Catholic Sentinel photo by Gerry Lewin
Fr. Irudayaraj Amalanathan during communion at St. Catherine of Siena Mission 100th anniversary mass.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Gerry Lewin
Fr. Irudayaraj Amalanathan during communion at St. Catherine of Siena Mission 100th anniversary mass.
MILL CITY — The St. Catherine of Siena Mission centennial celebration officially began July 3 as seven Protestant pastors climbed narrow steps up a church tower to ring the bell 100 times. They were led by long-time St. Catherine of Siena bell ringer, Joe Yost, who has served in that role for more than 30 years.

Then the centennial Mass began.

Titled “100 Years of Praise and Service in the Santiam Canyon,” the two-day celebration welcomed Archbishop John Vlazny and past, present and future pastors of the mission church located 30 miles east of Salem. Members of local Protestant churches shared in the celebration by volunteering to landscape the grounds, perform in the bluegrass/gospel dinner band and serve guests during the sold-out chicken barbecue.

John Gottfried, a retired insurance claims worker, is "extremely proud" to have been part of the centennial celebration.

Gottfried recalls the first time he saw St. Catherine Church nine years ago. It leaned significantly, despite buttresses applied by engineers working on Detroit Dam in 1948. Wood was rotten, the roof was a shambles and the floor was dropping.

"It looked like it would be not much longer in this world," Gottfried says.

He joined the committee to save the lovely little church and, in so doing, preserved the area's Catholic history.

Founded in 1887 as a lumber town, Mill City has experienced the dramatic ups and downs of the forest products industry. In 1910 when St. Catherine of Siena was constructed, the town consisted of wooden sidewalks and gravel streets. More than 200,000 board feet of Douglas fir were being cut each day by workers who made 20 cents an hour. It was these workers who carried up the hill on their backs the tongue and groove fir slats that line the interior of St. Catherine of Siena Mission today.

It was in 1910 that the Catholic Church Extension Society sent a rail car equipped to be a chapel to Mill City. Within a year, the society was donating for a church to be built in town.   

A century later, the centennial committee was formed and determined that the historic hilltop house of prayer should not be allowed to continue its decay and fall to the ground. Fund raising immediately began, and lead gifts by the Freres and Frank lumber families jumpstarted the effort. More than $450,000 was raised in 18 months and included large and small gifts from donors in Oregon and across the country.

“The timing was critical,” said centennial celebration committee member Michele Pfohl. “We began when the Archdiocese of Portland came out of bankruptcy and ended just before the economy tanked.”  

For Pfohl, the project had a deeper meaning even beyond historic preservation. It restored a Catholic presence in her town.

"Our mission is growing," Pfohl reports. "That was the hope. I am really, really proud that we have been able to do the renovation and bring it full circle to be a healthy, happy mission."

People here were nervous. The mission church at Detroit, farther up the canyon, did close.

During the six month construction period, Mass was celebrated in the nearby Presbyterian Church of Mill City. That highlights the close ecumenical ties in this town. One Presbyterian man still comes to St. Catherine's and mows the lawn free of charge. A common commitment to community service makes the ecumenical friendships even stronger as joint groups serve the needy with food, clothing and other services.   

St. Catherine's holds 70 people. For the centennial, 100 were jammed in, with an overflow of 100 outside watching on a screen. Not all the worshipers were Catholic.  

Visitors over the weekend commented on the “simple beauty and elegance” of the newly restored mission. The celebration, which included afternoon concerts, archive displays, church tours, and an ice cream social, ended with an evening performance by Sister Nancy Murray, who portrays St. Catherine of Siena. This feisty 14th century nun challenged popes and laity to love of God and love of neighbor — both evident among those gathered over the weekend to celebrate 100 years of praise and service.

In his homily on that Independence Day weekend, Archbishop John Vlazny told worshipers that these days Americans are hesitant to give God his proper place in their lives.

"Our nation will once again be more comfortable as a people 'under God' if we truly do accept our place 'under God,'" he said. "As we celebrate this centennial Mass today, we also celebrate our freedom as a nation and as a people of God. We acknowledge that the only kind of freedom that makes sense is a freedom which acknowledges our dependence upon God for all that we are and all that we do and all that we have."  

Parishioner Lynda Harrington has been the chief organizer, a role at which she is a master.

"She got us all working together," says Maryann Meredith, a centennial project organizer and member of St. Catherine's since 1994.

Meredith's dream is that more young Catholic families move into the Santiam Canyon.

"Job opportunities are limited, but there is so much potential," she says. "And a church can't live on its older people."