Catholic Sentinel photos by Ed Langlois
Richard Jensen, a Blanchet House guest, explains how he watched construction.
Catholic Sentinel photos by Ed Langlois
Richard Jensen, a Blanchet House guest, explains how he watched construction.

As hundreds of Blanchet House supporters gathered inside, Richard Jensen sat with his back comfortably against the new four-story brick building. He suspects the place will also hold him up figuratively in the years to come.

Homeless and mentally ill, Jensen is one of thousands of people who rely on the 60-year-old Catholic ministry for free meals, a zone without booze or drugs, and a sense of belonging.

"It's lovely," Jensen says of the $12.9 million building in Portland's Old Town. "I like the way it makes you feel."

Blanchet House, founded 60 years ago by a group of University of Portland students, has fed and housed people down on their luck in an Old Town brick tenement built in 1908. Today, the ministry dedicated a shining new structure.

"This building says hope," said Laurie Kelly, a Blanchet board member and University of Portland official. She and others gathered Wednesday afternoon for the dedication. Blanchet House, at the west end of the Steel Bridge, hosts a public open house 1 p.m.-4 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 16.

Retired Auxiliary Bishop Kenneth Steiner blessed the new building with holy water, calling it a place where city and church meet to serve people in need.  

"This beautiful, practical building is more than just a building," Bishop Steiner said. "It's a house of God's love."

The ministry is named after Francis Norbert Blanchet, first archbishop in the Oregon territory. Founded on the Catholic Worker idea that Jesus exists in every person, Blanchet's mission is to feed, clothe and shelter to those in need.

Blanchet House serves almost 300,000 free meals each year. Since it opened in 1952, it has filled up more than 15 million plates. Each year, 5,000 volunteers help serve. Many of them come from Catholic schools.

The old building measured about 10,000 square feet. The new one comes in at 36,000. The new dining room holds 80 to 100 guests; the former had room for only 40. And now, instead of queuing outdoors, diners can wait inside for a seat to open up.

The second and third floors will house men who are clean and sober, one of the things qualifying them for transitional housing. In return for room and board, they work in the kitchen. The fourth floor is reserved for men who have completed a six-month transition program and have found full-time work elsewhere.  

On Wednesday, benefactors listened to speeches while sitting on sturdy, simple wooden benches, the same diners will use. Men at the Blanchet Farm in Carlton made the seats, as well as much of the furniture in resident quarters.

Jim O'Hanlon, one of the founders, said a new board of directors formed 12 years ago may well have saved Blanchet. Made up of the sons of founders and other supporters, the board provided new leadership and had the energy for the capital campaign.

"It's been a great effort by the city and the neighborhood," says Brian Ferschweiler, Blanchet's executive director.

Some business owners balked at the plan for a new, bigger Blanchet, but have since given support. Blanchet residents monitor and clean up around a two-block radius to be neighborly. The building includes balconies with Asian-style metal work, a tribute to nearby Chinatown.

The City of Portland provided the land and a grant. Philanthropist Scott Duffens gave $500,000. He was one of almost 400 individuals, corporations and foundations who gave. The board is still trying to collect $450,000 to pay off the project.

The building, designed by SERA Architects and built by Fortis Construction, won a Gold certification from an environmental building council. Wood paneling in the large dining room was reclaimed from a building on the site that was torn down.  

"On behalf of a grateful city, I am here to say thank you and congratulations," said Commissioner Nick Fish, who helped shepherd the project at City Hall. Too many Oregonians suffer from poverty, hunger and unemployment and Blanchet is doing something about it, Fish told the group.

"When government, community and faith groups link arms, it's possible to break the cycle of poverty," he said.

Those who toured the building were impressed with its simple, light-filled rooms, its sturdy construction and its views, especially of the Steel Bridge.

Margaret Barnes, a supporter and member of St. Ignatius Parish marveled at the space and what it means for the men who will live there. "The Blanchet House and its hospitality are real practical demonstrations of our faith," Barnes said.