Catholic Sentinel photos by Juan Kis
Joyce Fiske and Humberto García present the gifts during the centennial Mass at St. Peter Church in Southeast Portland’s Lents neighborhood.
Catholic Sentinel photos by Juan Kis
Joyce Fiske and Humberto García present the gifts during the centennial Mass at St. Peter Church in Southeast Portland’s Lents neighborhood.
It happened while eaters were rolling up their sleeves and digging in to pounds and pounds of barbecued chicken at the St. Peter Church dinner that has been a beloved annual tradition for years. Catholics from Hispanic, Filipino, Micronesian, Vietnamese and many other cultural backgrounds were working as a united front to serve plates of hot meals.

Father Dave Zegar heard a visitor say, “I wish our parish was like this.”

Seated in Lents, one of the most diverse neighborhoods of Portland, St. Peter has long been a community beacon for neighbors, where folks from different backgrounds join together in faith and fellowship. 

As St. Peter celebrated its centennial Oct. 30, parishioners shared memories, reflected on the church’s history, and looked to the future of the church.

It was December of 1910 when Archbishop Alexander Christie established St. Peter. He named Father Peter Beutgen pastor, and the first Masses were held above Duke’s Market on 92nd Avenue. Those Masses, celebrated before a makeshift altar of boards propped on sawhorses, were so popular that plans for a church were soon underway. Archbishop Christie dedicated the new church on Dec. 15, 1911. In just over a decade, the parish outgrew its building, and new property was purchased at Southeast 87th and Foster, where the church now stands.

There was a school, which began operating in the 1930s, where the Sisters of the Holy Names taught for years. They taught without pay during the Depression.

In 1954, the church acquired the Lents Methodist Episcopal Church, which many parishioners still refer to as “Methodius Hall.”

During the centennial, parishioners walked along the walls of Methodius Hall (now the parish center) to look at an extensive timeline, meticulously posted by Ann Kracke.  She worked with a team that included Joyce Fiske and Pat Mattsen to compile huge amounts ohistory of the church, photos, personal memories, documents and more, which were all on display.

Thousands of tiny faces peeked out from walls wallpapered with class photos, of which Fiske collected almost every year and class from the school before it was closed in 1972.  
“Those are my kids,” she joked about the labor of love. “I feel like I know them all.” A parishioner since 1960, Fiske surely knows many of those children as adults now. Her own children were all students at the school.

Whether during times of growth or difficult transition, one theme that resurfaces repeatedly in St. Peter’s history is adaptability. From financial setbacks in the 1920s that forced Lents Catholics to hold Mass in the basement of a partially built church for several years to socioeconomic changes in the area that came about after the neighborhood was divided by Interstate 205, the community has remained a place that feels good to come home, in good times and during struggles.

Mattsen began collecting memories five years ago in anticipation of the church’s centennial. One memory came from Father Dale Waddill who moved to the parish in 1993. Enclosed in the album was a letter he wrote to the community when he first began celebrating Mass in Spanish, a change that some found to be controversial.

“Our bishops have shifted their earlier emphasis on ‘assimilation’ and pointed out we are to be open, warm, sincere and personally welcome Hispanic Catholics, listening and hearing them, not just serving them,” he wrote. “Our home is their home where they can experience Church as their church, where they can share in and make decisions.”

In the 1970s, the church was the center of the Archdiocese of Portland’s Deaf ministry. Father Pat Walsh attended Galludet University and was fluent in American Sign Language.

That first Spanish Mass, which Father Waddill prepared with assistance from Maria Restrepo, was celebrated on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1994. There were 30 people in the pews, mostly people Restrepo had invited.

Up until the 1960s, the parish was predominately families of Irish, German and English descent. Today the parish is approximately 60 percent Hispanic. Some of the old traditions remain, but many new programs have joined the calendar. Mexica Tiahui, a group of Aztec dancers, practices at the church every Sunday, and Dia de Los Muertos draws people to the pews who pray for their friends and family who have died. Cena Romantica in February is very popular.

“There is a willingness to adapt and rise to the challenges of present realities,” said Father Zegar, who took over when Father Waddill retired. “There is a strong faith base here, which helps everyone to adapt.”