Catholic Sentinel photo by Clarice Keating
St. Michael the Archangel Church sits in the shadow of skyscrapers in downtown Portland.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Clarice Keating
St. Michael the Archangel Church sits in the shadow of skyscrapers in downtown Portland.
In the shadows of high-rise apartment complexes, bustling Portland State University campus buildings, and urban businesses, the church building sits — just as it has for more than 100 years.

St. Michael the Archangel Church, a quiet, spiritual sanctuary among the hubbub of the downtown Portland’s workaday life, is notable for remaining standing. The church is one of few structures that survived Portland’s controversial “bulldoze everything”-style of urban renewal of the 1960s. Had it been across the street, the church would be long gone.

To the Catholics who attend Mass at St. Michael’s, the parish is notable for so much more. Many parishioners refer to the small Romanesque church as the heart of Southwest Portland.

This year, the St. Michael's community continues its journey in honoring its history and heart through a capital campaign that will pay to reinforce the church’s exterior, which is crumbling as the mortar between the bricks disintegrates.
“St. Michael’s is reaching out and touching people’s lives in new and meaningful ways,” Father James Mayo, pastor, said. “As God’s stewards of our time, talent and treasure, it is now our turn to develop the facilities necessary to fulfill our parish’s vision and goals for the future.”

When Father Mayo showed up to serve at the parish, he knew little about the community except that it was the city’s Italian national parish.

Built by and for Portland’s Italian immigrant community, the church’s cornerstone reads “Chiesa Italiana di San Michele Arcangelo, Fabricata Della Colonia Italiana di Portland, Oregon. A 1901 AD.”

Immigrants arriving between 1840 and 1940 settled in areas with access to low-skilled, entry level jobs – often near industrial districts, smoky factories and loud railroads or other factors that kept housing costs low. Italian and Eastern European Jewish immigrants populated the area around the church, about a mile from the Portland’s central business district, known then as South Portland. At that time, the church at Southwest Fourth and Mill sat adjacent to Portland’s city dump in Marquam Gulch, now covered over by the charming Duniway Park.

In the 1920s, working men brought wives from Italy and their families grew. Eventually, the population began crossing the river to the more spacious east side of Portland, where there was ample room for gardens to provide ingredients for antipasti, marinara and other homemade dishes.

Even after most of the Italian Catholics’ former homes were knocked down to make way for urban development, members of the Italian community returned to their spiritual home, where they could worship in the language of their motherland.
In the 1960s, the urban renewal fractured the parish community.

“Redevelopment wasn’t done piecemeal back then, it was done in one big swoop,” said parishioner Philip Austin, who works for the Architectural Heritage Center. “Even newer buildings in the area were wiped out.”

Despite the dedication by Portland’s Italian community, attendance at church services suffered afterward.

“At early Mass you could shoot a cannon through the church and not hit anybody,” said Austin, a longtime parishioner who grew up in Portland. His father worked for the city planning commission; young Austin inherited the man’s interest in the city’s architectural evolution.

As long as the church has stood, hungry passersby, hit by hard times, knew they were welcome to knock on the door for a bite to eat and a hot drink. Since the 1970s, when then-pastor Father Frank Kennard would set out on foot to the Park Blocks with a grocery cart filled with sandwiches, a social mission has developed as part of the parish’s core identity. Volunteers – Catholics parishioners working alongside Portland State University students and non-Catholic community members – serve 60-100 sack lunches every weekday morning and distribute food boxes in the afternoons.

Due to the church’s proximity to Portland’s movers and shakers, parish leaders work to nurture community connections. This spring, employees at Portland’s Office of Sustainability began lugging over boxes filled with 50 pounds or more of leafy greens from a city-sponsored community garden to help fill St. Michael’s food boxes.

Those strong relationships indicate that the parish, despite its struggles over the years, is healthy and thriving, said Rosemary Rettig, St. Michael’s social services ministry director.

“The parish is tucked into everything happening in the downtown area,” she said. “It’s showing itself to be a spiritual center and a vital member of the civic society.”

That’s especially important, she said, when the Catholic Church’s views and actions can be at odds with secular society.

“We don’t toot our horn very much but we’re here and people find us, and we very quietly do our work,” Rettig said.

A remodel will streamline the parish hall, where the social services are offered. Currently there is seating for only 100-or-so folks to come in out of the winter rain.  On delivery days, both volunteers and guests must navigate around boxes piled high with 3,000 pounds of food donations.

Ann Zoll, now 91, is a former coordinator of the parish’s sandwich ministry. She and her volunteers stuffed bags with bologna sandwiches, fruit and coffee every day. Some who sought help didn’t talk much, so volunteers made a point to pass out big smiles along with the sack lunches.

“We saw the same [people] over and over again, some of them I still see on the street and around town,” said Zoll, who “retired” from her volunteer position seven years ago.

Zoll saw how parishioners at St. Michael’s hungered to serve the poor, even during a time when awareness and emphasis on service were low. That has changed as the divide between the haves and have nots has widened in this country – more people know and empathize with those know how it feels to go hungry.

Longtime clergy leaders like Jesuit Father Michael Balestra and Father Edmond Bliven  had a hand in shaping the parish.
Father Bliven was pastor when the church celebrated its centennial in 1994. At the time, he said, they noted 38 zip codes on their mailing list.

In the centennial booklet, he quoted Bernard of Chartes, who said, “We can see great distances because we stand on the shoulders of giants.”

“The giants who labored to establish this parish continue to inspire us to a greater vision of service,” he wrote.