Sentinel photoFirefighters pour water on the fire that destroyed North Catholic High School in Portland on July 14, 1970.
Sentinel photo
Firefighters pour water on the fire that destroyed North Catholic High School in Portland on July 14, 1970.
On the morning of July 14, 1970, an arsonist’s angry flames destroyed Portland’s only co-educational Catholic high school.

North Catholic High would not rise from the ashes. That displaced 430 students and broke the hearts of North Portland families. But the idea of boys and girls studying together in Catholic secondary schools would win out within a dozen years.

Even now, North Catholic is recalled for a distinct and pioneering character — familial, wholesome, working class, progressive, hopeful.

It was on the campus of North Catholic in October 1964 that one of Portland’s first experimental Masses in the vernacular was held. The students entered film contests and wrote modern verse. Academics were highly rated and the Royals sports teams, particularly football, were the pride of the neighborhood.

North Catholic had a small-town feel, with everyone knowing everyone else.

“That’s why there was such a void after the fire,” says Meridee Kaiel, a 1968 graduate who walked the two blocks from her house to watch firefighters on that sunny but awful morning.

The four-alarm fire that consumed three quarters of the main school structure sticks in the memories of many Oregon Catholics as a black day. In the wee hours, someone kindled flames on the second story of the aging wooden structure, a former public school. Investigators knew it was arson, but lacked evidence to charge anyone.

Father Karl Schray, now pastor of Holy Redeemer Parish in North Bend, was the last person officially in the building before the fire. A teacher and counselor at the school since 1965, he’d regularly stay late after heading back to nearby Blessed Sacrament Parish for dinner.

“It was a lot easier to do work there,” says the priest, still known for laboring lengthy hours.

He was at North Catholic until about 1:30 a.m. July 14, two hours before neighbors noticed the blaze and alerted firefighters.

He woke early to celebrate Mass at Blessed Sacrament and as he walked to the church, he saw a huge plume of smoke rising on the northern horizon.  

“There was nothing I could do but go pray,” he says. After Mass, he went to the school and saw groups of students standing on the perimeter weeping quietly.

Michelle Sosinki was one of the youths in the crowd. She had graduated a year before the blaze. When she heard about the tragedy, she felt bereft for the loss of the site where she came of age. She also felt concerned for the younger, displaced students.

“It was more of a sadness from my perspective of reflecting on all of the good times, reflecting on the learning, the friendships and wondering where that was going to go,” Sosinski says. “I was wondering what would happen to the students who didn’t get those opportunities we had.”

Firefighters had started fighting the blaze at about 4 a.m. The fire burned stubbornly between the old Peninsula School classroom ceilings and the lowered ceilings installed during remodeling.

Flames were under control by 5:45 a.m. A haggard and grim Fire Chief James Riopelle told reporters there was “massive structural damage” to the second floor and water and smoke damage on the first floor.

Water cascaded down the front steps of North Catholic and shafts of sun beamed through holes in the charred roof.

Mary Schiffbauer could not bring herself to go watch the fire.

“I was sick. We all were,” says Schiffbauer, who had two children enrolled in 1970 and a third about to start.

The building had suffered two previous fires. A furnace problem in 1939 caused a blaze that ruined the entire third floor, which was removed during restoration. A 1954 fire, four years before North Catholic began, was blamed on children smoking.

There would be no recovery from the third fire.

Many people say they know who set it. But the theories conflict.

A former teacher at North Catholic says the “scuttlebutt” is that one of the school’s own students did the deed. A woman who taught at Holy Cross School at the time echoes that.

“Somebody had to know that building,” says Marv Honl, who sent five children to North Catholic and surmises only a student would know the vulnerability of the second floor.

But Meridee Kaiel does not believe it.

“Maybe it was a dare. I don’t know,” she says. “I can’t believe anybody hated the school. It’s not in the spirit of North Catholic to be a rabble-rouser.”

According to another account still told today, three young men from a neighboring high school started the fire as a pledge for joining an activist organization. Some say the blaze was begun by jealous public school students who felt North Catholic was taking away their best athletes.

Father Schray simply calls the arsonist or arsonists “people of ill will.” At Masses in the neighborhood after the blaze, Catholics prayed for the criminal and worked toward a forgiveness that was hard to achieve.

— Clarice Keating contributed to this story.