Photos courtesy of the Grotto
Fr. Jack Topper poses on the lawn mower purchased for the Grotto through funds raised at an anniversary dinner and auction.
Photos courtesy of the Grotto
Fr. Jack Topper poses on the lawn mower purchased for the Grotto through funds raised at an anniversary dinner and auction.
When Father Jack Topper steps down later this year as executive director of the Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother, he will be the last in a 90-year line of Servite friars to lead the world-known shrine, known as the Grotto.

As Catholic colleges and hospitals have done before, the Grotto will adopt a new model of governance. The Servite religious order will retain ownership and guidance over the mission, but operations will go over to a board of directors and a lay executive director.

"I can't keep doing this for ever," says Father Topper, 75. He thinks the new system will work well. "One of the friars asked me, 'Is there life at the Grotto after Father Jack?' If not, I didn't do a very good job."

The Servites see the new model not as weakening their presence in Oregon, but redirecting it to religious leadership, says Father Gerald Horan, assistant provincial of the order's U.S. province. As with most religious communities, vocations are down. There are also not many friars with Father Topper's administrative know-how.  

"I suppose a lot of us would be happy if we could clone Jack and move along," Father Horan says. "But that's not possible and it is good now to give him lighter duty."

Father Topper, who took the post in 1991, is the shrine's longest-serving executive director. The gregarious and energetic leader pays heed to detail, planting seedling trees, guiding the budget closely and even parking cars during the shrine's busy Festival of Lights.

Father Topper has a rare blend of community skills and financial savvy, says John Puttman, a longtime board member and an accountant. Puttman says the shrine is on sound financial footing, with Father Topper getting much of the credit.

The priest is not embarrassed to raise money. "It's not for me, it's for something I believe in," he says.

"He has been out there putting his heart and soul into everything," says Joe Danna, another advisory board member. "The guy has been a real asset for the Grotto."

Those who know him say Father Topper is a marvel at hospitality and human relationships. He rarely walks across the shrine's cobblestone plaza without making stops to talk to guests. Often, he engages deeply enough that they uncork their spiritual strife and want to go to confession or return to the church after years away.

Kate Mayo, a member of the committee searching for a new executive director, says it was Father Topper's homilies that prompted her to return to practicing her Catholic faith more than a decade ago. "Every Sunday, he would speak right to something I was wrestling with," says Mayo, a Portland business coach. "What he has accomplished in this day and age is pretty significant."

Judy Scott, Grotto advisory board co-chair, said she and her husband first came to the Grotto when their kids were refusing to attend Mass. Father Topper's warm welcome and the international flavor of the shrine won the hearts of the whole family.
"Father Jack doesn't just let people walk by," Scott says. "He makes a point of having encounters. He encourages respect for all and he embraces all."  

Father Topper also knows that the purpose of the shrine is to provide quiet in the middle of a bustling city. “Sometimes people just want a place where they won’t be recognized, where nothing will be done to them, where there are no programs," he told the Sentinel in 1999. "That often is what we are about.”

His history at the 65-acre shrine goes back before ordination. As a Servite seminarian in 1983, he spent time tending the grounds.

Before joining the order, he was a teacher and principal at Catholic schools in the Chicago area, even leading the principals' association. The administrative skills he learned — listening, persuading, organizing, fundraising — carried over nicely to shrine leadership. But he knew he wanted to be a spiritual leader, too. The Grotto has offered that dual opportunity abundantly and he is grateful.   

He counsels and prays with guests. He has witnessed weddings and officiated at funerals. Each year, he prays over scores of dogs, cats, reptiles and rodents during an annual pet blessing. Most of all, he has presided and preached at Sunday Masses for decades.

"The most important thing we do here is celebrate Mass," Father Topper says. During training at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, his homiletics teacher told students not to make people miserable, but to make them happy. He still tries to follow the advice.  

Of his 25 years of ordained life, 23 have been spent at the helm of the shrine. He has led dozens of employees and hundreds of volunteers. He has high expectations, but always meets them himself.  

"He basically lives and breathes this place and I think that inspires everyone to give a little more, too," says Larry Kirby, who manages grants and graphics at the shrine.

Kirby, who started at the Grotto just before Father Topper, says the priest is a good listener and a good preacher who has achieved so much because of "untiring focus."

Father Topper brought physical changes to the shrine that will remain as a legacy: the welcome center and expanded gift shop not far from the parking lot, and a large visitor center that is used for retreats, meetings, receptions and classes. He has been a patron of sacred art. He commissioned a set of bronze depictions of the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary for the upper garden and led the funding and construction of a meditation labyrinth 40 feet in diameter. During his tenure, attendance at the monthly St. Peregrine Mass for cancer patients has boomed. As many as 1,000 people come in the summer. The annual Freedom Mass for refugees has also grown. The greatest increase has come with the Advent and Christmas Festival of Lights, which this year brought more than 55,000 people to the shrine.

Along with tangible achievements comes a lasting tone of openness.

Father Topper has helped make the Grotto a spiritual home for many Catholic ethnic groups. Poles, Vietnamese and Filipinos all have special holy places on the grounds.
At the packed Christmas Mass, Father Topper always wishes Merry Christmas in a half dozen languages. He has invited Servites from the Philippines to live at the Grotto and serve in Oregon.   

Father John Fontana, provincial superior of the U.S. Servites, says the order is proud of Father Topper's "compassionate and competent" leadership.   

"He has left his imprint of cheerful hospitality, a commitment to quality of prayer and worship, and a collaborative approach with his faithful team of colleagues who make up the Grotto staff," Father Fontana says, citing his confrere's "youthful spirit and great sense of humor."

Father Topper's ministry of hospitality has been an ideal fit for the shrine, says Father Horan, the assistant provincial and Father Topper's predecessor at the Grotto. Both Father Topper's personality and the projects he completed have made the sanctuary more welcoming, Father Horan explains. Leading the Grotto, Father Horan knows, requires "a lot of organizing and stamina." He is impressed that Father Topper has done it so well for so long.  

Plans call for a Servite to take the role of rector at the Grotto. The rector would be a religious leader and chief of mission. Later this year, Servite leaders will decide who will fill that role. Father Topper is a candidate.

The priest insists that this is not retirement. He is just changing ministries. Though it's up to his superiors, he hopes to stay at the Grotto, where the Servites have a stone friary just beyond the upper gardens. He would even choose to be buried in the small Servite cemetery atop the bluff.

"My life here has just been a joy for me," he says.