Sister Charlene Herinckx, who is serving a second five-year stint as superior general of the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon, is a fan of the histories of religious communities.
“Historically, women religious have been the ones who take the church out from the centers to serve those at the edges — in hospitals and through social work, for instance. We can be proud of serving those in need.”
Women’s leadership, almost always a team effort, can at times be forgotten in the history of the Archdiocese of Portland and even more forgotten in the wider history of the state. But women religious as well as lay Catholic women have been key in building much of what the church and state take pride in.
Their grit and faith helped shape our current church and society.
Whether it’s Mother Joseph of the Sisters of Providence, under whose stewardship in the late 1800s more than 30 schools, hospitals and orphanages were founded, or present-day Valerie Chapman, pastoral administrator of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Portland, who has worked with pastors for nearly 30 years to serve a parish that has long included the poorest of the inner East Side homeless community, Oregon boasts a colorful history of Catholic women leaders.
One place to begin that history is in 1814, when Catholic Native American Marie Aioe Dorion accompanied an overland expedition of the Pacific Fur Company. She made a heroic attempt to save her husband and others from a Bannock tribal attack, then managed to survive a brutally cold winter in the Blue Mountains with her two young sons. She finally settled in French Prairie, and was a devoted member of the earliest Catholic community there.
Another beginning could be 1844, when the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur arrived in Astoria to teach the children of French fur trappers and their Native American wives at St. Paul. They were the first order of women religious working in Oregon.
In 1859, a dozen Holy Names Sisters arrived in Portland from Montreal, answering Archbishop Francis Blanchet’s call for teachers to come to his muddy, rough-hewn, hurly-burly town. The sisters were given an abandoned house and a couple brooms with which to clear out mountains of trash, animal droppings and hay.
The sisters endured, opening a school just weeks later. That school is now St. Mary’s Academy, Oregon’s only all-girls high school and one of the top-ranked schools in the state.
Oregon’s own order
The Holy Names Sisters were old hands at Oregon life by 1891, when the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon moved from Sublimity to Beaverton in order to care for orphans. Those women, members of the only order founded in Oregon, discovered they didn’t have enough funds to feed the 60 children in their care. The orphanage was unfinished and its land hadn’t yet been cleared so orchards and gardens could be planted. They would live for years without electricity, running water or luxuries like butter, sugar or eggs.
The sisters persevered, traveling on “begging tours” and lobbying for support for the children. That finally came in 1900, when the state legislature allocated $4 a month for each Oregon orphan’s support.
It would be difficult to imagine a more dramatic journey than that of the earliest Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon. They began in Ohio as 14 daughters of families that had formed a lay community around an order of Swiss priests and brothers, the Missionaries of the Precious Blood.
Some families hit the trail with an especially strict and charismatic priest, Father Joseph Albrecht, west from Ohio to Minnesota by farm wagon. After Father Albrecht died, the group pushed on to Oregon. Their trip was made partly by train, and was almost cut short by cowboy bandits in North Dakota, who tried to wreck the train, lassoing the engine’s smoke pipe.
Father Albrecht had named the community’s men “trustees” of the young women religious. After reaching the Jordan River Valley in Linn County, the trustees became fiercely protective, cutting the women off from Mass and the Eucharist.
Finally the young women were allowed a visit from a priest, who urged them to write Archbishop William Gross and tell him about their circumstances.
When the trustees found out about the letter, they doubled down on keeping their women religious sequestered.
Then the women learned that a priest would be offering Mass just a mile or so away, across the Jordan River. “We at once, that is, the bolder ones... decided that we would not miss Mass,” Sister Wilhelmina Bleily wrote in her memoirs.
The young women crossed the Jordan on a log that had fallen across the river, and arrived with dripping wet feet and stockings.
Not long afterward, the prior of Mount Angel persuaded the trustees to allow the young women who were adults to live with the Benedictine Sisters in Mount Angel.
Those first called to the order didn’t have much education and were all obedient daughters in a strict German Catholic culture. And yet they broke away from their families — “when they realized they weren’t fully participating in the church,” says Sister Charlene. “Who knows how the Holy Spirit works?”
The women refused to become Benedictines but again they made their own way, preferring to become a diocesan order, the Sisters of the Precious Blood — later known as Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon.
They would run St. Mary’s Orphanage, staff parish grade schools, build a motherhouse, nurse victims of the Spanish influenza, found St. Mary’s Institute (now Valley Catholic High School) and build Maryville Nursing Home.
Sister Charlene explains how deeply she appreciated a compliment that came when she was told that the board members of Valley Catholic sometimes ask one another what the sisters would do regarding a challenge. “If it were all sisters making this decision, what would they say?”
Sister Charlene earned a bachelor’s degree from Marylhurst, a master’s in education from the University of Portland and a second master’s from the University of San Francisco. She is being awarded the University of Portland’s highest honor, the Christus Magister Medal, at the graduation ceremonies May 7. The university explains that honor goes to “awardees [who] have demonstrated a vigorous spiritual life and an accomplished professional career that has significantly advanced knowledge, been of inimitable service to his or her fellow men and women, and been an inspiration and consolation to the world.”
In addition to leadership in her community, teaching and serving as principal at schools around the Portland metro area, Sister Charlene also served on the National Religious Vocation Conference board and works as a consultant with the National Religious Retirement Office.
She compares the different gifts of men and women in the church to the different gifts of men and women in families. “I believe the church needs to be what a family is, a blend of masculine and feminine,” she says. “The key is for women to understand men’s approach and for men to understand women’s approach. That leads to good ministry in the church, just like in families.”
Sister Charlene says most people experience some type of leadership role: in their families, their communities and at work. “The bottom line is to pray,” she says, “in order to discern what decision God wants us to make. It’s hard to know what God wants. If we don’t pray, then we’re just running our own show.”