Chris Blanchard, new executive director of the Grotto, wants the sanctuary discovered by more locals. “If you haven’t been here before, get here. If you haven’t been here for a few years, come back,” he said, inviting visitors to come knock on his office door. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Chris Blanchard, new executive director of the Grotto, wants the sanctuary discovered by more locals. “If you haven’t been here before, get here. If you haven’t been here for a few years, come back,” he said, inviting visitors to come knock on his office door. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)

The new executive director of the Grotto is a retired Marine Corps colonel who wants people of all faiths to come to the Northeast Portland Catholic sanctuary to find God.

“This is an even greater privilege for me than leading Marines. I get to go out every day and serve our Blessed Mother and our God,” said Chris Blanchard, tall and sinewy at age 60 with close-cropped gray hair.

He invites people to visit the chapel and roam the 62-acre grounds to rejuvenate. He even wants the public to come see him in his office.

“If you haven’t been here before, get here. If you haven’t been here for a few years, come back,” he said. “Catholic, Protestant, atheist — we don’t care who you are. Come here. You will find God.”

The Grotto already is one of Oregon’s most popular destinations, with 300,000 visitors annually from around the world.   

Blanchard, a member of St. Thomas Parish in Camas, Washington, replaces Tom Fullmer, who left the post this summer after three years. Fullmer was the first layman to hold the job, which had been filled by Servite friars since the 1920s.

A small community of Servites still lives in the friary on the sanctuary’s upper level. They preside at Mass, preach, and serve as spiritual directors.

Their charism is still the heart and soul of the sanctuary, Blanchard said. “I said to them, ‘First and foremost, you are my teachers.’”

He was born in New York and grew up in Virginia. His father left the family, so he and his three siblings were raised by their mother, who received help from the Catholic parish. That kindness affirmed faith for Blanchard, who says he is “unabashedly Catholic.”

After graduation from James Madison University, he became a social worker and began seeking a master’s degree program. He lacked money for tuition, so joined the Marines for the scholarship opportunities. Plans changed.    

He was an active duty Marine from 1981 to 2007 and from 2008 to 2013 was chief of staff at Marine Corps Base Hawaii.

One of the tenets he learned as a Marine leader is trusting your staff; he calls the Grotto team “talented and committed.”

He and the staff have begun work on a strategic plan. “We want to form an aspirational vision for the Grotto,” he said. “The vision will come from everyone, not just us. We will be reaching out to people to help us form the vision.”

Asked about challenges he faces in the new role, Blanchard said he prefers to call them opportunities. Among them are improving spiritual programs, preserving the aging Chapel of Mary and keeping the gardens in top shape. He wants to draw more families and children.

He dreams of making St. Peregrine Laziosi better known. The medieval Servite was healed of foot cancer and is the patron of cancer patients.  

One of Blanchard’s tasks is discussing the sanctuary with people. This will be no problem for him. Since starting in September, he has already spoken at multiple dinners and events. He naturally chats up visitors and exudes enthusiasm about the place.  

“Every time you come, there is something new that you take away,” he said, laughing. “I’m not sure how you call what I do work.”  

He loves being able to attend Mass in the middle of his work day just steps away from his office. It reminds him of daily Mass aboard ship with the troops.

Blanchard said he is no hero, but he completed three combat tours: Lebanon, the first Gulf War and Afghanistan.

Blanchard and wife Kelly have been married for 20 years. He credits her for guiding him and encouraging him to follow his call.

Before coming to the Grotto, Blanchard had stints as president and CEO of Easter Seals Hawaii and as division chief of planning for the Multnomah County Department of Emergency Management.