An end-zone view in 1967 shows the North Catholic Royal football machine (in dark uninforms) grinding away on the home turf, which was surrounded by North Portland bungalows. Neighbors would come out on their porches to watch. (Courtesy Meridee Kaiel)
An end-zone view in 1967 shows the North Catholic Royal football machine (in dark uninforms) grinding away on the home turf, which was surrounded by North Portland bungalows. Neighbors would come out on their porches to watch. (Courtesy Meridee Kaiel)
" ‘It gave a positive view of Catholics to the neighborhood.’ " Sarah McHugh a 1969 graduate of North Catholic High School, on the school’s impact on the community

When an alternative public school off North Emerald Avenue in Portland closed in 2014, workers razed the building to make room for new housing. The last concrete vestige of North Catholic High School had vanished.

But North Catholic and its 12 years of glory remain strong in the memory of the neighborhood, once working class and now gentrifying. Even 50 years after an unknown arsonist’s flames destroyed the main building and led the Archdiocese of Portland to close the school, graduates can taste, smell and feel what a difference North Catholic made.

“I think we knew we had something special,” said John Lyster, a member of the class of 1966.

On Saturday afternoons in the fall, home football games would draw a thousand or more fans, including much of the student body of 430, cheering on the blue-and-gray-clad Royals. The roar of the crowd and the beat of the drums permeated the neighborhood.

“You never wanted the game to end,” said Meridee (Willis) Kaiel, a 1968 graduate and cheerleader.

Neighbors, Catholic or not, came onto their front porches to watch football or cheer on the homecoming court during parades. After games, students flooded into Chico’s Pizza. The uncle of one football player would buy pizza and soda for all the teens.  

“For the Catholics of North Portland, North Catholic was the heart of the community,” said Sara (McMahon) McHugh, a 1969 graduate who went on to Cornell University and a career as a publishing executive. “It brought North Portland together.”

Rivalries among Assumption, Blessed Sacrament, Holy Cross, Holy Redeemer and Queen of Peace schools faded at the doors of the high school off North Lombard Street.

“It gave a positive view of Catholics to the neighborhood,” said McHugh. The worst crimes most North Catholic girls committed were having bangs that were too long and skirts that were too short.

“We wore uniforms, and we were well behaved, and I think neighbors saw us as good representatives,” said Carol (Schiffbauer) Eckart, who would have graduated in 1971 but went to La Salle instead. “Parents felt good about sending us there and having a neighborhood school.”

Because it was small, North Catholic allowed almost all students to participate. It had a small-town feel, with everyone knowing everyone else. And it was Portland’s only co-educational Catholic high school — a point of pride.

McHugh says North Portlanders had something of an inferiority complex, being blue collar and feeling less appreciated than other neighborhoods.

In 1966, Archbishop Robert Dwyer gave a speech at the school and praised the work of institutions like “Central Catholic.” The room went silent. Even when the archbishop fixed his blunder, the applause was tepid.

But that loyal, pugnacious, miffed emotion also created mighty spirit in the neighborhood and its school.

“You could take North Catholic away from us, but you can’t take North Catholic out of us,” said Kaiel, a member of Holy Cross Parish. She and husband Gary, a 1965 graduate of North Catholic, live in her parents’ old house, two blocks from the school site.

Kaiel and other cheerleaders were regulars at car washes in the parking lot of Kienow’s supermarket. Many students worked part-time jobs at places like Teeny’s Department Store or Harry’s Drive-In.

“The girls and boys from North Catholic were respected and appreciated by the community,” said Father Leo Remington, who taught at North Catholic from 1965 to 1969 and lives in North Portland now.

Grandparents worked in the shipyards and related suppliers during World War II, and the parents of North Catholic students were dedicated to their children in their Catholic upbringing,” Father Remington said.

He was part of the Archdiocesan Radio and Television Commission and involved many talented students in his programs. He said the co-ed experience was valuable. “I saw this small high school was much closer to the real life that the students would be a part of — and become well equipped — to be good Catholic adults in the real life awaiting them.”

Priest-teachers played a memorable role in the neighborhood. Some North Catholic lads took beer to Pier Park one night but at least had the sense to know they should not drive home. They called Father Karl Schray, who gave them a lift.

Father Remington once was called upon to bear bad news to the house of a young graduate whose boyfriend had been killed in Vietnam. He also helped a girl tell her father she had gotten pregnant.

Had the school reopened and remained, the neighborhood would be even more cohesive and probably have a more Catholic culture, alumni say.

“We’d have grandkids looking forward to going there,” said Kaiel. 

 edl@catholicsentinel.org