11/18/2013 2:17:00 PM Catholic presence abides at retirement community
Catholic Sentinel photos by Ed Langlois
Bina Marshallo tries to convince Roscoe Files to eat his vegetables, while Sister Georgita Cunningham, center, enjoys the joke.
Ellenore Mercure spends a moment with Fr. John McGrann at Laurelhurst Village.
A century of Sisters
Laurelhurst Village originally was a Methodist Hospital. Urged by local Catholic leaders to economize, the Sisters of Mercy purchased the large Victorian edifice in 1900 at sheriff's sale, paying only back taxes. The Sisters named it Mount St. Joseph and began accepting frail Portland elders, many of whom had no way to pay for care. The women were deeply involved in the lives of the residents and asked for funds door to door.
Fees were $40 per month for a private room and $25 per month for a bunk in the ward. One man showed up asking for a bed proudly showing only $2. The admitting Sister wanted to let him in for free, but thought more, taking one of the dollars to sustain his pride. In 1930, a man named John Bonnet brought cuttings from France and raised a garden for Mount St. Joseph’s kitchen — his payment for care.
The Sisters of Mercy also ran a Portland home for working women, a home for babies near Oregon City, taught school in various places and operated hospitals in North Bend, Albany, Roseburg and Eugene.
In 1959, the old Mount St. Joseph building was condemned and the current brick home went up.
Between the 1940s and 1970s, residents were charged $65 to $80 per month. A small community of Mercy Sisters lived on the campus and did most of the work. The buildings went through numerous additions and renovations, and the leadership started to change in 1991 when the Sisters turned the title over to Catholic Health Corporation. The Sisters moved out completely in 2003 with the agreement that managers would maintain a “Catholic presence,” including pastoral ministry and regular Mass in the Chapel.
In 2005, Mount St. Joseph became a for-profit facility and was named Laurelhurst Village. Mercy Sister Geneva Paluka provided pastoral care until 2011, with several priests taking part. Father McGrann came in 2009 and Mercy Sister Georgita Cunningham joined him in 2011.
Just outside the main entrance of Laurelhurst Village retirement community in Southeast Portland, a white statue of St. Joseph stands. Small offerings are scattered around his feet — flowers, a rosary, cherry tomatoes from the salad bar.
The life-size figure is a remnant of the facility's past as Mount St. Joseph, when the Sisters of Mercy carried residents up long staircases, sold handmade lace to pay the bills and charged in the double figures for a month's stay.
The Sisters no longer live here, and a for-profit company is in charge. But a decade-old sale agreement means that a Catholic presence is here to stay.
In the space of five minutes up on the fourth floor, Father John McGrann has wiped someone's mouth after lunch, helped a wheelchair get over a bump and heard a nursing assistant discuss a family struggle.
"I don't know what I would do without him," says resident Ellenore Mercure after the priest has visited her bedside. Asked what the place would be like without him, Mercure assumes a catastrophic expression and says, "Oh dear God!"
A few minutes later, the priest is down the hall visiting a man interested in Mother Teresa of Calcutta and her faith crisis.
"Father," the man asks. "Have you ever had doubts?" That leads to a candid discussion about faith, limited human understanding and God's steadfast love.
Father McGrann, a retired Archdiocese of Portland priest, has been offering pastoral care here since 2009. Mercy Sister Georgita Cunningham, a former pastoral ministry professor at Mount Angel Seminary, joined him in 2011.
Laurelhurst Village now has 207 beds and offers a range of care, including assisted living and nursing care. Fewer than half of residents are Catholic, but even non-Catholics come to Mass five days per week, attend Bible studies led by Sister Georgita, go on day retreats and take part in art projects led by Father McGrann.
The priest and the nun remind residents that older people have a ministry: To pray for their families and for the world. Sister Georgita often urges residents to remember childhood and young life. It usually prompts feelings of gratitude to God.
"They are still gospel people," Father McGrann says.
Residents appreciate pastoral care staff because they are not taking a pulse or giving a bath or asking about digestion.
Mike White, 74, is wheelchair bound. He sits near the front door to welcome guests. A Notre Dame graduate, he taught accounting at the University of Portland. After Mass, he sums up the pastoral care team with pith: "They provide availability."
"They reach out far, far beyond what they have to do," adds Bina Marshallo, a longtime resident and former restaurateur. Marshallo tells the story of how she mentioned a craving for dill pickles and Sister Georgita drove out and bought some.
"They live with us without making a big fanfare of it," says Roscoe Files, a retired U.S. Forest Service ranger. "I'm not really religious, but that's part of the atmosphere here that helps. Here, it's homelike and I attribute that a lot to pastoral care."
Dave Davalos, a retired trucker, shares many laughs with Father McGrann, some unprintable. The hilarity helps everyone feel better.
"We don't have an agenda," says Father McGrann. "We are just present."
He and Sister Georgita help residents talk about things they sometimes cannot discuss with family — dying, regrets, broken relationships.
"We talk about being pilgrims," Father McGrann says. "We don't come here to to get better. We come here to have a good quality of life at the end of our days." Some residents return to Catholic practice and many ask for help planning their funerals.
Before Mass, Father McGrann greets every worshiper by name. On this day, he shows a stack of cards fourth graders have made for residents. During the homily, he points out colorful fall leaves, saying that often things are most beautiful near their end.
"For us, at the end of our lives, we have certain freedoms," he told worshipers. "We don't have as much to worry about. There is time to pray. We are a little more trusting in God."
The facility has gone through different owners quickly. Since June, it has been managed by Wilsonville-based Avamere and owned by overseas investors. Even so, there is Mass five days per week, including Sunday, and a 6 p.m. rosary most evenings.
Jonathan Mock, the operations manager, says the Catholic pastoral care arrangement will remain as long as he is in charge. About a dozen residents wrote to Mock this summer, afraid the new management might remove the priest and nun.
"They play a huge role," Mock says. "I look at that as a value here. It brings that peace of mind for people. You have to serve the whole person and so you need to include the spiritual."
There are still some kinks to work out with the new management. Father McGrann had to ask that bingo not be scheduled during Mass time. Some Catholic seniors hit high anxiety over having to choose.