Johanna Kim and Maria Choi sing during Mass at Korean Martyrs Parish in Southeast Portland. The parish is just one of the more recent examples of churches formed around immigrant communities. (Catholic Sentinel archives)
Johanna Kim and Maria Choi sing during Mass at Korean Martyrs Parish in Southeast Portland. The parish is just one of the more recent examples of churches formed around immigrant communities. (Catholic Sentinel archives)
For more than 100 years, immigrant communities in Oregon have raised up parish communities to minister to their needs. In Southeast Portland, St. Philip Neri Parish was built to serve Italian immigrants. In Roy, St. Francis was built by early Dutch settlers. Along Highway 30, St. Wenceslaus in Scappose was born out of the needs of a Czech community. In North Portland, St. Stanislaus Parish remains today the destination for Polish Mass and community.

Ethnically rooted parishes have been commonplace since very early in the archdiocese’s history. And still, new churches have been built to cater to new waves of immigrants coming to America. St. Sharbel Parish was established as a Lebanese parish in 1970. Korean Martyrs Parish was established in 1990 to serve local Korean Catholics. Our Lady of Lavang Church was dedicated in just 1999, catering to the local Vietnamese population.

The early tradition of ethnic parishes was a holdover from life on the East Coast and in the Midwest, says Msgr. Gregory Moys, president of the Oregon Catholic Historical Society. When immigrants came west to Oregon, they often came in groups and stuck together, he adds.

The parishes were a place the immigrants could come together for social events. “Outside of that they were looked down upon and shunned,” says the monsignor.

German immigrants in the late 1800s spent years raising money to build their own church in Portland. When the church was dedicated in August 1887, German Catholics celebrated.

Archbishop William Gross “congratulated his German brethren upon the completion of their beautiful church, where they could assemble by themselves and hear the Word of God preached in their native tongue, and sing their grand old German hymns as in the churches of the fatherland,” reported the Catholic Sentinel in 1887, upon the dedication of St. Joseph German Church.

“At the close of the Mass the Rev. Dr. Sommer preached a sermon in the German tongue, in which the reverend speaker bid his German brethren to rejoice, that it was a day of joy for Catholic Germans (Deutchenfest) as well as a religious feast because on this day they realized the fruit of long years of patient labor and self-sacrifice, that they might have a church where they could hear the Word of God in their native tongue,” continued the report.

The desire to have Mass said in one’s native language still exists. Masses are said around the archdiocese in languages from Spanish to Croatian to Zomi.

For first-generation Vietnamese Catholic immigrants, the desire to have a Mass celebrated in Vietnamese was part of what led to the creation of Our Lady of Lavang Parish in Northeast Portland.

But that wasn’t the complete need. As in the beginning of so many ethnic parishes, there’s a thirst for community.

In Vietnam, villages are close-knit. Some Catholics build homes in neighborhoods with the Catholic church at the center. Even in the United States, there’s still a desire to maintain strong community life.

When the immigrants first came to the United States fleeing religious persecution, Masses were said in apartments. Soon Vietnamese Catholics moved to St. Rose Parish in Northeast Portland, near where Our Lady of Lavang was created on the site of a closed Catholic girls school.

“We’re influenced by tradition,” says Father Ansgar Pham, pastor at the parish.

People are living here but not with large extended families like they had in Vietnam. So Vietnamese Catholics are simply drawn to each other.

“The family bond is the tie between culture and faith,” says Father Pham, adding that Vietnamese people respect a hierarchy like the one in the Catholic Church.

Before the West was populated, prominent bishops in the Midwest asked Catholic ethnic communities, many of whom had recently emigrated, to create communities here. The tactic was sought mostly to spread Catholicism, says Msgr. Moys. But eventually, towns like the Dutch settlement in Verboort and the German settlement in Mount Angel took root. While some of the heritage is still present in Verboort and Mount Angel, parishes there lost their cultural distinctness. This has been an outcome for many parishes that had roots in ethnicities. St. Joseph German Church closed its doors. And many parishes that once were home to European immigrant groups are now serving a mix of parishioners from varying backgrounds. Some have become home to large Hispanic communities who’ve immigrated from aborad more recently.

Dolores Carnese Tommaso, 75, is not an immigrant herself — her grandparents were. The second-generation Italian -American grew up in Southeast Portland, attending St. Philip Neri school and parish as a child. Tommaso’s mother grew up speaking Italian in her Milwaukie home and didn’t learn to speak English until she went to school.

In the 1950s, there were a lot of Italian-American families at St. Philip Neri, but not everyone there was Italian. Tommaso remembers her childhood as a childhood, not as an Italian childhood.

“You don’t know any differently,” she says. School and church certainly were part of her family’s life.

Tomasso recalls the Italian identity of the parish community at St. Philip Neri as understated. There were spaghetti dinners, sure. And Tommaso has a fuzzy memory of Liberace coming to the parish in the 1950s. But Italian-American families were not just rooted at St. Philip Neri anymore. They could be found at St. Stephen Parish, St. Michael the Archangel Parish, St. Ignatius Parish and at other churches around the metro area.

Still, the parish retained its close community feel. Everybody knew everybody, says Tommaso.

“We were just one big happy family,” she adds.