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9/24/2011 10:22:00 AM
New Blanchet House hopes to 'maintain the magic'
Catholic Sentinel photos by Ed Langlois
Dan Petrusich, Blanchet board member, and Brian Ferschweiler, executive director, listen during groundbreaking ceremony.
Catholic Sentinel photos by Ed Langlois
Dan Petrusich, Blanchet board member, and Brian Ferschweiler, executive director, listen during groundbreaking ceremony.
Hundreds gather for groundbreaking adjacent to current Blanchet House.
Hundreds gather for groundbreaking adjacent to current Blanchet House.
Ed Langlois
Of the Catholic Sentinel

As construction begins on a $12 million building for Blanchet House of Hospitality, the 59-year-old Catholic ministry has just about passed to a new generation.  

Since it opened in Portland's Old Town in 1952 at the hands of several University of Portland graduates, Blanchet has served 15 million meals, housed thousands of men and put them to work. The ministry's home has always been a cramped no-frills brick edifice — a century-old former speakeasy at Northwest 4th and Glisan.

Set to open next door in fall 2012, the new four-story, 36,000-square-foot facility will allow Blanchet to increase its services.

Now, Blanchet serves 700-900 meals a day, six days a week, totaling nearly 300,000 free meals per year.

Before replacing the worn-out building, Blanchet got a new board, many of the members children of the founders.

"I just can't give enough credit to them for the work they have done," Blanchet founder Jim O'Hanlon says of the new leaders, many of them descendants of founders.

"The building has served us well, but it's reached the end of its useful life," says Dan Petrusich, a board member whose late father Joe helped start Blanchet House.

Petrusich, president of Melvin Mark Development Co., recalls visiting the house of hospitality as a boy and going to Camp Howard with the families of other Blanchet board members for retreats and campouts. His father died when he was 10.

"Getting involved with Blanchet was a way to get involved with his memory," says Petrusich, a member of St. Thomas More Parish in Portland.

"My biggest hope is that we can maintain the magic," says Petrusich, staring at the pell-mell bricks siding the current Blanchet House. "There is something about Blanchet."

O'Hanlon's son, Ed, is a current board member. Jim Christianson is the son of founder Dan Christianson. Steve Feltz is son of founder Gene Feltz and Dave Gunderson is Feltz' son-in-law. Rich Ulring, son-in-law of longtime Blanchet board member Dan Harrington, is now president of the board.

The surviving old-timers, some as shaky as the old building, have not left. They maintain an emeritus board.

Blanchet's roots go back to a men's social club at the University of Portland more than 60 years ago. Father Frank Kennard became chaplain of the group and issued a challenge: "Do something really meaningful," the priest told the students. "Find God in the streets. Go out and live the Gospel."

Father Kennard had read about the Catholic Worker movement, which was opening houses of hospitality across the nation.

The club was inspired and rented space at 4th and Glisan. They named their house of hospitality after Oregon’s first archbishop, Francis Blanchet, and served the first meal in 1952 — beans, bread and coffee for 270 men down on their luck.

"Our fundamental idea was to try to see Christ in everyone in the line," says Jim O'Hanlon, a retired attorney. He credits the Blanchet board's weekly Masses over the years with sustaining the ministry.

"Prayer is a powerful tool," O'Hanlon told the crowd.

The new Blanchet board wants even a third generation to become involved in the ministry. A club for those 18 to 24 has begun.

James O'Hanlon, 24-year-old grandson of Jim, recalls serving meals at Blanchet House as a child. A graduate of Central Catholic High School and Southern Oregon University, he still values the work.

"I am always going to be involved," he says.

The new Blanchet House is placed on the site of a former tavern. The move has been discussed for more than a decade as Old Town has gentrified. City officials wanted meal lines to be indoors, partly for neighborhood image and partly to keep diners warm and dry. In return for its grants and aid, the city gets the old Blanchet property, which is slated for redevelopment.

"It's great to see that hole in the ground," said Brian Ferschweiler, the Blanchet House executive director who took over in 2004. "The emotions we feel today have to be similar to what  the founders felt in 1952."

Blanchet keeps running because of more than 5,000 volunteers each year, a corps of helpers Ferschweiler calls "an amazing gift."

The new building is three times the size of its century-old precursor. The second and third floors will offer beds to men who qualify for transitional housing. The fourth floor will be reserved for those who complete a six-month program, finding full-time work elsewhere.  

The project will sustain 100 family wage construction jobs. With a partial green roof and rainwater storage, the building plans won gold certification from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design system.

The Blanchet House capital campaign began just as the economy collapsed. The project seemed stalled until philanthropist Scott Duffens donated $500,000 earlier this year.

The Portland Housing Bureau gave $4 million in grants and provided additional support.

The Murdock Trust awarded $450,000 and the Collins Foundation gave $200,000. The Maybelle Clark MacDonald Fund awarded $150,000.

U.S. Bank is providing financing for the project —  $3.7 million in commercial loans and $3.6 million in tax credit equity in partnership with the National Community Fund.

"We are very proud of what Blanchet House has accomplished in our community," says Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish. "We believe that feeding the hungry is a very high calling."

Auxiliary Bishop Kenneth Steiner has been honorary co-chair of the building campaign. Bishop Steiner, who volunteered at Blanchet House as a teenager during the 1950s, blessed the construction site.

Jesuit Father Rick Ganz spoke at the dedication. He noted that after construction workers dig the hole, it's appropriate in this case that the first thing they build is the elevator, "that which lifts people up."

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