrs. Doris Buckley. Two hundred pupils were registered in grades one through seven.

In the fall, 1957, Sister Noel Michalek was transferred from St. Thomas School in Coeur d'Alene to St. Henry's, Gresham. This brought the sister-faculty to five, with one lay teacher, Mrs. Margaret Okrasinski. The enrollment was 234 pupils in eight grades. The school, now four years old, was beginning to sense its impact in the local area. Students were entering contests and winning prizes; they were participating in radio broadcasts, and offering annual entertainments to the public. The teachers were participating in workshops, and were receiving high marks from visiting supervisors from the Diocese and from the State of Oregon. So, the first eighth-grade graduating class was sent forth on June 5, 1958, with much to be proud of at St. Henry's and with a firm foundation for the next level of education.

Sister Camilla was transferred to Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, at the close of the 1957-1958 school year, having served at St. Henry's for three years. Sister Paracleta Gallagher replaced her. Father Meyer was bracing himself for the change yet to come at the close of the 1958-1959 school year when Sister Liguori's term of six years would end. He had come to rely heavily on her, and it was certainly evident that her leadership had brought excellent development to the school.

School opened in September 1959 with an enrollment of 250 pupils. Sister Therese Culhane had been appointed superior and principal; Sister Noel returned to Coeur d'Alene; and Sister Clement Schermanson was transferred from St. Lawrence, Portland, to Gresham. A second lay teacher, Mrs. Gloria Starret, had to be hired. The activity of the sisters increased with the growth of the school and of the after school CCD classes. There were preparations for First Holy Communion and Confirmation ceremonies; the instruction of adult converts brought forty adults into the Confirmation class in this particular year; in addition there were book fairs, conventions, and involvement in Diocesan and Congregation life. (218)

Again, in February of 1960, Father Meyer pleaded with Mother Kathleen for another sister. Since his request could not be honored and the enrollment reached 276, there had to be additional doubling of grades, with a fifth-sixth and sixth-seventh combination. The distance of Gresham from Portland posed a transportation problem for many potential lay faculty, so the problem of procuring good lay teachers was growing acute. It was probably disconcerting to Father Meyer to see each day for a week the six extra sisters who were staying at St. Henry's. This temporary residence arrangement was made to accommodate the Portland sisters who were moving from St. Lawrence Parish until their new convent at St. Anthony's in Portland opened on December 8, 1960. These sisters from St. Henry's were present for the first Mass celebrated in St. Anthony's Convent and, as they expressed it, had the thrill of seeing the sanctuary lamp lighted in another convent home. (219)

In August 1961 Sister Sarita and Sister Paracleta were transferred to eastern missions. Sister Sarita had completed seven years, having been at St. Henry's since 1954; Sister Paracleta had served there since 1958. Sister Gracilda Burke and Sister Aline Farrell were sent as replacements. A third lay teacher, Miss Carol Monlux, was added to the faculty.

There was no dearth of activity as the sisters extended themselves to diocesan education projects, serving on curriculum and textbook committees. There were many opportunities for enrichment as they attended liturgical conferences, subject-matter workshops and Congregation meetings.

October 12, 1962, was an eventful day as a hurricane devastated the Portland area. The front porch of St. Henry's Church was blown off and two large windows in the school were broken. It was fortunate that power and water in the church, convent and school were not affected, as was the case in most of the area. The sisters from St. Anthony's were guests once again until their electricity and water were restored. (220)

June 18, 1963, saw Sister Agnes McHale depart from St. Henry's for the East. The people of the parish seemed to take her change with deep nostalgia because, as they said, "She was the last of the first Sisters.'' (221) It must have been a difficult move for her, too, since she had served at St. Henry's for ten years. Of her years in Gresham, Sister Agnes said, "I loved it, and while we worked hard, it did a lot for me, too. (222)

September 1963 saw, not only a replacement for Sister Agnes, but an additional sister, bringing the little community to six. They included: Sister Therese Culhane, principal and superior; Sister Clement Schermanson, Sister Aline Farrell, Sister Christina Murphy, Sister Gracilda Burke and Sister Casimir Bougher. The two lay teachers in the school were Mrs. Okrasinski and Mrs. Fagan.

This was to be an exciting year as the groundbreaking and construction were begun for the new St. Henry's Church and the realization of another of Father Meyer's cherished dreams. It was also a year for travel as the sisters at St. Henry's planned a car trip to California, and the St. Anthony's sisters planned a trip in their six-passenger station wagon to Scranton. These were highlights in their lives, especially the trip East, with all the Congregation ties being renewed over the summer.

The opening day of school in 1964 found a faculty of six sisters and two lay teachers, with Sister Eva Marie Zlotucha replacing Sister Gracilda who had been transferred to Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. October 18, 1964, was the date of the dedication of the new St. Henry's Church. Many visitors came from surrounding areas, since the architecture and liturgical art of the new structure had received wide publicity in both Catholic and secular papers. Archbishop Edward D. Howard was principal celebrant of the Mass, with deacons and sub deacons representing the Holy Cross Fathers from Portland University, the Franciscan Fathers, and the diocesan clergy. Benedictine priests and brothers served in a variety of ceremonial capacities. St. Henry's men's choir sang for the Mass, and the school choir, directed by Sister Eva Marie, sang the offertory hymn. (223) The church, elegant in its simplicity and open space, was considered to be exemplary of the Church's new decrees on liturgical art after the Second Vatican Council. Reverend John Domin, a diocesan priest and head of the Sacred Art Commission in Portland, had this to say:

A result of collaborative effort by all, together with pastor and Sacred Art Commission, they (the art work of the church) are valid expressions of a living architecture and a living art for
a living faith, in the interest of making that faith more meaningful and satisfying. (224)

Father Domin was referring to the fact that the new St. Henry's, its landscape, architecture, windows, altar, candlesticks, tabernacle, sanctuary lamp, baptismal and holy water fonts, and crucifix were all works of local artists and reflected their living faith.
It was an historic and proud day for St. Henry's Parish. Thirty-six visiting religious sisters were also on hand for the occasion and were served a buffet luncheon in the convent, prepared by the school's Mother's Club and served by the eighth-grade girls.
Sister Therese Culhane's six years at St. Henry's having been completed in June 1965, she was transferred to Little Flower School in Bethesda, Maryland. Sister St. Bernard (Kathleen) Lannak replaced her as superior and principal in September 1965. Sister Aline and Sister Christina were also transferred; Sister Mercille Schneider and Sister Mary of Nazareth (Mary) Dawson came from the East to replace them.

On February 5, 1966, Archbishop Howard retired after completing forty years as Ordinary of the Archdiocese of Portland. Archbishop Robert J. Dwyer succeeded him. Sisters Monica Byrne and St. Bernard represented the Sisters of IHM at the installation ceremonies of the new archbishop. All of the sisters at St. Henry's would have the opportunity of meeting Archbishop Dwyer on April 16, 1966, when he administered Confirmation to 120 children and 35 adults. (225)

Weary, yet invigorated by their summer car trip to Scranton, the sisters took up their work for the 1967-1968 school year. Sister Rosalian Armbruster had replaced Sister Casimir Bougher, and an additional lay person, Mr. Darel McMahon, had been hired for sixth, seventh and eighth grade science classes. This arrangement gave the principal the ability to function as a free principal in the afternoon for the first time at St. Henry's. With 320 children enrolled in eight grades, this was an important change.

Visitors came and went in a steady stream: in October, the regional superior, Sister Georgina Wertz, and her companion, Sister Joyce McQuaide, were welcomed; in November, the sisters from St. Anthony's were Thanksgiving Day guests. Sister Felicitas Ryan, Congregation school supervisor, arrived in Holy Week, enroute to the NCEA Convention in California. All of these were joyful and stimulating experiences of the 1967-1968 year. But several gatherings were full of sadness as farewell dinners were held for the IHMs of St. Anthony's and Central High School, Portland, who were being withdrawn from the West in June 1968. On May 12, five of the Coeur d'Alene Sisters, Sisters Noel Michalek, Mariel Dougher, Gertrudis Porter, Christina Murphy and Bernard Cunningham drove to Portland to say their farewells. The following weekend Sisters Bernita McDonough, Miles Boyd and Joan of Arc (Jacquelin) Servick made the trip from Twin Falls, Idaho, to Portland for their farewells. In spite of the distances separating the sisters in the West, there was an evident bond among them, and their sadness at the departure of these sisters was understandable. Perhaps they were also reading the "handwriting on the wall" for their own missions in the not-too-distant future.

The year 1968-1969 saw Sister Christina Aldarelli replace Sister Rosalian at St. Henry's. It was a year that was to close with the transfers of Sisters Eva Marie and Mary Dawson. But in the intervening months the school was alive with activity as the pupils were capturing prizes in mathematics, science, poetry and physical education contests. Sister Cor Immaculatum, art supervisor for the Congregation, visited the school and gave generously of her talents to assist the teachers. Sister Nora Clarke, sector superior, and Sister Jane Kehoe visited in the spring, as did Sister Christina Aldarelli's mother.

Newcomers in 1969-1970 were Sister Josann Gallagher and Sister Lauren Conk. There were 323 children registered in the school. This was to be a year of much travel as the sisters from the West participated in the Congregation's Institute for all superiors and in the education survey committee. Sister St. Bernard (Kathleen Lannak) flew East at the end of January for these activities. Then in late February, Sisters Aloysius Schermanson, Bernardus Dwyer, Robert Mary Murphy and Christine Marie from Coeur d'Alene, and Sister Kathleen Kelley from Twin Falls came to Gresham to meet with Sister St. Bernard about conducting the education survey in each school. These links with the activity of the wider Congregation were important to the sisters in the West and kept them in tune with developments and changes in the Congregation. (226)

Meanwhile, because of the onset of serious illness, Father Meyer had lessened his involvement in both the parish work and in the school. While he had turned over many duties to his able assistant, Father Gregory Gage, Father Meyer was faithful in his expressions of gratitude to the Congregation for the sisters. In April 1970, he wrote to Mother Beata:

I am very pleased and delighted with our fine group of good Sisters. Not only in the classroom is there a good spirit and obvious dedication, but away from the classroom they
all seem so spirited, lighthearted, congenial and joyful. They truly seem like a family! (227)

What better compliment could he have given them?

In an attempt to comprehend the events of 1970-1971 which led up to the withdrawal of our sisters from St. Henry's, and indeed, from all of our schools in the West--St. Edward's, Twin Falls, St. Pius X, Post Falls, St. Thomas School and the IHM Academy in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho-- in June 1971, one must try to enter into the pain and struggle of both the Congregation administrators and that of the sisters serving in these missions. In the face of serious declines in numbers of sisters because of illness, deaths and departures, the administration was faced with hard decisions regarding its commitments. It must be recognized that because of the distance involved, all of the western missions were in some way tied together in the minds of those in the East; the West was a generic category that scarcely differentiated the various scattered locations. Given this concept, it was probably not surprising that the motion made in the Central Administrative Assembly meeting of November 27, 1970, was to withdraw from all our schools in the West. (228) Specific needs and positive elements in the individual situations seemed to have little bearing on the decision in the over-riding need of the Congregation for additional personnel. And while these needs were understandable and withdrawals involved a total of eight missions across the Congregation in 1971, the years have not erased the shock experienced by the sisters in the western missions.

Mother Beata Wertz had visited each mission in 1967 and again in the fall of 1970, affirming the sisters in their ministries and supporting the pastors in their planning for the future. At a district development assembly held in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, in November 1970, it was decided that a questionnaire regarding sisters' availability for service in the West should be developed and sent to the administration for distribution to the sisters across the Congregation. As one sister explained, "If the response was negative, then we were realistic enough to see the handwriting on the wall. But, if it were positive, then we should go on with our commitment to the West." (229) In addition to this proposal, the minutes show that the sisters set forth nine reasons to support the continuance of the western missions. (230) The timing of these two actions, one by the sisters in the West, and the other, about a week later, a decision by the administration to withdraw from the western missions, cannot be overlooked.

The questionnaire was not sent out, but in January 1971 (two months later), Sister Nora Clarke, sector superior, and Sister Anne Fulwiler, director of apostolic works, arrived in Portland to impart the withdrawal decision in person to the sisters and to the pastors. The situation at St. Henry's, Gresham, was complicated by the fact that Father Meyer had been diagnosed as having cancer of the bone and was absent from the parish for a short vacation. Father Gage, the assistant pastor, agreed to tell Father Meyer when he met him at the airport on his return. A formal follow-up letter was sent to all parties concerned on January 29, 1971, and set a June withdrawal date. It appears that the shortness of notice and lack of input by pastors and sisters in the decision led to the strong negative feelings engendered.

Two requests were made by Father Meyer. The first was that Sister Kathleen Lannak and Sister Mercille Schneider remain for one year to ready the school for continuance with an all-lay staff. Receiving no response to this by early March, he instructed Father Gage to ask for two sisters to remain to organize a CCD Program for the parish. (231) There is no record of the response given to this request. Undoubtedly, the horrendous fire at the Motherhouse in February 1971 was understandably the focal point of all attention and action at the time. The ramifications of this shattering, historical event at Marywood were probably not fully understood or appreciated by those so far removed from it. And this was also true for St. Henry's, steeped in shock and sorrow at the sisters' departure.

When we left, the people went out of their way to express their gratitude, but their disappointment, too. It was like a wake! Each one of the Sisters went over to say good-bye to Father Meyer as he was now completely bedridden due to the cancer . . . He was dead within the year! 232)

The good work of our Sisters in the Portland Archdiocese was affirmed by Reverend Emmet Harrington, Secretary of Education when he wrote:

I do wish to tell you that the Immaculate Heart Sisters are close to my thoughts and prayers. I have enjoyed working with them, not only at St. Henry School where they seem to be very happy and did excellent work, but also at Central Catholic High School
. . . If at some other time you are able to furnish some Sisters to work in the Archdiocese of Portland where we feel the climate and atmosphere of education is strong and healthy, be assured of a real welcome. (233)