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3/30/2011 10:07:00 AM
Faithful fortitude keeps Yamhill parish tight-knit as it marks 100 years
Catholic Sentinel photo by Gerry Lewin
Becky Ward, up front, was the main organizer of the Centennial Mass Celebration.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Gerry Lewin
Becky Ward, up front, was the main organizer of the Centennial Mass Celebration.
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Catholic Sentinel photo by Gerry Lewin
Members of the Garand family, up front, join other St. John in Yamhill parishioners and visitors for the Centennial Celebration Mass.
Clarice Keating
Of the Catholic Sentinel

As St. John Church here turns 100, parishioners reflect on where their Catholic faith has fit into their lives over the past century. Carmella Elliot’s parents moved from Italy in 1914, and she was born soon after. To baptize their children, Elliot’s parents walked four miles carrying three babies to catch a train into Portland, where they celebrated the sacrament at St. Michael’s. Then they got back on the train and walked another four miles home.

“There is a big difference between what was going on 100 years ago, compared to what’s happening today in many places,” said centennial committee chairwoman Becky Ward. “These days some people struggle just to make it to church on Sunday.”

However, even with hectic modern schedules, members of St. John’s slow down each Sunday to take part in Mass and enjoy fellowship with friends and neighbors afterward.

Archbishop John Vlazny visited the parish March 20 to celebrate Mass with priest administrator Father Jim Coleman.

“The 100 year celebration was a very fine moment for everyone here,” Father Coleman said. “The archbishop’s presence was very affirming as well.”

Father Coleman is new to the parish. He’s been stationed there for a little over a month, following Father David Janes’ retirement after a decade there.

During a centennial celebration, parishioners and visitors perused collages and slide shows of historical photos from the century past.

“It really brought back to a lot of us how deep and important faith was to these pioneer people,” Ward said.

This parish also retains its farming community connection, even while suburbs and wineries with fine-dining bistros pop up in the rolling hills of Yamhill County. Even today, meeting times are adjusted around crop schedules.

An influx of new families has only supplemented the longtime residents’ faith.  The community is still led by the spirit, said Mark Brine, who joined the parish four years ago. He marvels that he gets to walk into church and sit down next to families who have been in the area for generations.

“You definitely feel the history,” Brine said. “It’s good to feel like you’re part of something bigger. It’s a reminder of not only the church’s 100-year history, but also the Church’s rich history of 2,000 years. It’s comforting on a local level.”

The unique demographic of the area also gives the parish a wide age distribution. 

Nowhere else is that diversity better displayed than at the parish’s beloved annual barn dance in October. It’s the one time of year the entire parish community joins under one roof.

Originally that roof was on a barn, which would be decorated with twinkling lights and filled with hay bales as seats. Eventually, when the old barn began to fall down, Don Pond, a parishioner since 1977, found a new space for the party.

Pond works for a local nursery, which allows the parish to use one if its storage warehouses. Despite the new location, the barn dance maintains its old-fashioned atmosphere during a potluck and Mass. Most importantly, the party is a chance for people who share a common love of their church to catch up.

The first Mass services in Yamhill County were in the early 1900s when the St. Anthony Chapel Car rolled through on rare occasions.

Soon after, the eight Catholic families in the area decided to build their own church. They obtained a $500 gift from the Catholic Extension, and then went about raising the other $500 needed on their own. The church was dedicated on March 12, 1911. The first pastor was Father Charles Raymond of St. James in McMinnville, of which the church was a mission.

Elliot remembers riding to church on a horse-drawn wagon. Their home in Woodland Loop didn’t even have a road leading into town.

In 1920, the church installed electricity, just bare bulbs that hung down from the ceiling.

Also during that era, an oil stove heated the church. Martha Schmitt, who moved to Yamhill when she was a young girl, volunteered for years with her husband to go over to the building each Saturday night to start the oil stove so the church would be warm in time for Sunday Mass. They lived a block from church, so the walk was a quick one.

That continual dedication to the parish continues today.

JoAnn Eramo, head of the Altar Society, helped plan the centennial party for the parish of 150 families. Regularly she works with a core group —  Betty Webb, Sylvia Turner, Renata and Don Liss, Teresa Puzon and Pat Farrin — to ensure a nice spread for funeral  receptions.  When longtime university professor Ladis Kristof died last year, East Coast urbanites who knew him through his son, New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristof, descended on the rural town. With the hard work of the Altar Society, there was nothing small-town about the spread at the reception.

“For a small parish, we have a very involved group of people here,” Eramo said. “We do what needs to be done.”

Teresa Puzon’s husband Meyer is studying to become a deacon, with hopes of being ordained in 2013. He said the strength and fortitude of the people of the parish has continued for 100 years and he hopes it will for 100 more.

“[This parish] is so full of people making memories, I want to see it continue that way,” he said.

They are memories that become stories that will be told at future celebrations. Already most folks who attended the centennial are telling the story of the party’s one cloudburst — though it was widely considered a success, the celebration lacked a certain joie de vivre without matriarch Frances Barrett there.

Barrett, a parishioner since 1927, who has been to almost very landmark occasion at St. John’s, wasn’t able to attend because she fell and broke her hip before the party. Folks prayed for her recovery during the centennial celebration.

It’s that kind of concern for their neighbors and willingness to help others that identifies St. John’s, Eramo said.  

“It’s a place where you go to get yourself enriched,” Pond said. “To fill up your gas tank with the word of God and visit with your neighbor.”

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