Jon DeBellis
Jon DeBellis
Former Catholic Sentinel reporter and layout editor Jon DeBellis described the paper as a way for people to feel connected to the church beyond their parish. “I’m not rich, so I can’t fly to Rome to experience the Vatican,” he said. “But working for the paper gave me a sense of the bigger church. Reading it still does.”

DeBellis is one of many “old timers” who have worked for or with the newspaper over the past decades and who can put the Sentinel’s more recent history in perspective. The number includes John Limb, publisher emeritus of Oregon Catholic Press.

When Limb came to OCP as a new hire in 1983, the entire operation — including the Sentinel — was based at the chancery, now known as the pastoral center.

Quarters were so tight that one staff member sat at a desk in a walk-in safe.

OCP didn’t have a place for Limb, so his new boss gave him a cardboard box to collect the supplies he’d need for work and sat him at a vacationing employee’s desk.

Next to Limb sat a mystery. “There was this guy who was basically on the phone all day,” Limb remembered. “It took me a few days to figure out who he was.”

It was Robert “Phoneman” Pfohman, editor of the Catholic Sentinel from 1981 to 2014.

Limb immediately appreciated the Sentinel. At his former diocese, the Catholic paper hadn’t included much news. “I could get through it in minutes,” he said.

In contrast, the Sentinel provided hours of solid reading.

That was partly because of Pfohman’s background in the secular press. But the paper had been packed with news for decades. He was a good fit.

The pastoral center, however, wasn’t a good fit for both the archdiocesan offices and the rapidly growing OCP, with its pressmen, linotype operators, editors, musicians, engravers and journalists.

The publishing company, including the Catholic Sentinel, moved to a new location in 1986.

Somehow the newspaper found itself in some of the building’s best real estate. The Sentinel’s spacious offices included one long wall of windows looking out on Normandale Park. No cubicles obliterated the view, rather, desks were arranged in an open newsroom.

“I loved the open quality and the windows with all the light,” said Geri Ethen, a reporter from about 1990 to 1994.

One of Ethen’s tasks was calling parishes for their news. “I thoroughly enjoyed that — I got to know the staff people in the parish offices,” she said. “We stayed in touch with the faith at the parish level.”

Those “Parish Notes” telephone calls sometimes resulted in real news. One flustered secretary told the Sentinel reporter that hadn’t had a chance to jot down any news because a roof on the church’s campus had collapsed under a heavy snow.

“That’s news!” the reporter said.

Ethen especially remembers stories she wrote about converts. Their faith impressed her, how they became Catholics despite stories of clergy abuse.

“Sentinelians” have at times all prayed about — and written about -— the abuse story since 1983, when the Oregonian published news about Thomas Laughlin, then pastor of All Saints, since defrocked.

Pfohman was in Newport when he read the news. He had taken his two sons and their dog to the coast to fish and they were all in a bait and tackle shop. The clerk had been reading the Oregonian at the counter. Pfohman read the page upside-down. “It was a little story, ‘Portland priest arrested,’ something like that,” Pfohman remembered.

He was so alarmed that he hustled everyone back into the car and drove home. “There was no fishing that day.”

Pfohman published an expanded version of the story in the Sentinel, one that included the church’s response.

The anguished argument over whether a Catholic newspaper should have covered that news raged in both letters to the editor and in Pfohman’s office, with one chancery employee telling him that she hoped “a tidal wave of indignation” would wash him out of the building.

“To her credit,” remembered Pfohman, the chancery employee went out of her way to apologize, years later, after she had retired. “You were right,” she told him.

In “Defender of the Faith,” the 1993 book on the history of the Catholic Sentinel, Jesuit Father Wilfred Schoenberg wrote, “In retrospect, one finds that [Pfohman’s] coverage of the scandal was both courteous and compassionate.”

Ed Langlois, editor since 2016, came to work for the Sentinel as a reporter in 1993. “The job has strengthened my faith,” he said. “That’s because either I see beautiful, amiable, smart people serving God, or I see flawed people, me included, doing good things in the name of the church, which for me is a proof of God’s existence. The real bad actors are there, but they are very rare, despite what it might seem.”

Langlois thinks the scandal has convinced the church’s leaders that transparency is vital. “They went from hiding cases to sending press releases,” he said. “It’s a sad duty, but it’s the right thing to do, no doubt.”

Another, happier “right thing to do” was the creation of El Centinela in 1995. There was consideration of translating a few articles — or at the least the archbishop’s column in the Portland archdiocese and the bishop’s column in the Diocese of Baker. Bishop Thomas Connolly of the Baker Diocese, however, wanted a stand-alone Spanish-language paper. “I remember him making an impassioned plea for an actual Spanish paper,” said Limb.

A decade earlier, it had been Pfohman who had pushed for the computerization of the newspaper, moving from the old technology of linotype to laying out the newspaper online. “The huge change was going to the Mac,” said Limb. “That was part of Bob’s legacy.”

Langlois, a cradle Catholic, has continued Pfohman’s tradition of the Sentinel editor commuting to work by bicycle. Langlois had always biked to work, unexpectedly tripping him up with Pfohman from the start. On one of his first days at the Sentinel, Langlois pedaled in and went to the shower room. “There was this ratty towel hanging up on the shower door — the place you usually put a floor mat,” he remembered. “So I took it down and showered and used it as a floor mat.”

It was Pfohman’s personal towel.

“When he saw it all wet and dirty, he was, well, vexed,” said Langlois.

In fact, Pfohman was frequently vexed. “He was a curmudgeon with a capital ‘C,’” said Ethen. “But I enjoyed working with him. It was a lesson in New York-style politics.”

Ethen also remembers other characters from those days, including longtime contributor Ed O’Meara, who still wrote book reviews, and Pat Fellers, an All Saints teacher who wrote about parenting, schooling and common sense.

And then came Mary Jo Tully.

For decades, Tully, archdiocesan chancellor from 1989 to 2016, was key to how the Sentinel managed to (mostly) stay out of trouble in a profession that calls for careful judgment on a daily basis.

Archbishop William Levada had recruited Tully, then working for the Archdiocese of Chicago, as chancellor. She was the first lay woman to serve in that position in an American archdiocese.

She met with Pfohman and began writing a column for the newspaper. Before long the Sentinel staff called her when a question arose about the archdiocese. Similarly, archdiocesan officials knocked on her door when they had Sentinel questions.

Tully wrote for other Catholic papers before coming to Portland — although the Sentinel was different, she said. “Other papers were more formal. For instance, when the publisher of the New World wanted to recognize me, he took me to the Chicago Press Club for lunch. When Bob wanted to recognize me, he took me to the Providence Hospital cafeteria.”

Tully came to care about the paper’s staff. “The people who worked at the Sentinel were important to me,” she said. “There was a very good relationship between the archdiocese and the Sentinel, and it happened because of relationships and that column.”

She worked for four Portland archbishops and an interim bishop. “With every bishop I heard that the Catholic Sentinel was their voice,” she said. “But the church is not just one voice. This is what is remarkable about the Sentinel, and I saw it from the beginning. The Sentinel has always been the voice of many Catholics.”

Langlois strives to keep the sense of the bigger church and its many voices in the newspaper today. “I get irked when people in social media go on about the church doing this or the church doing that when they are really talking about one bishop or a Vatican department of some kind,” he said. “The church is all of us and it’s a wonderful, varied family that has unity of mission but still is not easily defined. If there is one thing I have learned in 26 years here, it’s that complexity is absolutely beautiful.”