The fire that destroyed North Catholic High School in 1970 was painful. The decision not to rebuild left even deeper wounds.
Parents who had spent years donating and volunteering to establish and maintain North Catholic were angered that the insurance money was used for other Catholic high schools and North Portland was left without ongoing benefit.
“That left a bitter taste in my mouth,” says Mary Schiffbauer, 89.
Two of her children had graduated and two were enrolled when the fire hit. Schiffbauer was among hundreds of people who attended multiple meetings with Archdiocese of Portland officials as the decision was taking shape.
News reports said 500 people attended a meeting at Holy Cross School to discuss North Catholic’s future. Marv Delplanche, who taught at North Catholic from 1964 until the fire, says there were 1,500.
Mimi Schaefer, a 1967 graduate, recalls her parents going to one gathering after another. The parents were heartbroken, having given much of their limited income to create the school.
“They wanted it to be a way to improve their [children’s] lives,” Schaefer explains. North Catholic students took up a petition and marched from Memorial Coliseum to the chancery building to appeal to the archdiocese’s board of education.
“We’re not trying to do anything except let people know how great we think our school is and how hard we’ll work to keep it,” John Maguigan, 16, told the Oregon Journal.
“North Catholic is a pretty small school — just 450 kids. We all got to know each other real well and like one another. Our parents have, too. We’ve got great school spirit and we’ve had really good athletic teams. We just don’t want to lose all that if we can help it.”
One of the chief voices piping up to rebuild the school was none other than Father Francis Maloney, founder of North Catholic and, in 1970, the priest at nearby Blessed Sacrament Parish.
After the decision, when plywood was affixed to the school’s windows. Students wrote on one of the panels: “You can take the kids out of North Catholic, but you can’t take North Catholic out of the kids.”
St. Mary Sister Ruth Frank was the first grade teacher at nearby Holy Cross School, which hosted the meeting at which the North Catholic closure was annouced.
“People were crying,” Sister Ruth recalls. “I’ve never seen anything like it. People were so angry.”
About 180 North Catholic students opted to continue their Catholic co-educational experience, even though it meant a long ride to La Salle High in Milwaukie. Others went to Roosevelt and Jefferson.
The closure was one part of a response to a financial crisis in the archdiocese at the time. Officials said the decision was for the “general good.”
As the Baby Boomers were aging, enrollments in schools dropped. Ten Catholic schools in western Oregon had been shuttered during the span of 1968 to 1969.
Father Edmond Bliven, who wrote for the Sentinel for decades, confirms that Archbishop Robert Dwyer was not a foe of co-education. The archbishop’s big worry, Father Bliven says, was money for ministries.
Msgr. Arthur Dernbach, a former Catholic schools chief, was principal of St. Mary School in Medford, another co-educational institution. Though far from Portland in 1970, he remembers talk of agonizing over finances — insurance funds from the North Catholic fire were not enough to create a proper new building.
Reports from the era show an archdiocese being drained financially by its schools.
In summer 1969, a committee formed by the archdiocese to study the tight money situation said that Central, North Catholic and La Salle had a combined deficit of $299,000. In today’s dollars that would be about $2 million.
North Catholic may have closed in any event within five or six years, says Father Leo Remington, who taught there from 1965 to 68. Like most dioceses, Portland had built busily during the post-war boom and then met with a decline in students by the time the 1970s arrived.
“But parents had a plan to rebuild,” Father Remington says. “It was a very involved parent group. That was part of the spirit: ‘This is our family.’”
Despite the good will from families, the board of education said replacement of the building as it was before the fire would not work “recognizing current education practice.” Then officials said a new building for 500 students on the same site would cost $1.8 million. But there was only $485,000 coming from insurance.
Parishes, the board added, were already unable to pay the subsidy needed to support Catholic high schools and the archdiocese was making up the difference. The amount needed for Catholic high schools was $414,000 per year. Building a proper new North Catholic would have added $111,000 to that annual total.
As it was, the board said, the archdiocese’s reserve fund was “rapidly being exhausted.”