Catholic Sentinel photos by Ed Langlois
Bina Marshallo tries to convince Roscoe Files to eat his vegetables, while Sister Georgita Cunningham, center, enjoys the joke.
Catholic Sentinel photos by Ed Langlois
Bina Marshallo tries to convince Roscoe Files to eat his vegetables, while Sister Georgita Cunningham, center, enjoys the joke.

Just outside the main entrance of Laurelhurst Village retirement community in Southeast Portland, a white statue of St. Joseph stands. Small offerings are scattered around his feet — flowers, a rosary, cherry tomatoes from the salad bar.

The life-size figure is a remnant of the facility's past as Mount St. Joseph, when the Sisters of Mercy carried residents up long staircases, sold handmade lace to pay the bills and charged in the double figures for a month's stay.

The Sisters no longer live here, and a for-profit company is in charge. But a decade-old sale agreement means that a Catholic presence is here to stay.

In the space of five minutes up on the fourth floor, Father John McGrann has wiped someone's mouth after lunch, helped a wheelchair get over a bump and heard a nursing assistant discuss a family struggle.

"I don't know what I would do without him," says resident Ellenore Mercure after the priest has visited her bedside. Asked what the place would be like without him, Mercure assumes a catastrophic expression and says, "Oh dear God!"

A few minutes later, the priest is down the hall visiting a man interested in Mother Teresa of Calcutta and her faith crisis.  

"Father," the man asks. "Have you ever had doubts?" That leads to a candid discussion about faith, limited human understanding and God's steadfast love.

Father McGrann, a retired Archdiocese of Portland priest, has been offering pastoral care here since 2009. Mercy Sister Georgita Cunningham, a former pastoral ministry professor at Mount Angel Seminary, joined him in 2011.

Laurelhurst Village now has 207 beds and offers a range of care, including assisted living and nursing care. Fewer than half of residents are Catholic, but even non-Catholics come to Mass five days per week, attend Bible studies led by Sister Georgita, go on day retreats and take part in art projects led by Father McGrann.

The priest and the nun remind residents that older people have a ministry: To pray for their families and for the world. Sister Georgita often urges residents to remember childhood and young life. It usually prompts feelings of gratitude to God.  

"They are still gospel people," Father McGrann says.

Residents appreciate pastoral care staff because they are not taking a pulse or giving a bath or asking about digestion.

Mike White, 74, is wheelchair bound. He sits near the front door to welcome guests. A Notre Dame graduate, he taught accounting at the University of Portland. After Mass, he sums up the pastoral care team with pith: "They provide availability."

"They reach out far, far beyond what they have to do," adds Bina Marshallo, a longtime resident and former restaurateur. Marshallo tells the story of how she mentioned a craving for dill pickles and Sister Georgita drove out and bought some.

"They live with us without making a big fanfare of it," says Roscoe Files, a retired U.S. Forest Service ranger. "I'm not really religious, but that's part of the atmosphere here that helps. Here, it's homelike and I attribute that a lot to pastoral care."  

Dave Davalos, a retired trucker, shares many laughs with Father McGrann, some unprintable. The hilarity helps everyone feel better.  

"We don't have an agenda," says Father McGrann. "We are just present."

He and Sister Georgita help residents talk about things they sometimes cannot discuss with family — dying, regrets, broken relationships.

"We talk about being pilgrims," Father McGrann says. "We don't come here to to get better. We come here to have a good quality of life at the end of our days." Some residents return to Catholic practice and many ask for help planning their funerals.  

Before Mass, Father McGrann greets every worshiper by name. On this day, he shows a stack of cards fourth graders have made for residents. During the homily, he points out colorful fall leaves, saying that often things are most beautiful near their end.

"For us, at the end of our lives, we have certain freedoms," he told worshipers. "We don't have as much to worry about. There is time to pray. We are a little more trusting in God."

The facility has gone through different owners quickly. Since June, it has been managed by Wilsonville-based Avamere and owned by overseas investors. Even so, there is Mass five days per week, including Sunday, and a 6 p.m. rosary most evenings.

Jonathan Mock, the operations manager, says the Catholic pastoral care arrangement will remain as long as he is in charge. About a dozen residents wrote to Mock this summer, afraid the new management might remove the priest and nun.

"They play a huge role," Mock says. "I look at that as a value here. It brings that peace of mind for people. You have to serve the whole person and so you need to include the spiritual."

There are still some kinks to work out with the new management. Father McGrann had to ask that bingo not be scheduled during Mass time. Some Catholic seniors hit high anxiety over having to choose.