Guss family photos
Irvan Guss plays with islander children in the early 1970s in Tonga as a Peace Corps volunteer.
Guss family photos
Irvan Guss plays with islander children in the early 1970s in Tonga as a Peace Corps volunteer.
For their entire lives, they have served.

St. Michael the Archangel Parish members Pat and Irvan Guss were recognized recently by the Jesse F. Richardson Foundation for a lifetime of service. The couple received the Ageless award, which honors older adults who have had a lifelong journey of community engagement.

“The selection committee felt like they demonstrated the selflessness that is a key component of this award,” said Keren Wilson, president of the foundation.

From the first day he met the Gusses, St. Michael’s pastor Father James Mayo said he was impressed with the couple’s passion for the poor.

“From my reading of the Gospels, when we die and stand before the Lord — nothing on us, no pretenses, excuses, etc. — the Lord will look at us and then to our right and left,” Father Mayo said. “If we don't have others standing with us who can attest that we lived what we said we believe, the future shall not be the most pleasant.”

Thousands of people Irvan and Pat have served throughout their lives will be those witnesses.  

Pat volunteers once a week at St. Andre Bessette Parish’s foot care ministry, where the no-nonsense nurse gently tends to people struggling with addiction and homelessness. Often walking miles during the day in search of food and shelter, their callused, diseased feet show the ravages of life on the streets. Inspired by the work at St. Andre’s, Pat and Irvan started a hygiene program to provide clean, dry socks to the people who visit St. Michael’s.

Irvan serves on the board of two nonprofit organizations, one in Mexico and one in Oregon. As treasurer of a foundation, Irvan has interviewed numerous Latino organizations in Washington and Marion counties, awarding grants for projects and seminars.

For the past decade, Pat and Irvan have volunteered at St. Michael’s sack lunch program twice a week. At some point, Irvan began cooking six-gallon batches of nourishing soup during the cold months. These days, soup is on the menu five days a week.

“Serving the poor and homeless is humbling and, at the same time, very rewarding, especially when someone thanks us for the food and says they have not eaten for two days,” Irvan said.

Volunteering isn’t merely an activity Pat and Irvan picked up after retiring in 2001.

When Pat graduated from the University of Portland nursing school in 1962, she signed up to be one of the first Peace Corps volunteers, a year after the program’s inception. She was sent to Honduras to teach first aid and lead vaccination clinics.

“Back in 1962, going to Honduras was like going to the moon,” said Pat, who had never even flown on a plane when she left for training.

After graduating from Oregon State University in 1961, Irvan also joined the Peace Corps, serving in the rainforests of southern Belize as a math and science teacher.
When they returned to Oregon, Irvan and Pat met at a Peace Corps alumni gathering in Corvallis.

“I spotted her across the room, and my life was changed forever,” Irvan said.

After Pat and Irvan married in 1969, their parents expected them to buy a house and have a family.

“When I was growing up, we didn’t even know there were poor people,” Pat said. “But once I’d worked in a poor country, I saw real poverty, people who couldn’t afford to buy meds, people who walked around barefoot in rain and cold.” It was impossible to settle down and pretend those people didn’t exist, Pat said.

Instead, they signed up for the Peace Corps again, this time serving in the Kingdom of Tonga, where they lived in a tiny thatch house built by islanders. Irvan doesn’t think his parents, who struggled during the Great Depression, ever really understood why they gave up safety and security for another two years of service.

Once they returned to Oregon, the couple did eventually settle down. Irvan taught math and science for 12 years, then worked at Tektronix for 24 years. Pat worked as a migrant health nurse in the Willamette Valley, visiting families living in camps, and then worked at a hospital intensive care unit. They adopted a girl from Honduras, Pattianne, who is now grown and working at Portland State University. Their daughter Monica is a social worker in Sacramento County.

The Gusses are anchors in every community they serve, said Andy Noethe, former pastoral associate at St. Andre Bessette.

“[They] are such a gift to the communities in which they have served and continue to serve, both because of their genuine compassion for each and every person, and for the way in which they mentor other volunteers in service,” he said.