By Kristen Hannum

Of the Sentinel

PENDLETON - Most mornings Warren and Peggy Wagenseil walk the 20 minutes to St. Mary's for the 7:30 a.m. daily Mass. Snowy weather doesn't stop them; Warren says he prefers walking on those days - it's safer.

It's likely that the Wagenseils think people don't notice, but they do, says Susie Stuvland, the youth minister here. 'They're a nice role model,' she says. 'What a nice way to start your day.'

The Wagenseils moved here 23 years ago, after Warren retired from the foreign service. These days the two take care of all the little things around the parish that most people never think of - such as turning on the heat so that the religious education building will be warm in time for classes or cleaning the altar linens. 'It's a neat ministry,' says Stuvland.

Stuvland herself is mightily praised by parishioners for the job she's done with the youth group over the last nine years. Stuvland, however, says it's the kids. 'I'm awed by our youth,' she says. 'I have such great hope for the future. Every time I see something horrible on the media, I think, 'Just come spend some time with me. See what I see; these kids are so life-giving and spirit filled.''

Eighty percent of parish teens attend, and 80 percent of those who attend are active in the ministry's projects, service, retreats and camps. They take part in such activities as the 30-hour famine, the Rice Bowl, a food scavenger hunt (where teams of kids get points for what they can collect in 45 minutes of going door to door), ice skating, swimming, barbecues, and the Baker Diocese Youth Council. The group has attended the last three World Youth Days - in Rome, Paris and Denver. And if a teen does 10 hours of service and hands in a paper on it, he or she receives a $25 voucher towards a retreat or camp.

They meet Wednesday evenings after the parish's preschool through fifth-grade kids meet for religious education.

Darlene Ledbetter, the director of religious education, says that altogether 25 catechists volunteer with the program, plus other volunteers for 'hall duty.'

St. Mary's has a successful Festival of Faith every autumn to entice parishioners to sign up for volunteer opportunities. Various ministries - CCD, lectors, the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic Daughters, the altar society, the youth group, eucharistic ministry and the RCIA, for example - put together booths. There's also entertainment, games for the kids and bingo.

When people here aren't socializing or worshiping with their faith community, a lot of them attend a sports event - including the Pendleton Rodeo, one of the five biggest rodeos in the nation.

The town's history goes back to the mid-1800s, way back for this part of the country.

Umatilla County was created from the division of the huge original Wasco County of northeast Oregon. From the division of Umatilla County came Grant and Morrow counties.

In 1868, this smaller Umatilla County's electors chose Goodwins Ranch for their county seat. A new town there, named after a Democratic Party leader, Senator Pendleton of Ohio, was platted.

A Brief History of the Baker Diocese says that most of the settlers in this area were former Confederates from Missouri, where a full-fledged guerilla warfare had erupted during the Civil War, with neighbor burning the homes of neighbor.

Before St. Mary's was built in 1884, a priest from the mission at the Umatilla Indian Reservation - St. Andrew's - served the fledgling town as well as the rest of the county. At first, Mass was celebrated in people's homes, but by the early 1880s the congregation was too large to squeeze into the spaces between a davenport and piano. The mission priest began offering Mass at the Pendleton County Courthouse.

In 1884, Pendleton Catholics built a little wooden church on a rocky plot on old Main Street on the east side of town. Two years later, the congregation moved their church to a better site, on East Webb and College Street.

Father Peter De Roo, formerly stationed at St. Francis in Baker City, came to St. Mary's in 1886 as the church's first resident pastor. He took a sabbatical in Rome beginning 1889, and several priests came to administer the sacraments.

About this time, the Sisters of Mercy were building a school, St. Joseph's Academy, in Pendleton. The sisters could not maintain their community here, however, and left in 1887. The Sisters of St. Francis came to replace them, and the school opened that September with barely a hiccup's difference for the 17 students.

The school was a success. The high school stayed open until 1962, and the grade school until 1974.

Father William Hogan moved the church again in 1892, not long before Father De Roo returned in 1893. He wasn't happy to find that the church had wandered off.

The congregation's size meant a new church was called for in any case, and Father De Roo quickly built it at the second location before leaving the parish later that year.

It would still be a decade before the Diocese of Baker would be established in 1903; in the meantime, Archbishop William Gross of Portland was struggling to find priests for Pendleton. The first replacement he found fell sick and was forced to leave. A Benedictine and then Jesuit priests followed, as did more diocesan priests, including one man who came from New Zealand and was so surprised by Pendleton's hard winter that he decamped for California.

In 1897, the Jesuits agreed to staff the parish permanently. Jesuit Father Garrand, the pastor, and a visitor, Jesuit Father Cataldo (who had founded Gonzaga University in 1881), were in a horse and buggy accident and sent to the hospital in Walla Walla, Wash.

The pastor soon came back, and he moved that new church back to Father Hogan's third location. He converted the well-traveled older church there into a rectory and rented out the previous rectory. The Jesuits sent an assistant pastor to help Father Garrand and a Jesuit brother to care for them.

The rectory burned down in 1899, and the priests rented a house nearby. Before a new rectory could be built, Father Garrand left for Egypt. The parish history continues to read like a game of Jesuit musical chairs for decades, although some of the Jesuit pastors did stay put for a time.

The Jesuits remained responsible for the parish until 1961. A third church, this one of stone, was dedicated in 1912 - it is still in use.

Fortunately, the parish's history of fast-moving pastors has evidently stopped. One recent pastor, Father Dick Collin from Ireland, was here for close to 18 years. The current pastor, Father Dennis Strachota, has been at St. Mary's for eight years. 'He's got a very good heart,' says long-time parishioner Mary Moore. 'He's a resilient man who loves stories and storytelling as a way of getting Gospel truths across.'

Moore says that recently Father Strachota has emerged as a good newspaper columnist as well. He's been taking a turn writing for the Friday religion page here, and people like what he writes.

Father Strachota has also worked effectively with the Pendleton Ministerial Association - the local preachers, ministers and priests.

After the high school closed, Moore says, she felt a bit lost. She and others found a way to help unify St. Mary's through the St. Mary's Outreach program, which includes a store similar to a St. Vincent de Paul Store.

'It's a strong part of the parish, with good support from the community,' she says.

The community also takes pride in working proactively to include and minister to the Spanish-speaking Catholics here. The parish boasts two Spanish-speaking deacons, men who read the Gospel and give the homily at all the English Masses once a month, in an effort to keep the English-speaking community aware of what's happening withLatinos.

'A visitor would see a pretty good feeling of camaraderie among parishioners,' says Wagenseil. 'People seem to know each other pretty well.'

'It's like home to me,' agrees Ledbetter. 'I feel like I'm coming to church to meet with my family every week.'