Catholic Sentinel by Jose Salame
The overflow area at St. Alexander in Cornelius.
Catholic Sentinel by Jose Salame

The overflow area at St. Alexander in Cornelius.
CORNELIUS — The spirit is willing but the square footage is weak.

One of the poorest parishes in the Archdiocese of Portland is also one of the most active and expanding. The result is that the century-old church and other buildings at St. Alexander Parish are too small.

On Sundays, hundreds of overflow parishioners fill classrooms where they watch Mass on screens. Some can't fit anywhere and simply leave.

"We love being close together. We also would like to have a worship space that allows us all to be together," says Father David Schiferl, pastor of St. Alexander for the past decade.  

A planned $3 million project, shaved down from a previous $4.5 million proposal, provides for a 675-seat church, offices and an outdoor Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The old church will remain and become a multi-purpose area. Groundbreaking could come next spring.   

The current church, when built in 1910, seated 125. In the 1970s, an addition boosted capacity to 275.Now, with three classrooms, 400 worshipers per Mass fit.  The parish has attracted members at a high rate for the past 10 years. Cumulative weekend attendance can reach 2,000.

St. Alexander has six Masses per weekend, five of them in Spanish. Many worshipers come to Mass on the city bus.

All week, St. Alexander's burgeoning faith groups, classes and charitable ministries are curtailed because meeting space is limited. By necessity, some wedding rehearsals begin at 9 p.m. One funeral was pushed to 10 p.m. Staff are cramped, too; four people share a 12-by-12-foot office in an old house.  

Cornelius, 20 miles west of Portland, is home to 12,000 people, half of them Hispanic. Latino workers began coming to the area in the 1960s and St. Alexander became a hub. Across the street is a Latino cultural center, founded in part by parishioners. A medical clinic founded for farmworkers is close by.

About 97 percent of St. Alexander parishioners are Hispanic. Once per month, the church holds the region's only Spanish Mass for people with disabilities.  

Father Schiferl and staff have been working with parishioners to increase regular donations. A decade ago, the weekly collection amounted to $2,000. Now it's up to $5,500. A typical parish of this size in western Oregon takes in $13,000 per week.
"People give, but it's a matter of what they are earning," Father Schiferl explains.  
Among typical parishioners are teachers, farmers, farm hands, nursery workers, landscapers, store clerks, waiters and waitresses. They have worked at benefit dinners and run raffles. It has added up, but more is needed.    

"We have moved to a point at which we are on solid ground with a plan," says Michael Moiso, an attorney funded by a benefactor to oversee the project. "If you had a parish that was well to do, it would be a slam dunk. This is a parish that can come up with $500,000 and then we look elsewhere. But all things are possible."

On the project's advisory committee are retired Archbishop John Vlazny and retired Auxiliary Bishop Kenneth Steiner.

Most parishioners want to see the project go through.

"The hallways and bathrooms are always full of people," says a laughing Maria Orozco, speaking through a translator. "We have a lot of people but also a lot of love. Come in and there is a place for you as you are."

Orozco, a parishioner for 20 years, is volunteer lead catechist. With 300 to 400 children taking classes, she has been forced to turn willing students away for lack of space.  
Orozco sits on the project committee and has heard no negative comments from parishioners. "The only thing people ask is 'When?'" says the 73-year-old parishioner, who prays she will be able to see the new church.

Claudette Von Domelen, also a volunteer, leads youth ministry. Space runs out during Sunday night activities, she says. For large events, like a Lenten fast and overnight retreat, the parish is forced to rent. For confirmation, only candidates and sponsors can fit in church. Families are left out.

Some parishioners are troubled by the cost and the change, says Mark Starrett, a retired Portland General Electric manager who retired to Cornelius seven years ago.   But they seem to be in the minority, Starrett and other building committee members explain. The decision not to raze the old church comforted many nay-sayers.

Father Schiferl does not see himself as a builder-priest. But he doesn't mind asking people for money to support ministry, since he believes that all we have is God's to begin with.   

Along with welcoming more people, Father Schiferl explains, the house of worship would enhance unity by allowing worshipers to be in one room.

"Inclusivity and love are a big part of the parish," the priest says. "We want to make it a place where people want to go."