This month, a new preschooler at Archbishop Howard School at St. Rose earnestly wrinkled his nose. “Who’s God?” he asked. By the end of the day, when the youngsters circled for prayer, the boy wanted to speak first. He looked upward and yelled, “Yay, God!”
For a century, the Northeast Portland school has been helping children discover the divine.
“Faith can happen naturally here,” says Megan Schuver, a 1985 graduate who has four children enrolled and one recently finished. “Even those who come without religion can see it and feel it naturally.”
When Schuver was a sports-loving student in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, it seemed that the church and school were not so tightly linked. That has changed now, returning to the institution’s founding ideas. “I feel it is a unified force,” Schuver says. “I feel the kids know they belong to the church and the church guides them.”
In 1913, four Holy Child sisters left England for Oregon and founded a school in what they called “a wild woodland” of Northeast Portland. Starting out in a house near the parish church, the Sisters in 1929 founded a girls academy nearby. But they continued to staff growing St. Rose School, as it was known then. By 1948, there were 12 classrooms, 12 sisters and 387 children. By the early ‘60s, St. Rose had more than 600 students enrolled.
As with most mid-century Catholic schools, St. Rose built for the Baby Boomers and then the population waned quickly. The Holy Child Sisters closed their academy in 1973 and then departed from the grade school.
St. Rose and St. Charles schools consolidated in 1986 to form Archbishop Howard School. Enrollment dropped as low as 185 in 1990. But has been modestly increasing ever since. Today, it stands at 221.
In 2011, the parish was marking its own centennial. At Mass, alumni of the school were asked to stand up by decades. The speaker stopped with the 1940s, unable to imagine anyone older. Someone who knows Joe Barth called out, “You forgot the 30s!” That was a cue for Barth, a member of the class of 1935 who is the oldest known graduate of Archbishop Howard School at St. Rose.
Barth, 92, recalls Sister Regina, whose wisp of red hair once stuck out from behind her severe white wimple. He also recalls taking a spill on the gravel playground and getting a rock stuck in his hand. A classmate and pal was Joseph Neuville, who later became a priest. The boys would ride bicycles on mounds of dirt left from graves dug at Rose City Cemetery.
Barth went on to Columbia Prep and then the University of Portland before becoming an electronics technician on a Navy aircraft carrier. He used that experience to become an electronics repairman, a career he kept up for more than 50 years.
Elaine Feller Garrow, a member of the class of 1942, recalls the English and east coast Sisters feeling as if they were serving on the frontier. “They expected to see Indians,” says Garrow, whose children and grandchildren also attended the school.
Garrow walked a mile to school with a friend, even as a first grader. She recalls fasting before Mass on one Friday per month, and afterward sitting down to hot chocolate and butterhorns served by the Sisters. On rainy days, the damp woolen uniforms of the children made the classrooms smell like wet puppies.
Garrow and her children credit the Sisters for giving them a particularly fine education in reading, writing and elocution.
After a recent Sunday Mass that caters to youth, Garrow heard the children sing a song called “Go Make a Difference.” That tells the story of the school, she says. Virginia Barth Walters, Joe Barth’s younger sister, graduated in 1949. Her father was a mail carrier who on occasion stopped in to have coffee at the Holy Child convent.
One day when Virginia was in eighth grade, Mother Marie Germaine came into the classroom. She was principal and had been the first grade teacher. She told a little story about each student’s first grade year.
“You were a daddy’s girl,” Mother Marie told Virginia. “Your father would come to school and he would carry you home.”
Another member of the class of 1949, Glenn Pelikan, appreciates the moral foundation he received from the Sisters. “We were taught there is a God, there is a code of right and wrong and if you forgot that, the nuns were right there to tell you,” says Pelikan, who volunteers as the school’s facilities manager. He thinks one of the key functions of the school has always been to sustain Judeo-Christian culture in a world that increasingly seems unable to recognize the treasure.
Kathleen Burtchaell, a 1956 graduate and mother and grandmother of students, thinks of the Holy Child Sisters whenever she reads at Mass. They taught her to annunciate, phrase and pace herself. When worshipers compliment her, she gives thanks to the nuns. Along with her parents, the Sisters convinced her that people are meant to serve, a lesson Burtchaell has lived out from the time she became a CYO volleyball coach at age 17. She has volunteered for many things, including the CYO executive board.
Sister Kathy Cordes, of the class of 1961, is one of the few Holy Child Sisters still serving in Oregon. She is principal of St. Therese School in outer Northeast Portland. She began to ponder Religious life in the fifth grade, even though she was getting in trouble a fair amount for talking and the like. Mother Mary Vincent, a tiny woman with a big will, expected students to keep the rules.
“No matter what I did in school, I knew the nuns always cared about me,” Sister Kathy says. “It might have been a classroom of 50 people, but you knew you were cared about.” She carries on the tradition, learning student’s names early in the school year at St. Therese.
Mike Pinder, from the class of 1973, is now development director at Central Catholic High School, where many students from St. Rose and Archbishop Howard advance. He recalls visiting the convent on Sunday afternoons with his family. Children were to sit quietly on the sofa while the adults conversed. Pinder has special memories of the women — most good. Sister Trinitas had an admirable way with children; she could get “fired up” but was always fair.
He recalls that he and his pals once pulled a prank on Sister Bartholomew. The cadre of boys was being detained after school until 3:45 for some offense he can’t recall. When the nun stepped out of the room, the lads turned the clock ahead. Pinder figures she probably knew, but let them go anyway.
The school had some fine sports memories. Pinder and sixth grade classmates were among the first to play in the school’s football program. They won the city title their first year. Dick Cheek, still a parishioner, coached many legendary school basketball teams.
The school was a source of new priests for decades. Among them are Father Neuville, Bishop Kenneth Steiner, Father Paul Peri, Father Robert Krueger, Father Craig Boly, Msgr. Charles Taaffe, Benedictine Father Blaise Turck and the Plasker brothers, Robert and Thomas.
A June gathering began the centenary celebrations. More than 400 people came, among them seven Holy Child Sisters. The Catholic Leadership Award for outstanding service and commitment to the parish, school and Catholic faith went to Joe Van Haverbeke, an alumnus and current parishioner.
Lindsay Nguyen and Christopher Schuver, members of the class of 2016, were given $500 scholarships for essays on what their education has meant. The awards are named after the late Nils Gonzales, a member of the class of 1973.
A pair of 2008 graduates played in their band, which is called “Free Dress Fellas,” a reference to the days when students could come out of uniform.
In 2011, the school rebranded St. Rose back into its name and became known as Archbishop Howard School at St. Rose.