Fr. Tim Furlow celebrates Mass at the altar of St. Patrick Church in Northwest Portland. (Courtesy St. Patrick Parish)
Fr. Tim Furlow celebrates Mass at the altar of St. Patrick Church in Northwest Portland. (Courtesy St. Patrick Parish)
" We want to restore this beautiful church so it will be even easier to worship the Lord.
" Fr. Tim Furlow Pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Northwest Portland
The people of St. Patrick Parish have begun a $2.9 million campaign to restore 110-year-old murals in their iconic Northwest Portland church. Some of the paintings have been darkened by soot through the decades while others were painted over completely in years past and will be recreated.

“Our hope and desire is to restore the originally-intended aesthetic beauty of St. Patrick’s,” said Father Tim Furlow, the pastor. “Not only to honor the building and all those who constructed it, but also to foster and protect our Catholic faith for the future generations growing in our pews.”

St. Patrick, built in 1889 in the Renaissance revival style, was the largest church west of Chicago when it was completed. It’s Portland’s oldest Catholic house of worship, and the oldest continuously used church of any kind in the city. It’s also one of Portland’s most visible holy buildings, it’s red cupola rising alongside the massive Fremont Bridge.

“We have entered a time in the church when a lot of people have begun to understand once again the importance of beauty in our Catholic worship,” said Father Furlow. “We want to restore this beautiful church so it will be even easier to worship the Lord.”

The murals, the work of Swiss artist Phillip Staheli, came in the early 20th century. Staheli took inspiration from European masterworks, including paintings of Irish saints at Trinity College in Dublin. At a loss to depict St. Malachi, Staheli asked the parish janitor to don a wig and robe and sit as a model.

About 60% of the original murals at St. Patrick were painted over by past generations. The paintings still visible but in need of cleaning include classical depictions of the Annunciation, the Nativity, and the Transfiguration. Images of St. Patrick and St. Brigid of Ireland survive, as do paintings of other Irish saints.

Images covered over but seen in old photos include the Gospel writers, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a depiction of Mary and numerous Scripture verses and embellishments.

Plans call for artists in New York to recreate the lost murals and ship them to Oregon.

The murals support the liturgy, said John Czarnecki, an architect who has specialized in historic buildings. A member of St. Patrick Parish for more than three decades, he’s past chairman of the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission. Czarnecki, who supports the restoration, said the St. Patrick murals carry a language of beauty, worship and tradition that is a gift from a past generation. The original painter and architect knew the proportions and lines that created a uniform loveliness and echoed Europe’s best, Czarnecki said.

“The church is there for the glory of God,” he explained. “Beauty is a direct representation of God’s grace on earth.”

Along with the paintings, workers will restore woodwork at the side altars that honor St. Joseph and the Virgin Mary. In the 1890s, St. Patrick Church was the proud home of Portland’s Irish Catholics. Within a couple decades, St. Patrick also was a hub of Croatian culture in the city. In the 1970s, the parish became a center of ministry to Spanish speakers.

Now, it’s home to young families. When the church is full of 250 to 275 people, about 40 of them are children under 6, Father Furlow estimated.

“It’s a tightknit community that focuses on actual spiritual progress,” Father Furlow said. “People know each other and love each other and pursue holiness.”

Parish leaders considered doing a seismic upgrade but will wait on that for another time, Father Furlow said. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places, and earthquake work would have changed the appearance, the priest explained.

Father Furlow considers St. Patrick Church one of Portland’s jewels, for Catholics and everyone. He hopes the project begins in September and is complete by Easter 2023. Sunday Mass can continue amid the scaffolding, but daily Mass will take place in the parish hall beneath the church.

Father Furlow dreams that St. Patrick becomes a place of healing, both physical and spiritual. He himself already was healed after a parish team prayed over him; a shoulder surgery resulted in a nicked vocal cord, leaving it almost impossible to speak. The day after the prayer, he could speak and sing. Other physical healings have been reported at St. Patrick.

But spiritual healing is the focus at the parish. “I want people to be healed so they are their truest selves,” Father Furlow said.