Two Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Family join Charles Royer of St. Vincent de Paul to celebrate the nursery’s new sign in 1966. (Courtesy St. Vincent de Paul of Portland)
Two Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Family join Charles Royer of St. Vincent de Paul to celebrate the nursery’s new sign in 1966. (Courtesy St. Vincent de Paul of Portland)
By 1939, Britain was ordering U.S.-made vessels for the war against the Nazis. Portland’s shipbuilding surged, and the city needed more workers in a hurry.

The Great Depression was still on. Word got out and laborers came from all over the nation. To make ends meet, many families needed to have both parents working. What to do with young children?

Seeing the need, a local group of black Catholics and leaders of the St. Vincent de Paul Society had a plan.

The Blessed Martin Day Nursery opened May 10, 1940. Named after Martin de Porres, a Dominican friar known for ministering to the poor in Peru, the venture welcomed children of all colors, a novelty for daycare in Portland at the time. Capacity was 15 children and the care was offered at low cost.

The two-story house stood near Broadway Street and Williams Avenue in Northeast Portland, close to what is now an on-ramp to Interstate 5. But in 1940, the area was becoming a bustling interracial neighborhood. Workers renovated the home to include a playroom, sleeping areas and a big kitchen. The yard had a playground. A matron was in charge of operations and Father Jerome Schmitt was executive director. Charles Royer, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul of Portland, was business manager. Assisting were four women caretakers who knew their way around diapers and spilled milk.

Two physicians, E. A. Albers and DeNorval Unthank, were medical directors, with Providence Sister Mary Genevieve leading a small crew of nurses.

Volunteers from the Christ Child Society, a Catholic organization devoted to child welfare, read stories and led playtime.

A June 1941 Sentinel article declared progress at the nursery “very satisfactory.” But demand was so strong that children had to be turned away, even before Pearl Harbor and an even greater increase in shipbuilding. Royer told the Sentinel that he wanted to expand hours to 7 a.m. – 7 p.m. He asked for a donor to come forward with $1,500 so space and staffing could increase.

“It would be a pity so worthwhile a project would have to be abandoned, after so much time and effort has been expended to establish it and so much good accomplished,” Archbishop Edward Howard said.

The money must have come through. In fall 1941, Holy Names Sister Gertrude opened a kindergarten at the nursery.

The U.S. entry into the war created great demand for workers and daycare. By February, 1942, 127 children were enrolled and served in shifts.

Just as quickly as need surged during the war, it fell off after. By fall 1945, enrollment had dropped to 25. But the value of the ministry was still recognized. To qualify for the nursery, families had to be recommended by a St. Vincent de Paul caseworker. The community continued to offer support. The Multnomah County Junior Red Cross donated a 30-cubic-foot refrigerator.

In 1946, the nursery moved to a more modern building at North Williams Avenue and Graham Street so it could again expand more safely. The structure — which one Sentinel reporter described as a “pleasant apple green” amid drab businesses — had been a child center at the wartime housing project at Guild’s Lake in Northwest Portland. Workers disassembled it, brought it across the river and reassembled it. One family donated a piano as a housewarming gift.

In 1947, St. Vincent de Paul and Catholic Charities reported 54 children served: 34 white children, 17 black, three Japanese and one Filipino. The average was more than 40 youngsters per day.

In the next decade, the harmonious multiculturalism at the nursery became the stuff of news.

In 1956 a letter went out to newspapers, purportedly from the children.

“We youngsters who live here five days a week, 10 hours a day, are putting the United Nations program into effect,” said the little essay, printed in the Sentinel. “Our playmates include all races — White, Japanese, Indian, Filipino, Chinese and Negro — racial animosity is rare and never lasts very long. Even our parents find theirs softens and dies in this happy atmosphere.”

In 1958, a Sentinel reporter called the nursery “among the nation’s most successful experiments in interracial relations.” The story said that “racial antagonism is non­existent as the youngsters play and lunch together. . . . This interracial experience is truly applied Christianity.”

Families who qualified included those with low paying jobs or with a father in college. Widows sent their children, with one of the women earning only $175 per month. Mothers getting cancer treatment or those who were abandoned rounded out the members. Only about 30 percent of the children were from Catholic families.

The Holy Names Sisters stayed on the job along with lay teachers, a cook and a housekeeper.

“As in any well-run home, regular times are kept for meals, naps and snacks,” said the 1958 article.

In 1960, the nursery had 59 children enrolled.

In 1962, Martin de Porres was canonized and the nursery adjusted its name: The St. Martin Day Nursery. That same year, the Sentinel paid a visit and met the children.

“Judy, a bright, pretty three-year-old, faced losing her mother, who had been deserted by her husband and was unable to find a place to keep her child while she looked for work,” the article said. The mother planned to put Judy up for adoption.

“Keeping families together is a basic purpose of St. Martin Nursery,” Sister Robert Francis, the director, explained.

The Sisters of Providence stepped in to run the nursery in 1963. Franciscan Sisters from Dubuque, Iowa, came in 1966.

In 1973, the nursery was moved to the closed Immaculata Academy adjacent to Immaculate Heart Church on North Williams. The nursery changed its name to indicate its origins and educational mission. It became the St. Vincent de Paul Child Development Center.

By the 1980s, demographics were changing, with smaller families and less need for daycare. The changes were prominent in North and Northeast Portland. St. Andrew and Immaculate Heart schools closed for lack of enrollment and support. The child development center was not far behind. But before it shut down, executive director Thomas Tyson became a well-known speaker on the topic of child abuse.