The OCP staff gathers for a group photo in 1986, with publisher Owen Alstott deferring the front and center spot. He is four rows back on the right in tie and sweater vest. (OCP archives)
The OCP staff gathers for a group photo in 1986, with publisher Owen Alstott deferring the front and center spot. He is four rows back on the right in tie and sweater vest. (OCP archives)
" In many ways we were working with a blank canvas, enjoying a certain amount of freedom in bringing the spirit of Vatican II to life. " Owen Alstott Publisher of OCP 1983-1992
As much as anyone, Owen Alstott brought the music to Oregon Catholic Press.

A slim and gentle native Oregonian who is nobody’s fool, Alstott had been composing lyrical and profound liturgical pieces at Mount Angel Abbey. In 1975, he landed a job at the Catholic Truth Society of Oregon and began to share his music more widely. Many songs and settings used today in churches all over the English-speaking world came from Alstott’s faith-filled mind.

When he arrived at the Truth Society offices on East Burnside Street in Portland, there were no computers, no internet, no emails, no websites, no mobile phones, no text messages. To make books and flyers, workers poured hot lead into letter molds and plates were affixed to printing presses.

“But among the staff I found great enthusiasm, brilliant new ideas, and not a little bit of vision for the future,” said Alstott.

Christian Community Sister Jeanne Frolick, Alstott’s longtime friend, had been editing the mu-sic section of Today’s Missal and wanted him as an assistant. Fritz Meagher, publisher at the time, was eager to improve Today’s Missal and make it a leader in worship aids, promoting and enabling the full and active participation of the faithful in the

liturgy. In the early 70s, subscriptions to Today’s Missal had been falling.

“We knew, from what our customers were telling us, that a newer, richer music resource was what was needed,” Alstott said. “We were able to begin to better satisfy the needs of our par-ishes and change our subscriptions trend from steady loss to steady gain. Simply speaking, we listened to our customers, we understood their needs and we addressed them.”

The little team on Burnside began to call on parish musicians near and far, seeking good com-positions and solid arrangements.

To get this better music to parishes, they created an organ accompaniment book and moved on to psalm responses. They started to make recordings on vinyl and cassette tapes to help choirs learn.

It was Sister Jeanne, who died in 2020 at age 93, who began offering the mix of traditional and solid contemporary music that has remained a defining characteristic of OCP. Alstott would later say his main achievement was to carry forward her work.

In 1980, to reflect the new focus on worship music, the Catholic Truth Society changed its name to Oregon Catholic Press. It soon became known widely as OCP.

“In many ways we were working with a blank canvas, enjoying a certain amount of freedom in bringing the spirit of Vatican II to life,” Alstott said. “As well as using the music already availa-ble from other publishers, we began seeking out and publishing works by new artists whose work fit in with our own publications. The excitement we all felt during those years was the creative process, bringing something out of nothing.”

A major OCP innovation of the early 1980s was “Music Issue,” an annual paperback book for worshippers that could supplement hardbound hymnals, making new music available more quickly.

“Because the available repertoire of liturgical music was changing and growing so rapidly dur-ing these years, we decided that a publication that could change and grow right along with it was needed,” said Alstott. “The ‘Music Issue’ fit the bill perfectly.”

Alstott succeeded Meagher as publisher in 1983 and the first item on his list was to computer-ize the company. Until then, customers were tracked in large ledger books, the same system used in the Victorian era.

Then Alstott, with the help of Meagher’s brother Bert, found a warehouse for sale two miles east and made it a new home for the expanding company. OCP moved to the site across from Normandale Park in 1986, expanding its footprint from 10,000 square feet to 120,000 square feet. In just a few years, the warehouse would be stacked to the ceiling with hundreds of thou-sands, and then millions, of books full of sacred music. Large presses hummed as OCP workers printed, bound, packed and shipped everything themselves.

Many credit Alstott for establishing the lavish hospitality and kindness that have been a hall-mark of OCP customer service. It seems to have sprung in part from his education among Ben-edictine monks, whose ancient rule calls for guests to be treated as other Christs.

“If any of our customers didn’t receive what they ordered, or if the product didn’t arrive on time, or if it arrived damaged in any way, there would immediately be sent out an apology along with a jar of the finest blackberry jelly from the Made In Oregon shop,” Alstott said. “We made lots of lifelong friends with that jelly. Every single day we reminded ourselves that we were not there to sell, but to serve.”

Alstott would send free samples of OCP publications to anyone who asked for them, packed neatly into a folder with helpful notes.

In addition to Alstott himself, who kept composing, new musicians came on board and were treated as treasures, another OCP innovation.

“We produced and promoted new collections that would form and enrich the worship of com-munities all over the world,” Alstott said. “Valuing and nurturing the gifts of composers, some-thing that had not always been done in the early years of the English liturgy, became a firm commitment at OCP.”

Meanwhile, Alstott was ahead of the curve in understanding Catholic demographic changes in the U.S. He was able to acquire music from Spain for early Spanish resources and would over-see development of “Flor y Canto,” still the most popular U.S. hymnal in that language.

Alstott always has loved chant, and even hums it while doing dishes in his London home. And OCP always has had chant in its resources. That said, Alstott explained that OCP’s mission was to create a body of music that, as Vatican II directed, promotes and encourages the full and conscious participation of the assembly in the liturgy.

“We always carefully assess any music in terms of that goal,” said Alstott, who still sits on the OCP board of directors.