Ava Thurman listens during Mass at St. Stephen Parish. The number of young families is growing.
Ava Thurman listens during Mass at St. Stephen Parish. The number of young families is growing.

Former hipster Shawn Natola, 32, stands in front of St. Stephen Church in Southeast Portland. The 8 a.m. Latin Mass has just ended and he points a thumb over his shoulder.

“This is awesome, and kind of weird, and really, really beautiful,” says Natola, a parishioner for three years. For him, “kind of weird” is high praise, denoting a refusal to pander.

In a neighborhood known for trendiness and bohemian culture, St. Stephen stands apart as witness to goodness, truth and beauty. For about a decade, St. Stephen has been home to Mass with Gregorian chant. Each Sunday, the 8 a.m. Mass is held according to the 1962 rite, in Latin and with the priest and people facing the altar. The 10:30 a.m. Mass is in English, still with both the priest and people facing east.

Natola says people who come to Portland hunger for something ancient and genuine, and St. Stephen offers it.

“It comes to us from a very long line of people who knew what they were doing,” he says.

Father Eric Andersen, the pastor, says the mission of the parish is to pray for everyone within the parish boundaries, whether Catholic, Christian or otherwise. He has walked the district, seeking God’s blessing for people and meeting them. He wants neighbors to know that St. Stephen is a place where good things happen and where people pray for the good of the city — physical and spiritual needs included.

“God wants us to be involved with the salvation of the world,” Father Andersen said in a homily last month. His chief prayer intention is for “a great reconversion to Catholicism and reconversion of hearts to the ways of the Lord.”

Father Andersen, ordained in 2009, returned to faith after a time away as a young man and knows what can slake spiritual thirst. He wants to get the whole parish involved in praying for neighbors and reaching out in welcome.

Though the shopping districts on Division, Hawthorne and Belmont are within the parish bounds, there also are many homes. The parish, while not full, has seen an increase in young families both from in and out of the area.

Matthieu and Sara Bernard bring their five children to Mass from Beaverton, wanting to be immersed in timeless liturgy and deep meaning.

“It’s a witness to the beauty of the world and who we are naturally,” says Matthieu, with several youngsters clambering around his legs. “The true value of humanity — what secular humanists desire — is actually found in the Catholic faith. It’s made whole and brought to a higher level when we reach out for the divine.”

 

Sara observes curious neighbors popping into the church for a look. Some return later for the venerable liturgy.

“That attracts people, even though they might say they want modern and hip,” she explains.

Father Andersen says the two kinds of liturgy available at St. Stephen — pre-Vatican II and post-Vatican II — go well side by side and show continuity of tradition. The newer rite is rooted in the older. Quoting Pope Benedict XVI, the priest says there was no “rupture” between one and the other.

The beauty of the 1925 Italian Romanesque church is an aid in prayer. Appealing lines, good art and abundant stained glass enhance the sacred atmosphere. When people compliment the church, Father Andersen says it’s just a glimpse of the beauty of heaven.

Roy and Jennifer Friend bring their two young children each weekend. After worship, the tikes play chase. Roy, 28, knows many of his neighbors could be called trendy, but they also are searching for truth.

“The liturgy is beautiful, yes, but it’s also a sign of something real happening,” he says. “We are not putting on a show.”

“This is a parish that knows its roots and embraces its roots,” Sara adds. She thinks parents can feel confident at St. Stephen because negative influences are kept at bay.

A recent parish festival brought local fare and games to the parish’s inviting side yard. Every month, the parish hosts a philosophy night where deep discussion can ensue on matters touching faith and life. Guest speakers discuss matters such as the existence of God, situation ethics and language.

St. Stephen long has been a prominent parish. When the cornerstone was laid in 1924, dozens of clergymen attended, as did baseball star Babe Ruth, who was on a West Coast tour.

It hosted an eastside Catholic high school in the 1920s and 1930s. Like many other eastside parishes, it saw a drop in numbers when the district became home for young singles. Now those former socialites are getting married and having children.

The embrace of the extraordinary form Mass was set into motion by Father John Boyle, director of the Archdiocese of Portland Tribunal and pastor until last month. He is still in residence at the parish.

Estrella Johnson, a longtime parishioner, is excited to see young families again at St. Stephen. At 69, she is a parish stalwart, attending Mass daily and visiting homebound parishioners. Faith helps form a good neighborhood, she says.

Anchilla Domini, holding her 14-month- old child Yannica, says St. Stephen is good at feeding souls. She credits the philosophy nights, frequent confessions, first Saturday devotions and learned homilies for “growing our faith,” a sure way to attract newcomers like her.

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