COOS BAY— St. Monica Parish here is marking its 125th anniversary as the municipality of 16,000 is hoping for better economic times ahead.
Once a thriving fishing and lumber town with hopes of becoming another San Francisco, Coos Bay and North Bend has suffered because of lags in both industries. There were once 14 lumber mills and now there is one. But a proposed liquified natural gas terminal in the area may produce new jobs that will support families.
Through it all, St. Monica's has been a steady presence of prayer and charity. More than 350 families call it their faith home.
Father Robert Wolf, the administrator, is a history buff who created a parish timeline. Father James Croke, a horseback missionary, was the first priest to visit what in the 1850s was called Empire City. He reported back to Archbishop Francis Norbert Blanchet that the peaceful local tribes had become Christian and that settlers were building up what was sure to become a "metropolis."
Father John Heinrich, who lived in Roseburg, tended the area as a mission. An 1880 Catholic Sentinel article reported that the archbishop visited Empire City, where homes of settlers served as house churches.
St. Monica Parish was established in 1888 in the town which was then called Marshfield. Father Peter Beutgen, the first pastor, oversaw construction of a 110-seat house of worship, which the Coos Bay News called "one of the finest churches of any denomination in southern Oregon."
The pastor from 1900 to 1909, Father Edward Donnelly, was so well regarded that the city of Marshfield named a street after him. It was Father Donnelly who helped establish the town's hospital.
Father Hugh McDevitt, who had spent years as a missionary aboard the chapel car, was pastor from 1914 to 1923. During his tenure, a cafeteria building from the Portland docks was floated to Marshfield and reconstituted as a Catholic school.
When Father John Sheridan arrived to be new pastor in 1923, there was no one greet him and let him into the church. He found a ladder and entered through a window.
Meanwhile, the altar society helped pay off the parish's large debts. Parishioners then got behind the idea of a new church, which was dedicated in 1930. Built at a cost of $40,000, the church capacity was about 400. The name of the town was changed to Coos Bay in 1944.
New buildings continued to go up and the community kept serving. Newly ordained Father Kenneth Steiner, who would some day become auxiliary bishop, served at the church in the 1960s. Social services provided by the Sisters of Providence sprung up and Father John Domin, leader of a sacred arts movement in the archdiocese, gave his touch to the buildings during the 1970s.
At an anniversary celebration last month, Bishop Steiner, now retired, said he has many happy memories of his five years in Coos Bay. The parish, he said, "has brought the Word of God, the Good News of our salvation, and the sacramental life of the Church to countless people on the south coast of our archdiocese."
Bishop Steiner said the celebration is focused not on a building, but on "a community of saints, holy People of God, a people of faith and prayer, a community of love and service, a people who have gone before us in faith and are still with us in the Communion of Saints."