Portland's St. Birgitta Parish is haven for traditionalists
Kristen HannumAt a glance
St. Birgitta Parish
11820 NW St. Helens Rd. (Highway 30)
Sunday Masses: 5 p.m. vigil; 8 a.m. (Latin Tridentine); 10 a.m.
By Kristen Hannum
Of the Sentinel
Step into the little wood-framed church off St. Helens Road and you've stepped into what feels like a place in another time - or perhaps a timeless place.
The wood-paneled walls give a warm glow to the chapel, and women whose heads are covered in lace kerchiefs follow the Latin Mass in their breviaries. A train whistle blows during the priest's words. He speaks with his back to the congregation. The choir sings a Latin hymn from the choir loft.
This is St. Birgitta's 8 a.m. Latin Tridentine Mass, for which the average Mass-goer travels 30 miles. The church is full.
Daryl Mulick, who is on St. Birgitta's parish council, says he and his wife make the drive from Boring because they're conservative, and this is the only Tridentine Mass in the Portland area. He found the church when Franciscan Father Milan Mikulich was pastor. That's typical, since Father Mikulich was pastor here for 41 years.
The Croatian Franciscan converted two of Mulick's grandparents on their deathbeds.
That was typical too - for as parishioner Philip Johnson says, 'You didn't say no to Father Milan.'
Father Mikulich also brought Johnson's father into the church.
Johnson says he chooses the Latin Mass here because he's nostalgic, and it's comfortable. 'I have no criticism of the English, but I like Latin if I can get it,' he says.
Of course, that means some extra work in training the altar servers for the Latin Mass; Johnson has to make certain they know the Latin of the Mass before he can get started with other matters when he trains them.
The priest's back to the congregation is another plus for parishioner Guy Letourneau. 'It's a neat little visual cue that all of us are facing the highest authority,' he says.
When Father Mikulich left in 1994 and Father Joseph Browne stepped in, Mulick says the Holy Cross priest didn't miss a step. 'He's just as good a man,' says Mulick. 'We never thought we'd replace Father Milan, but everyone here is so happy with him.'
The Mulicks also enjoy their fellow parishioners; Mulick says they largely share his conservatism.
The 10 a.m. English Mass draws a different group of people. Many of those who choose this Mass live within the parish boundaries; others come from the closed Assumption Parish, just across the Willamette. 'Father calls us his refugees from across the river,' says Betty Cox.
Betty and her husband Al Cox celebrate their 54th wedding anniversary this Sept. 26. The couple say they've been welcomed here. 'Father Browne is the best priest you've ever seen,' says Betty Cox.
They like the cozy nature of St. Birgitta's. 'It's a peaceful, old-time feeling,' says Steve Albrich, another St. Johns' resident.
The parish's oldest parishioner, Elsie Wilson, is 102. She lives on Sauvie Island, and comes to the English Mass regularly, grateful to fellow parishioners and island neighbors such as Anita and John Bender for rides.
Elsie, a faithful Catholic, is praying to St. Anthony these days, since she lost her jade ring.
Because so many parishioners live so far away, the parish council meets on Sundays between the Masses. At the last meeting, says Mulick, the council decided to remodel the hall. They've moved fast; it already has a new roof, and the huge, unused freezers that dominated the hall near the kitchen have been removed. New plumbing is yet to come, and the kitchen is being remodeled. Parishioners also plan to do electrical work - the old, hot lights will be replaced with fluorescent.
A kindergarten, the Little Angels Preschool, meets in a carpeted corner of the hall.
The parish takes top marks in the Bishop's Annual Appeal collection; parishioners also hold canned food drives and contribute to Operation Rice Bowl. Parishioners say there is no special outreach ministry to the poor from the parish itself because there isn't any poverty in the area - or at least there aren't calls for help.
The parish has one of the most interesting histories of any in the archdiocese, old or new. At the parish's golden jubilee in 1966, Father Mikulich wrote up a history of the parish that was published in a booklet.
He wrote that there was no church here in the Linnton area in the early years of this century. A priest from St. Patrick's in Northwest Portland came once a month to say Mass in a private home and then a hall. On other Sundays, the few Catholics of the area crossed the Willamette River to St. Clement's Church in St. Johns or went south to Portland for Mass. (St. Clement's became Assumption Church; St. Johns, then a separate town, was incorporated into Portland long ago).
In 1915 and 1916, Msgr. Charles Smith, pastor of St. Clement's, gave two missions here on the St. Peter's Chapel Car, a railway car parked on the side tracks at the Linnton depot. Four little girls were baptized during the evening missions; an undertaker with a wonderful singing voice, George Hennessey, sang; and even Protestants came.
After the missions, Archbishop Alexander Christie asked Msgr. Smith to establish a parish here.
Anyone who has ever driven up Highway 30 knows that building space is limited - there's a forested bluff to the west and a dropoff to the river to the east. When two lots were donated for a church, therefore, no one could have been very surprised to find that the land was steep, and that the church would have to be built upon stilts.
Father Mikulich's history says that , Msgr. Smith wrote the highway department asking permission to build a wooden bridge to Highway 30 to connect the church to the road. He didn't hear back, and using the old Roman rule that no answer implies consent, he went ahead and built.
State highway officers arrived and demanded that the bridge be removed, since it had been built without permission. The foresightful Msgr. Smith then produced a copy of his letter, and the state allowed the bridge to stand.
Msgr. Smith was pleased with his ingenious solution, and often told people that little St. Birgitta's had made Ripley's Believe It Or Not three times.
Archbishop Christie dedicated the church on July 16, 1916.
It was named St. Birgitta because the Catholic Extension Society of Chicago paid $500 of its $2,000 cost, and the major donor requested that name.
Msgr. Smith still lived in St. Johns. Every Sunday a young man rowed him across the river where the St. Johns Bridge now stands. Msgr. Smith would then walk up to the church - which had about 100 parishioners.
Over the years, St. Birgitta's was cared for by Redemptorists, Servites, the priests at St. Clement's, the priests at St. Cecilia's (which became Queen of Peace) and the priests at St. Patrick's.
In 1954, Father Mikulich was named resident pastor of St. Birgitta's. He was also charged with the spiritual care of Portland's Croats, Slovenes, Slovaks and Czech.
Parishioners bought three acres of land in 1955 for a new church - which was to be a prefabricated building. A new hall followed in 1959. Parishioners now jokingly call part of their property 'the Croatian forest,' because Father Mikulich planted the orchard upon it.
Father Mikulich also built a Mission for Croatian People, dedicated in 1965.
Father Mikulich was also administrator of St. Stanislaus Polish Church in North Portland from 1957 to 1964; and administrator of the historic St. Patrick Church in Northwest Portland from 1972 to 1985 - all the while continuing to serve as pastor of St. Birgitta's.
'He was the stalwart here,' says parishioner Joe Cholik. 'Remember the time when they were talking about serving cookies at Mass?
'Father Milan said, 'You like cookies? I like cookies. But eat your cookies at home.''
Father Mikulich left St. Birgitta's to return to Croatia in 1995.
Father Browne, who had long been based at the University of Portland across the river, had filled in over the years for Father Mikulich. When he heard that the parish was in danger of being closed if a pastor could not be found, he volunteered.
The last Sunday of every month is a sung High Mass. Parishioners are proud that two sisters from eastern Washington state heard about that Mass and traveled all the way to Portland with their several small children and father in order to attend. Unfortunately, they were mixed up about which Sunday the sung High Mass was on, and so ended up attending a regular Sunday Latin Mass.
Gregory Paridon, choir director, disagrees with the U.S. bishops' directives on inclusive language, shunning music that includes it. In fact, he doesn't care for most of the new liturgical music.
'When we come for liturgy, we come first of all to praise God,' he says. 'The edification of the people comes second.'
He further explains that the Tridentine rite is one of church, and should be preserved.
'English can be so base,' he says. 'We need to pull how we pray to God into beautiful language.'