You could walk a straight shot from Holy Cross School, only a block, to Charlie's Candy Shop. Classes had just let out for the day, the pupils frolicsome and buzzing on the inside, barely holding it together to bid farewell politely to Sister Alodia McHale in her black gown and seagull-like headdress. They liked Sister Alodia just fine, but this was the time of day for penny licorice and peppermint — if you had a penny.
It was 1933, hard times, but red-haired seventh-grader Mary Sullivan could often enough afford her favorite soft orange confection. Her father held a steady job at the Union Pacific rail yards down by the river and mom worked at a fruit cannery and then the University of Portland dining hall. The parents earned enough to pay the $1 per month tuition at Holy Cross for their six children. The Sullivans hoofed seven blocks to school each morning from their big house at Fiske and Amherst, a small scuffling Irish army. In cold and rain, their mother demanded they wear a layer of long underwear. Mary adjusted her socks to hide the shameful garment, in contrast to her sister, who did not give a hoot what showed. Mary and the others learned plenty from the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon, especially the ones they adored but even the pretty-but overly strict young nun who commanded fifth grade with no sense of humor at all, and the impossibly old Sister Clementine Gescher, who ruled benignly over second graders. At the start, the sisters lived on the top floor of the brick schoolhouse until Father Thomas Jackson became pastor in 1936 and had pity on the women and swapped quarters, letting them live in the ample priest's house and then building them a convent adjacent to Charlie's. Father Jackson, a converted Jew, was like a balding manly angel, sent to the parish and school after the previous pastor's car plunged off Willamette Boulevard, killing him on the steep embankment. Girl students wore simple proletarian uniforms, blue dresses with white collars. The boys had no uniforms, an early example to Mary of how life is unfair. That didn't keep her from excelling in the boyish world of sport. Father Jackson would later tell Mary that the first time he saw her, it was on the Holy Cross ball field, where she had rounded third on a wet day and slid ferociously into home in a muddy spray.
Mary had gentler pursuits like learning piano in the nuns' house or taking parts in the school plays, when she would laugh nervously for the first few minutes and then perform smoothly. On weekends, the children could walk to the movie house near Portsmouth and Lombard or take the longer trek — crossing the manmade railroad route known locally as the Cut — to the St. Johns Theater. Features with the likes of Errol Flynn or Gary Cooper cost a nickel.
At Fiske and Lombard was the grocery, run by a Japanese man who sent the Sullivan kids a sack of candy each time their father paid off the grocery bill.
On some Saturdays, the gang would wander down the bluff from the university to the harbor, where they would greet sailors from Europe and the Orient. One had to be careful on the way home across campus, because the Holy Cross brothers tended cattle, including a surly bull who once took offense and chased Mary and her party of explorers across a grassy field.
At school, Mary mostly stayed clear of trouble. But one afternoon, after she had spent some academic effort getting a ruler balanced just right on the edge of her desk, Eddie Armstrong came along and knocked it to the ground with barely a thought. Indignant, Mary leapt up and socked the boy, a nifty darting left cross.
Classmates recall it as her finest hour. The Sisters, on the other hand, objected and ordered the fiery redhead to after-school detention in the nuns' parlor. For reasons not entirely clear — perhaps an application of the just war theory — Mary's older brother crept to the parlor window and convinced her to escape. The jailbreak only led to more solitary confinement later.
Despite trouble, at the end of the day, Charlie's Candy Shop could salve a girl's spirits. These days, the building provides succor in another way. In the 1940s, Charlie's became known as the Twilight Room tavern, and is still favored by University of Portland students.
Mary Sullivan would attend Roosevelt High School, where she met husband Richard Schiffbauer. The couple, wed in 1943, would have eight children, just enough with Mary playing to field a softball team.
Holy Cross Institute, less than a mile north of the university, opened in September 1912, linked to a parish the Holy Cross priests had founded eight years previous. All male at first, Holy Cross boarded lads from around the district, including farm boys from along the lower Columbia River. Older boys tended the boiler in the basement and helped keep the place clean.
By 1916, the Archdiocese of Oregon City had been given control of the parish and school. The Sisters assented to continue and girls were allowed to enroll. The sturdy three-story building was a house of learning for children of shipwrights, riverboat pilots, rail workers and longshoremen. The blue-collar neighborhood was home to immigrants from Ireland, Croatia, Poland, Japan and the Middle East.
The same month Holy Cross had opened, a Syrian Catholic household living near the Cut welcomed a baby daughter. They named her Victoria after the British Queen. John Tabshy, Victoria's father, worked in the Willamette River shipyards and on the side raised vegetables and silkworms. He would later become a gardener at the National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother, a splendid Catholic spread better known as The Grotto.
Meanwhile, the four Tabshy children played under a railroad bridge spanning the Willamette, at times soaring blissfully over riverside shrubbery on a rope tied to an overhead girder.
The Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon who taught Victoria — Sisters Eulalia Benedict, Miriam of Jesus Smith and Zita Gilsdorf — were kind to her. But some children were subject to the Sisters' wrath. Young Victoria sometimes saw the habit-wearing women walk solemnly to a nearby thicket to cut wooden sticks to use as switches.
Victoria and her well-behaved friends would gather under an arbor in the middle of the schoolyard and on fine days play in the grass. The playground was strictly segregated; girls to one side, boys to the other. Only the junior high students would cast furtive glances across the border.
Victoria would attend Roosevelt High, graduating as the Great Depression hit. A visiting Lebanese woman was impressed with the girl and made a match between Victoria and her brother, Stephen George. The two wed when Victoria was 20. They would send their children to Holy Cross.
As a first grader just after World War I, Victoria had emerged as top ticket seller for a school fundraiser and was rewarded with a dainty doll. Now, with a clean porcelain head and a white leader body, the figure is missing only an arm, lost outside during a day of play nine decades ago. Victoria, who now lives at Maryville Nursing Home in Beaverton, gently strokes the empty sleeve. She is almost 100 years old, the oldest known Holy Cross graduate.
In the early 1930s, when she regularly walked through the North Portland woods to Holy Cross School with her sisters, Millie Erceg kept an eye out for snakes. It didn't help that her brave younger sibling Rose would pick up the slithering reptiles and dangle them in the face of anyone who showed fear.
Born Milica Erceg in Croatia, she was just more than a year old when her parents brought her to the United States. The Ercegs lived in a two-bedroom house near what is now the Columbia Villa housing project. Five girls crowded into the same bed. They milked cows, tended chickens, harvested vegetables and polished the floors. To get extra money for the family, they picked berries.
In one class photo from Holy Cross, Millie's petticoat peeks from her skirt hem. It was fashioned of old flour sacks. On the way to school, the Erceg girls carried bottles of milk to the sisters as a way to pay tuition.
Millie, diminutive in size but grand in energy, had a leading role as Boots Woodruff in the school play "High Pressure Homer." She was talked of as an aspiring actress.
As for classroom behavior, she was no star. Once, a nun isolated her and another girl ne'er-do-well in a cloak room as punishment. That only led to more giggling.
Mille had no time for boyfriends, or many girlfriends for that matter. There was too much to do around home. She played with her siblings, of whom there were enough to field a ball team.
Now married and widowed, she's known as Millie Simkins and still has her old Holy Cross diploma. It hangs in her sewing room just above a row of well-organized scissors. An old report card shows top marks in spelling and geography and so-so grades in math.
Simkins has received most of her sacraments at Holy Cross Parish. She expects to have her funeral there and then be buried along with her mother at the family plot.
• • •
On a dreary afternoon in 1936, when Sister Lucille Vandehey had stepped out for a moment, young Leo Maguigan and his pals began tossing a ball in their classroom. The game did not go as expected. The ball flew off course and smashed a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Sister Lucille returned and, arms akimbo, ordered Leo and the others to head outside and bury the pieces reverently. It cost Leo's father three dollars to chip in for a replacement. The breakage was forgiven by the winter of 1937, when Leo and his classmates found themselves in the ringing gymnasium at the University of Portland. The north side Catholic Youth Organization eighth grade basketball champions from Holy Cross were taking on the south side champs from St. Philip Neri. It had been a close-fought match for the city title.
With three seconds left, and the game tied, Babe Erceg of Holy Cross was at the foul line with two chances to win it. The thin, wavy-haired boy missed both shots. The game went into overtime and St. Philip Neri prevailed by a point.
Leo remembers it clearly — the smell of the wooden gym, the high-pitched cheer of the crowd and the tang of disappointment. He and some of his Holy Cross basketball buddies would make up for the loss by helping Roosevelt win the city high school title in 1941. He later became a parole officer and with wife Helen raised eight children, all of whom went to Holy Cross School. The Maguigan back yard off Portsmouth Avenue was a hub of play for scores of North Portland youngsters.
As a girl playing at Columbia Park, Betty Swiberg liked seeing Leo Maguigan, an older boy kind enough to offer young children a push on the swing. Betty, her siblings and her friends would linger at the park during the summer. They swam, ate the lunch their mothers had packed, went to the playground and later swam some more. Sunburned and bug-bitten, they returned to Holy Cross in the fall.
The Swibergs lived on a dirt street in Kenton, two miles from Holy Cross. Kenton's St. Cecilia Church had no school at the time, so Father William Hampson, a steady Scotsman, bought a small school bus and drove it to and from Holy Cross himself. When he stopped for gasoline in those days before advanced health concerns, the students would take the gas cap and pass it around, taking in the enchanting fumes.
Betty's father, a young Swedish ship's carpenter, had escaped a vessel that landed in Linnton on the Willamette River. The captain was unusually harsh. Carl John Swiberg found work in the woods and then helped build the St. Johns Bridge.
Her mother was a Wisconsin Czech-American who had come to the West on a lark. She found work cleaning rooms and serving meals at a downtown Portland hotel favored by lumbermen and sailors. Carl saw Anna come down the hotel stairs one day and told his buddies, "That's the one for me." He even became Catholic to marry her.
Betty, fourth of five Swiberg children, liked the nuns at Holy Cross, especially Sister Angela Lehman, who taught fifth grade. But she felt sorry for the women, whose headpieces seemed so tight and whose big, clattering wooden rosaries must have been an annoyance.
The sign to be quiet, or keep still, or stop whatever you were doing was a sharp knock of the bride of Christ's ring on a pew or a desk. Children were expected to line up with precision. When a Sister rang the recess bell, you headed back inside on the double, even if you had just hit a line drive into the gap.
Betty recalls eccentric classmates, one who threw a fit when ordered to do almost anything and another who later developed a fetish for crashing parties. She's polite enough not to name names. She has kept a middle school class photo with a small hole near the center. She allowed a friend to snip out the face of a dreamy boy.
Upon entering the school building, students could drop down a half flight to the auditorium and bathrooms or climb up to the four classrooms with their buffed dark wood floors and rows of wooden desks, still with ink wells. Amid the classrooms stood a central hallway where the nuns and youngsters often gathered to pray the rosary. On the mysterious upper floor lived boarders and nuns and later the pastor.
Students brought their own lunches. Once, the nuns permitted a classmate who had forgotten her food to walk off campus for a hot dog. Betty was assigned to accompany the girl for safety's sake. It was a form of culinary torture; the hot dog looked and smelled powerfully good, but Betty had to make do with her own comparatively pedestrian lunch.
When Betty's brother Jack reached eighth grade, his marks began to slip. To inspire the lad, Mr. Swiberg built a magnificent model sailing ship and offered it to the Holy Cross eighth grader who made top of the class. Sadly, someone else claimed the prize, but Jack did go on to a good academic career at Columbia Prep and UP.
For Holy Cross graduation day in 1941, Betty's year, all the girls wore the same dress. Some thrifty parent got a bulk deal and took orders.
Betty went on to Immaculata, a girls school in the Albina neighborhood, working in a Swan Island shipyard office to pay tuition. She would wed Chet Lageson in 1948 and the two would have six children, most of whom still live near Betty in North Portland. Chet died in 2008.
"Going to Holy Cross, I think we learned right from wrong," Betty says. "The nuns taught us, even back then, to be tolerant of other people and other races."
• • •
The fall after Betty Swiberg graduated from Holy Cross, Claire Vanderbeck began first grade. The teacher, Sister Eusebia Vandehey, taught pupils to pronounce her name by writing "You See Be A" on the blackboard. For a long time, 6-year-old Claire presumed that was the proper spelling.
A 1941class photo, taken in bright sun, shows Claire with curly hair and impeccable posture. The squinty faces of the children radiate innocence and apprehension, apt for a nation about to go to war. Claire, a Hillsboro resident whose married name is Walliman, recalls later in the year climbing the spiral steps to the school's upper floor to buy a war bond from the Sisters. The parish would hold regular blood drives to supply wounded soldiers.
As the war consumed national consciousness in 1943, Victoria George and shipyard worker husband Stephen sent their firstborn to Holy Cross school.
Their daughter, Jane, would walk to school from their house near the Cut, bringing middle eastern pocket bread with eggs or olives for lunch, while other students ate bologna or ham on white. No one poked fun.
Sister Theresa Margaret Yettick in first grade and Sister Frances Zenner in third grade were especially kind, treating students to cinnamon toast and hot chocolate after Mass on the first Friday of each month. At the end of the school year, students went to Columbia Park for a field day, playing ball and running three-legged races.
Sister Baptista Bernards, the sixth grade teacher, was so charismatic that every girl spent recess time visiting the Blessed Sacrament in church. All the girls wanted to enter the convent.
The sacrament of confirmation came in the sixth grade and Jane prayed that proper, bespectacled Archbishop Edward Howard would not ask her any questions. Of course, because of God's keen sense of humor, the archbishop asked her three tricky ones in front of the whole church, but she aced them. By contrast, a boy in the next pew was asked what the Lord said after Peter recognized him as the Messiah. The poor fellow mumbled, "Upon this Church I will build my rock?"
In eighth grade during the 50s, Sister Andre Campau was fair but had high expectations. For speaking out of turn in class, or slumping or turning around to look at the class clown in the back row, the offender was ordered to do long division as recompense.
In 1951, Jane George was in the first class to graduate from the new modern wooden church, which she had watched workers build. As she moved on to Immaculata for high school, Sister Baptista's vocational zeal stuck with her. She entered the convent in 1955. Today, she serves at Valley Catholic School and Maryville and is known as Sister Marie Bernadette of the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon.
• • •
In the early 1950s, after construction of the convent and rectory, the junior high occupied the once-mystical top story of the school. Ann George, Sister Marie Bernadette's younger sister, was in junior high at the time of the move. She glowed with pride as the older students took their belongings up the steps and left the younger children below.
One of Ann's teachers, Sister Clotildis Smith, had taught Victoria three decades before. Once, as Ann sat in her desk with legs tucked beneath her, Sister Clotildis drily remarked, "Your mother would never sit like that."
Despite the sting, Ann would eventually cherish the lessons on manners, respect and discipline. Children were to pop to their feet when an adult entered the classroom and would greet teachers in unison: "Good morning, Sister!" Religious practices were to be followed; when it became known that some students were getting drinks of water before morning Mass, the nuns taped off the water fountains each morning until the Holy Sacrifices were complete.
In those Cold War times, Ann and her classmates practiced civic disciplines like "duck and cover" drills, jamming themselves under desks to be ready for nuclear attack, though they did wonder how a puny piece of wood would protect them from a 100 megaton blast.
Science was the buzz of the day and mountainous Sister Beatrice Rigert taught the subject with dash. Ann marveled as the strong nun whirled a full bucket of water in one arm to demonstrate centrifugal force.
Many Holy Cross sports teams prevailed in CYO competitions. But one corps of seventh graders played in a public school basketball league with mixed results. They once went down 55-0. “We did hit the rim three times,” says Tim Maguigan, Leo’s son, who played on that ill-fated team.
Ann played softball for Holy Cross, coached by fishmonger George Nashif, whose market was on Lombard Street. The players would ride to games in a large fish market truck, sitting on massive coolers filled with salmon and red snapper.
Ann would graduate in 1955 and attend St. Mary of the Valley, operated by the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon. She would wed and become known as Ann Marentette and now has reclaimed Lebanese roots, attending St. Sharbel Maronite Church in Portland with her husband.
• • •
Earl and Velma Waldram fit nine children into a 1,000-square-foot house at Portsmouth Avenue and Houghton Street. Earl built the sturdy, cozy edifice himself from scrap lumber left over from the 1948 Vanport flood. He kept adding on when needed. From that expanding corner compound, various Waldrams emerged for decades to attend Holy Cross.
Steve, their well-behaved third eldest, would begin in 1952. On walks to and from school, he and his siblings and friends would wave to the friendly butcher through the window of the meat market or gaze longingly at the latest model plane in the hobby shop. The Waldram house was not big, but children from all over would come splash in the pool and strut their Converse canvas on the family basketball court.
Almost everyone at Holy Cross was working class, wearing old clothes to school and getting their bicycles second hand. To earn money for the family, children would pick berries in the summer.
The Holy Cross CYO football team had lumbered to a city title in 1959, but after graduation, was left with Steve as one of the stars, fast and strong but only 98 pounds. It was a year of annihilation. There were lessons to be learned in the losing column and the cheerful, consoling spirit of Holy Cross took the sting out of defeat.
Since 1975, Steve has been a dentist serving in the old neighborhood. His own children have moved back to settle just blocks from his dental office on Lombard. The ancestors must be proud. Velma Waldram came from the Gatton family, pioneers who go back to the mid-19th century in St. Johns.
Earl was from Utah Mormon stock, but gladly became Catholic for love and then was in the running for the most dedicated Catholic on the planet. He would usher at Holy Cross for five decades and be a mainstay of construction projects for church and school. It was Earl who wired the new school building in 1964. He was also the one who convinced builders to lower the auditorium a few feet for better stage dynamics. The downward slope from the south half of the basement to the north is still known by some as the "Waldram Ramp."
• • •
The year Steve Waldram entered fifth grade, young Kathy Lageson came for her first day at Holy Cross. Like her mother Betty two decades earlier, she thrived in the Catholic world of nuns, sacraments, discipline and big families struggling to maintain just a bit of decorum.
Her own clan of six siblings seemed middling when it came to sheer size. Her friends came from bustling households of nine, 10 and even 11. She and her pals would have contests, seeing who could name whose siblings in order the fastest.
In their plaid skirts and knee socks, the girls walked in guffawing gaggles to and from school, sometimes stopping at the Big Nickel store on Lombard for ice cream sandwiches. The old church still stood across Stanford Street. The pews had been cleared out and students used the small building as a gymnasium. It had no heat and so a few wags called it "Pneumonia Hall."
Packed with big classes of Baby Boomers, the school building was showing its age. A leaky roof came in handy one winter day for Tony Storm, a student in the 1950s. Tony did not have a gift for spelling, but he was observant and had good fortune. In a spelling bee, he was asked to spell "coffee." Because there was a drip from the classroom ceiling, the nuns had put a coffee can on the floor to catch it. Tony was able to repeat what he saw on the label and impressed his teacher.
By 1961, great dips appeared in the steps, where for 50 years children had skittered and skipped. One day in Kathy Lageson's sixth grade classroom, on the top floor, the boys began stomping their feet in unison just for the fun of it. The rumbling rhythm was too much for the old edifice and chunks of ceiling tumbled into the second grade classroom below. No one took a direct hit, but the second graders had to move out.
The 1962 Columbus Day storm blew the roof off the old building. That sped construction of a strong, low-slung school, constructed on the site of a small grove. Organizers sent out a birth announcement for the 1963 grand opening, listing building dimensions as if they were an infant's birthweight and length. A procession of students hefted books and desks from the old Holy Cross to the new.
Kathy and her classmates loved the spacious modern digs. The nuns did, too, and wanted to keep it spiffy. Sister Carmel Crop, the otherwise sensible principal, told students to walk only on the dark-colored floor tiles to keep things looking clean.
After graduating from Holy Cross in 1964, Kathy would go on to North Catholic High, where she would be a cheerleader and homecoming queen. She and a close friend married two of the Honl boys and began having children about the same time. Kathy and her husband now live next door to her mother on a quiet street overlooking the Willamette River industrial district.
• • •
Through sheer determination, a dog named Harvey became an honorary student at Holy Cross School during the 1960s. The amiable but stubborn mutt belonged to Don and Shirley Cole and their children. Harvey so loved the kids that he would follow them to school, lying down outside the windows of their classrooms.
When Sister Eusebia, principal through the 1960s and '70s, asked the Coles to keep Harvey at home, they attempted to keep him in the house. But if the door even cracked open, out he scooted, not to be caught easily.
Impressed by canine loyalty, Sister Eusebia relented. But, she said, no other dogs could stay at school. Shirley would later recall that at parent conferences, the teachers would talk more about Harvey than the kids.
Don volunteered to coach CYO football. He found the uniforms in a deplorable state. Operating by the dictum that sometimes it's better to seek forgiveness than permission, he spent about $160 on new pants and jerseys. He had the store send the bill to Holy Cross Parish.
On the way home, he went to pass on news of the purchase to Father Valentine Moffenbeier, pastor from 1956 to 1968. “He came out of that seat about six feet; he levitated straight up and said, ‘What?’” Don recalls. “Then I got him calmed down.” The team won a championship, and that seemed to assuage the tension.
• • •
In spring 1969, a group of eighth graders from neighboring Portsmouth School came to Holy Cross to pick a fight. Apparently, some of the eighth grade girls at Holy Cross had the temerity to be attractive, winning over a couple prime Portsmouth boys. That began a general rivalry.
The mob banged on the outside doors, which the Sisters locked immediately. Sister Eusebia ordered the Holy Cross eighth grade boys to rush to the sports supply room and grab the baseball bats. She explained that they were to hit no one, but were to stand clearly visible as the marauders looked in the windows. The plan of intimidation worked and the would-be attackers wandered away after throwing rocks through the church windows. The next morning at Mass, a fourth grade boy sat on a shard and said aloud to his teacher: "Sister, I got glass in my butt."
• • •
In 1971, fresh out of Portland State University, Alice Bechtold interviewed at Holy Cross and landed her first teaching job. Less than a decade before, the entire faculty had been made up of habit-wearing Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon. When Bechtold arrived, it was about half lay teachers.
Bechtold, 21 and in a short skirt, was a wife and mother of a 1-year-old when she applied. The Sisters raised a collective eyebrow and wondered if she really wanted a full time job under such circumstances. It was not the usual way. But the 1970s had arrived and she had all the qualifications.
Bechtold found the nuns' dedication infectious and learned, like them, to do a lot with little. The principal, the indefatigable Sister Eusebia, continued to teach full time, mentored the young lay women, instructed in art and still managed to keep an eye on everything. Sister Rebecca Mary Bonnell, the third grade teacher, was groovy, having learned to play folk guitar.
With classes of 35 students or so, Bechtold attended Mass every day. The support given by parents impressed her, even though some struggled to make tuition. A few lived in the housing projects at Columbia Villa. For a few decades, many Holy Cross students had been the children of University of Portland faculty and staff.
Bechtold has special memories of a set of Irish brothers, cute as could be, but "little hellions" who could spark "general mayhem." When Bechtold was expecting her second child, she resigned, but took lessons from the Sisters, Holy Cross families and the Murphy boys into her teaching career.
• • •
For 20 years starting in 1976, Jim and Kathy Kuffner sent their five children through Holy Cross. Kathy taught at the school for years. Two grandchildren have already graduated and four are enrolled, often toted to or from school by their grandparents.
The Kuffners had good encounters with almost all the teachers and administrators. Sister Eusebia had an iron fist but a soft heart. During the school day, the children maintained strict quiet and decorum, just knowing she was in the building. A later principal, Sister Juanita Villarreal, was charming with children but tough as nails when necessary.
One can't have a perfect experience in 20 school years. One term, Kuffner helped a daughter get through the last grueling weeks with an incompatible teacher by cutting up paper so the girl could count the days, fragment by fragment. Mostly, the Kuffner children thrived and went on to success.
Just this winter, while waiting to pick up his grandchildren after school, Kuffner saw a team of 8th grade girls preparing to lower the flag.
"This should be good," the former military man said to himself sarcastically. But the girls treated the emblem with poise and grace, not allowing it to touch the ground, folding it into a crisp triangle. That small thing made Kuffner realize that for a century Holy Cross has taught lessons mighty and puny, all directed toward respect and human dignity.
• • •
By the early 1980s, Holy Cross faced a crisis. As at many U.S. Catholic schools, the Baby Boomers had moved on and the cheap service provided by nuns was slipping away. The erosion of family wage jobs in North Portland added to the problem, especially as tuition had to rise to meet expenses. Enrollment at Holy Cross slipped below 90, a third of peak levels.
In 1984, officials decided to merge four North Portland Catholic schools and picked Holy Cross as the surviving location. Holy Names Sister Mary Ryan, who had been principal at nearby Assumption School, was called on to serve as principal, the first time the post was not held by a Sister of St. Mary of Oregon.
A spunky, persistent woman, Sister Mary held staff meetings in the Twilight Room and at a good price purchased a bus once owned by the Rajneeshi cult to transport students to sports venues and PE classes at the University of Portland. She went to big-rig driver school herself. Sister Mary also earned an asbestos handler's license and oversaw an $80,000 removal of the hazardous material. The atmosphere was busy but light. Sister Mary's prankster brother Michael phoned the school office one day and announced himself as the principal's parole officer checking in.
Sister Mary sought to build up unity and capitalize on the natural North Portland family feeling. The children wore school sweatshirts emblazoned with every student's name in small print.
She began an annual fund drive, with a group of dedicated laypeople giving guidance and making the asks. It replaced bingo and other fundraisers and became the most successful Catholic grade school moneymaker in the state.
Sister Mary knew Holy Cross needed a gym to survive. She rounded up donors, including a group of men from St. Thomas More Parish in Southwest Portland, where she taught briefly in the 1970s. She lived by the credo: "If you do ministry, the money comes." When the building was dedicated in 1998, it would be called "Ryan Arena."
Meanwhile, she watched students who seemed to have limited prospects grow up and become architects, doctors and lawyers. That made her a big believer in children and in the values passed along at Holy Cross.
"We only change because somebody loves us," she says. "Kids may conform to toughness and rules, but that's not real change."
In the 1990s, she not only became development director, but also ran before-school care, officiating over volleyball, dodge ball, card games and building blocks. Parents and grandparents appreciated her work and she relished time with the children.
"People are friendly here," says Sister Mary, who first came to North Portland in 1969 and still works as development director for Holy Cross Church and the school. "They're not looking behind you to see who else they can talk to. They're right there with you." Holy Cross School, Sister Mary believes, has been "a leaven for this neighborhood."
Sister Mary and her PE bus for a time took children to the basement of Mehling Hall, a University of Portland women's dormitory. The junior high boys approved of this arrangement and thank their lucky stars that the room had no support poles, because they played dodge ball and capture-the-flag while simultaneously keeping an eye out for co-eds.
Twins Keegan and Julian Davis were too young for such distractions. The two studied relatively hard, played CYO sports, served Mass, made safety patrol and even took up the arts. Starting at age three, they received tap dance lessons from a parish woman and performed each year in the school talent show and at a dinner for benefactors.
The twins never switched identities intentionally. But if teacher Sister Ruth Frank confused them, as she often did, they did not always correct her. It was just easier. If the conversation were a reprimand, the innocent twin would be sure to redirect the scorn toward his brother.
They auditioned for the annual eighth grade Shakespeare play, "The Tempest." Keegan played the deformed slave Caliban and Julian took the role of the boozy butler Stephano. During one dress rehearsal, Julian practiced a Bacchanalian dance. His main drunkard's prop, a big glass jug, slipped out of his hand and smashed on the stage floor. He recalls it as if in slow motion.
"We were more terribly entertaining that terribly talented," says Keegan, who would go on in high school to play a rapping fairy in "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
The eighth grade class took a trip to Washington, D.C. Keegan and Julian have strong memories of the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Smithsonian Institution and the inevitable antics when four 13-year-old boys share a room. Sister Mary was forced to pound on their door late one night to halt a sumo-wrestling tournament.
Teachers walked students to church regularly for confession. The line was longest for the visiting priest who didn't know anyone. Out in the pews afterward, the boys compared penances. They recall no major sins or penalties and never saw or heard of a classmate smoking or kissing on school grounds, despite the tenor of the times.
The Davis twins graduated from Holy Cross in 1999 and went on to Central Catholic High and then UP. Keegan was fond of school, so fond that he came back to teach at his alma mater. Julian, who manages a medical supply warehouse, is due to be wed at the University of Portland's Chapel of Christ the Teacher June 16.
• • •
The Davis twins' teacher, the amiable Sister Ruth, taught at Holy Cross for several years in the 1960s and 70s. She would return in 1991 and eventually become principal. The students she saw in the 1990s were children of the students from 20 years before. Being a principal was sometimes humbling. On one pajama day for students, a boy asked her why she didn't wear her pajamas. She said such attire was OK for students, but not for someone at work. That led the youngster to ask, "Where do you work?"
Sister Ruth became adept at tinkering with the old school furnace. At the same time, she coaxed human warmth and faith out of students.
"I wanted children to have a love for God and to see us as a Christian family who have love for each other," says Sister Ruth, who now leads Bible study for homeless veterans and teaches English to a group of Spanish-speaking nuns. "I wanted them to realize it's OK to make mistakes and realize we would welcome them back. Treating each person as an image of Christ — that's the main thing."
• • •
Bill Loso, a Holy Cross parishioner for 44 years, has crawled and shimmied through most of the 1964 school building. A volunteer for decades, he was hired in 2008 as custodian. He admires the sturdy little building, proclaiming it "well built," perhaps a janitor's highest praise.
This sinewy man oversaw removal of the iron behemoth oil furnace, which workers cut to pieces with torches before replacing it with a trim and quiet gas unit. Now the school saves about $2,000 per year on fuel, especially with Loso's frugal hand on the thermostat.
Loso came to Holy Cross Church in 1965. He joined a group for Catholic singles called the Chancellor's Club and that's where he met wife Evelyn. They wed in 1967.
At 70, Loso still plods up ladders to paint and repair and affix lettering that he makes in his own home wood shop. When University of Portland students came in 2011 to paint the school, Loso conducted the show, saving the loftiest spots for himself and a crew of parents.
He also makes periodic trips onto the roof of the gym, where mightily kicked and thrown balls tend to clog the rain drains.
"We ask kids not to kick balls up there," Loso says. "Of course, there are those who like to show off."
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For 100 years, Catholics on the bluff have considered Holy Cross School a spiritual, educational and social home. The Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon served until 2010, when Sister Ruth retired.
Over the decades, the school held boxing matches with home-grown talent as well as sing-alongs, some with pitchers of beer. A favorite of students in the 1960s were hot-dog days, when moms boiled up large vats of wieners and delivered homemade muffins to school.
These days, a University of Portland graduate — an attorney — is principal of the school, which serves families of middle income, low income and almost no income. There are more than 200 students, many of them Latino.
"At a school, you never know what will happen," says Julie Johnson, who's also the sister of university instructor Holy Cross Father Pat Hannon. "That's been the fun and the lesson of each day here for a hundred years. The Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon were able to find that nice balance between keeping order and being open to the surprises of life in our neighborhood, and we try as best we can to carry that on. Since day one, it's always been about children, those wise, candid, insightful small people who really do shock us adults sometimes so that we see what Jesus was really trying to teach us — take the time to pray and love and, go ahead, have some candy once in awhile."
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Paddy Maresh is the first to tell you he is no saint. As a kindergartner at Holy Cross in 2009, he had a knack for mischief. He once pulled the fire alarm switch at a basketball game, for example.
He also astonished the community with generosity. Paddy, who lived with his single parent dad and earned an allowance of $1 per month, donated $5.46 to the school’s annual fund. That’s almost six months of his earnings and it went toward scholarships for families challenged to pay tuition. Other students, parishioners and local business owners felt inspired and made contributions in his name. Nathan Compton, as a fifth grader, sent a gift to match Paddy’s, saying he earned the money by taking out the garbage.
“Paddy’s generosity reminds me of the gospel story of the ‘Widow’s Mite,” Johnson says. “The widow gave only a small amount, but Jesus found her the most generous because she gave everything she had. Similarly, Paddy saved for months and gave everything he had. He is living the gospel and through his generosity he challenges us to live Jesus’ gospel more fully.”
For a video of the school's history, go to http://youtu.be/TgtEcUSyI2E.