Catholic Sentinel photos by Jose Salame
Fr. Ron Nelson presides at Mass.
Catholic Sentinel photos by Jose Salame
Fr. Ron Nelson presides at Mass.
This is the fourth in a series of nine brief profiles and photo essays from the churches designated for Year of Faith pilgrimages in the Archdiocese of Portland.

EUGENE — St. Mary Church here did not just initiate new Catholics at the Easter vigil and let that be that. The parish held a welcome reception later and gave new members a gift and a round of applause.

Going the extra mile has always been the tradition at this parish, the oldest in the upper Willamette Valley.

Catholic missionaries first came to the region in the 1850s, when Eugene was just a struggling village on the Willamette. Father James Croke visited from Portland every summer from 1853 to 1859. In 1858, the tireless Archbishop Francis Blanchet visited the berg, baptizing children and buying a piece of land. Missionaries from Corvallis served Eugene for a few decades. Masses took place in the courthouse for a time, but then went back to private homes, where a potluck followed Mass. There were about 10 Catholic families in the 1870s, most of them German.  

The congregation kept growing and monks from Mount Angel began serving in the 1880s. In 1886, the priest from Corvallis used $350 to purchase the old Methodist church on 11th and Willamette. The parish was established and got a resident priest the following year. Father Francis Beck of Wisconsin would recruit Catholic families from the Midwest to come to Eugene and environs. Father Beck asked the Benedictine Sisters from Mount Angel to come open a school. Advertisements said the school would accept "small boys" as well as "large and small girls."

New schools and new churches would be built over the decades, and the church would be headquarters for a missionary outreach to all of Lane County. One ingenious means of missionizing was a Catholic chapel on rails.

The Sisters of the Holy Names eventually came to serve the parish school, which grew and included a high school. Father John Moran, the Irish pastor of a largely German parish, would serve as a chaplain during World War I.

For the past century, the parish has grown and waned, but still has one of the largest Catholic grade schools in Oregon.  

Pope Benedict XVI called for a Year of Faith to be celebrated until Nov. 23, during a period coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council.

One of the several ways to grow in faith and gain a Year of Faith plenary indulgence — pardon of temporal punishment for sin — is to visit a holy pilgrimage site designated by the local bishop. There, the pilgrim must attend a sacred celebration, remain for a time in prayer and conclude with the recitation of the Our Father, a profession of faith in any legitimate form, prayers to Mary, the apostles and patron saints.

For more photos of St. Mary Church and the other Year of Faith pilgrimage sites, go to