GRAND RONDE — As the average age of the congregation has increased, the number of ministry volunteers over the years at St. Michael Church has dwindled.
Despite that change over the decades in church demographics, a relatively new monthly tradition of post-Mass brunch has blossomed, bringing together the 50-or-so folks who show up for the weekly liturgy.
“Everybody throws a donation in the jar. Sometimes people bring stuff,” said Carol Nash. “It always ends up that there is enough food.”
When Deacon David Briedwell was assigned to be administrator of the church after he was ordained in 2008, he discovered that the small Catholic community in Grand Ronde had been scattered to the winds.
Briedwell petitioned to shift the Mass time from Saturday evening to Sunday morning and instituted the full brunches. Nowadays most of the people who attend Mass stay for the meal, he said.
“The sense of community is well-established,” he said. “In a lot of parishes I’ve visited, and it was like this one was in the past, you go to Mass and as soon as you finish church, you leave.”
Not here: The new tradition has invigorated people.
“Now, we watch kids grow up when they come to visit,” he said. “People get together on weeknights in winter to play basketball in the gym, and there is a lot of interest in holding more community functions.”
The renewed vigor came just in time, as the tiny parish celebrated its 150th anniversary Sept. 19. With a list of registered parishioners that ranges between 35 and 45, the group is looking toward its future during uncertain financial times.
Briedwell’s responsibility is divided between the Grand Ronde church and Good Shepherd Church in Sheridan. St. Michael’s priest moderator is Father Terry O’Connell, pastor at St. James in McMinnville.
Briedwell hires visiting priests, handles finances, coordinates sacramental preparation and liturgical planning, and all the other odds and ends that go into keeping a parish alive.
The fifth generation Yamhill resident was ordained in 2008, after converting to Catholicism in 1985. He can see St. Michael’s from his house.
“Ministry after ministry was handed to me,” he said. “It started out with mowing the lawn. Then counting the collection. Then hosting the collection. Then paying the bills, and then I was led to the diaconate.”
Parishioners like Laura Fagundes credit the deacon with helping the parish blossom. After 30 years in the parish, Fagundes is 81 and doesn’t get out to volunteer in the parish as much as she did when she was younger. Now that her husband is gone, she lives alone and looks forward to Mass as an opportunity to see friends.
“I love St. Michael’s,” she said.
Activities like the 150th draw from the community, which is part of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde. Members of the tribe are still part of the parish, harkening back to the church’s roots in 1860 when Father Adrian Croquet arrived as the area’s first Catholic missionary. Responding to the request of a group of tribal leaders, Father Croquet served the community of American Indians who were forced to move to this reservation when it was established in 1854. He also served soldiers at Fort Yamhill, and trappers and settlers in the county, and Catholics in Tillamook and Polk counties and the Siletz and coastal tribes from Tillamook to Alsea.
A school was opened in 1874, run by the Holy Names Sisters then Benedictine Sisters, until the government ordered closed in 1900 all Catholic schools on reservations.
The current building is the church’s third – dedicated in 1938. Keeping up the old place is a constant battle, Briedwell said. The church and rectory both need new roofs, utilities are expensive and there are high insurance expenses.
Grants from the Confederated tribes help pay for some expenses, but they’re often in the form of matching grants, which means the parish needs to have a base contribution in order to receive the funds.
“Most of our people are elderly and on fixed incomes,” Briedwell said. “Or there are also lots of people out of work here. People are scraping by.”
Johnnie Belle Bainter and her husband Bob, 82 and 84 respectively, were married in St. Michael’s 60 years ago, last summer. She helps out by doing the church laundry, washing the altar cloths, and anything else – bake sales or garage sales - that comes up.
One longstanding job parishioners have been helping out with is getting stock of old roller skates cleaned up so the church can revive an old tradition of opening up the gym for roller skaters.
Despite all the worries that come with keeping a small, rural parish going, people there are appreciative of the history and beauty of the surrounding environment.
“We’re lucky. We have a piece of property that has tremendous potential,” said Nash. “But all that potential takes a lot of time, work and money.”