One evening in the mid-1950s, Father Francis Maloney sat in a Chinese restaurant on North Lombard Street in Portland.
The beefy priest gazed across the road at a massive, empty wooden building. Peninsula Grade School had been shuttered in 1953.
What could be done with an old place like that? wondered Father Maloney, then disciplinarian at Central Catholic High School.
Within a few years, the structure at North Lombard and Emerald streets and its 3.5 acres would be sold to the Archdiocese of Portland for $84,000. Renovation to accommodate a new high school would cost $185,000. The money came from a fund begun in 1956 to mark the jubilee of Archbishop Edward Howard.
Father Maloney, 41, would become founding principal of North Catholic High, which opened in fall, 1958. It was the only co-ed Catholic high school in Portland’s city limits. Conditions had aligned for the new venture.
Families in North Portland were mostly blue collar, with World War II veteran fathers who worked in industry on Swan Island or at Vanport. The Baby Boom children were coming of age and many parents were not completely satisfied with the public education offerings in the area. On top of that, Columbia Prep, a Catholic boys school located on the University of Portland campus, had closed in 1955.
“If ever there were a need for a Christian school, it was North Catholic,” says Marv Delplanche, who taught at North Catholic from 1964 until 1970. “It was innovative, a great school with great morals.”
The new school’s motto was Fiat Voluntas Tua, “Thy Will Be Done.”
It was the age of Red scares, thin ties, bouffant hair and cheerleader skirts at the knee. Also in the air were new ideas in a church that had long avoided co-education for teens. North Catholic faculty included Sisters of St. Francis from Glen Riddle, Pa. and two Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Family, plus several diocesan priests.
The school enrolled 117 students that first year, 61 boys and 56 girls. An additional 130 youths began in 1959 and the ball was rolling.
North Catholic had a chapel to seat 70 worshipers, a gym and a football field. By 1961, a $125,000 science building was constructed in response to Sputnik, the Russian satellite that gave the U.S. a scientific inferiority complex.
In October 1964, Father Richard Fall chose North Catholic for what the Catholic Sentinel called the city’s first vernacular Mass open to the public. It was billed as a demonstration of the new liturgy developed at the Second Vatican Council.
By the time fire destroyed the school in 1970, it would have 430 students and be a beloved neighborhood institution.
Now what remains of North Catholic buildings are the gym and science building, formerly used by a boys and girls club.
An Arby’s restaurant occupies the spot where the main school building stood, a patch of earth still sacred to many alumni and parents.