Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Art by Carolyn Wilhelm frames room where she gives spiritual direction.  
Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Art by Carolyn Wilhelm frames room where she gives spiritual direction.  

MILWAUKIE — A homey, rambling, century-old convent has become a house of spirituality open to the public. Among many ministries, the Franciscan Spiritual Center here welcomes overnight guests.

In March, the center relocated from an office park to the grounds of St. John the Baptist Parish here. The convent housed the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon for decades and more recently the Sisters of Mercy.  

Two bedrooms offered for overnight retreatants are the first available on Portland’s east side of a Catholic kind since Loyola Retreat House shut its doors in 1997. The center is already known for one-on-one spiritual direction and group sessions on prayer, marriage, catechesis, health, and the relation of art and spirituality. Staff go to parishes to lead retreats and give workshops in English and Spanish.

The center, sponsored by the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, had hit a financial impasse early this year. Rent at the office park the ministry had occupied since 2005 had become too high. Leaders of the Sisters in Pennsylvania told managers to reduce costs or face possible closure. Just in time, the old convent became available for a quarter of the rent and just as much room.

Staff and visitors laud the home-like feeling of the house, a change from the office building that sat just off a highway and above a busy kidney dialysis clinic. By contrast, the new center is in a tree-lined neighborhood near Milwaukie’s old downtown.

“This place is a great gift,” says Mary Erickson, executive director. “It’s much more reflective of the Franciscan charism.”

St. John the Baptist Parishhas become a hub of Franciscan life and ministry. Friars have served here for a year. It was Franciscan Father Jorge Hernandez who invited the spirituality center to move in.

The Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia have served in Oregon since the 1880s, when they began opening schools and hospitals. In the early 1940s, the Sisters received a mansion on Portland’s Palatine Hill and used it as a convent and western headquarters. In 1980, it became a retreat center. With maintenance costs getting out of hand, the Sisters sold the building to Lewis and Clark College in 2000 and opted for a series of smaller sites in bustling parts of Milwaukie. Then the convent became available.

It was renovated in 1990s for the Sisters of Mercy and includes new hardwood floors, white paint and arched entry ways. Records show that at mid-century it was home to as many as 22 Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon.

Franciscan Sister Mary Jo Chaves has served in the local spiritual ministry since 1996. This native of Baker City offers spiritual direction to about 40 people per month, including some hundreds of miles away on the phone or over email. Most directees sit with her in a bright corner bedroom upstairs.

“This house is a place that was already sacred,” Sister Mary Jo says. “You can feel it. This lends itself to what our ministry is — to be a place of beauty and contemplation.”

Overnight stays cost $85. Guests must bring their own food and are welcome to use the kitchen. They can keep to themselves or get spiritual direction.

The center is adjacent to the grassy playground of St. John the Baptist School. When children are not playing there, geese often use the field to rest. Center staff have named one solitary goose “Bonaventure” after the brilliant and solitude-loving Franciscan saint.

The parish and the spirituality center exist in mutual benefit. For example, staff last week offered a retreat on St. Francis and St. Clare at the parish. Soon, Sister Guadalupe Medina, who oversees Spanish-language ministries, will speak to families about quinceaneras, the popular rites for 15-year-old girls.

“People who have come say this is special, that it feels like home,” Sister Guadalupe says.   

The Archdiocese of Portland in July approved a plan to have the Eucharist on reserve in the chapel, a place consecrated for such use during the convent days.

“The new place gives deeper meaning for many of the patrons,” says Joan Haack, a member of the center’s board. “The previous facility was nice and new and modern, and therefore not very Franciscan. The house has space for people to feel more at home, more in their living room.”