Catholic Sentinel photos by Ed Langlois
Ryan Hettwer, 7, and his cousin Caryn Hettwer, 12, heft a pot of flowers to their family’s Marian shrine.
Catholic Sentinel photos by Ed Langlois
Ryan Hettwer, 7, and his cousin Caryn Hettwer, 12, heft a pot of flowers to their family’s Marian shrine.
CROOKED FINGER — Outside a remote church in the Cascade foothills, 300 Catholics on Friday evening carried on a tradition of prayer 60 years in the making.

During the annual Feast of the Assumption Marian pilgrimage hosted by Holy Rosary Mission, the faithful say the rosary while processing through the woods 12 miles east of Mount Angel. They then convene for an outdoor Mass, celebrated this year by Archbishop Alexander Sample as crickets chirped.  

“Being here with people of such devotion and faith and love for Our Lady does my heart a lot of good,” the archbishop told the crowd, spread on a hillside facing a gazebo fitted out with an altar.

The archbishop declared his deep devotion to Mary, saying she helps us powerfully.

“She intercedes for us, she prays for us, she watches over us, she enfolds us in the mantle of her protection,” he explained.  

The archbishop told the crowd, especially teens, that Mary reminds us that our life is not of this world, but of the Kingdom of God.  

It’s a week of busy preparation for the 50 members of this small mission. Each family prepares a Marian shrine along the trail, plus cleaning, lugging chairs, and cooking.

One team of siblings carries on a tradition of faith-filled labor started by their grandfather, Paul Splonski, who helped build the 92-year-old church. It’s been a lifelong tradition for Patty Potter, 62; Clarence Splonski, 55; and Katie Martin, 49. Patty served as a flower girl during the first pilgrimage in 1954. The white lace dress she wore that day — about the size of a hand towel — hangs in a display case in the church basement. She has attended every pilgrimage since. Clarence was an altar server at the pilgrimage more years than he can count. Katie has long helped with food and music.

“It’s just something we’ve always done, and it’s very special,” Martin says. Her 18-year-old son, Jonathan, was an altar server Friday.

The siblings’ mother, 89-year-old Margaret Gersch, has attended every pilgrimage. For the original event, she and church historian Pat Schonbachler were young mothers who washed the entire church, including the floor.

“I love this parish,” says Gersch, who grew up a half mile away and holds a trove of memories, including church trips to the beach when she was a girl. “It’s my home.”

Schonbachler, who also has attended every year, weeps when she looks up at the 120-year-old statue of Mary that usually stands in the church, but is carried along the path during the pilgrimage.

“I wonder how many people have prayed before her image and asked her help and how many have thanked her for what they received,” she says.

The first pilgrimage, held during a Marian year proclaimed by Pope Pius XII, drew 5,000 people to the country church. Men of the parish bulldozed a road so pilgrims could walk to Mass, which was held on the front steps of the church. Priests from Mount Angel Abbey who came to hear confessions that day were overwhelmed by the numbers, which were much greater than anyone expected. A story about the pilgrimage appeared on the cover of the Oregonian’s Sunday magazine.

That first pilgrimage was the creation of Benedictine Father Hildebrand Melchior, who had been inspired by pilgrimages at Lourdes. He said the small parish of 70 souls had the enthusiasm to “do something big for Our Lady.” Pilgrims came from all over the state.

Now, fewer people come, but parishioners are proud that the tradition abides. Many children come, though older parishioners fret at the absence of young adults.

Archbishop Sample is the fifth archbishop to visit the mission. Soon, his photo will go up on the wall of the church basement, along with those of Archbishops John Vlazny, Francis George, Alexander Christie and William Gross. Archbishop Gross visited in the 1890s.

In addition to hosting Archbishop Sample, the mission welcomed his mother, Joyce, and sister, Marti.