Amy Cookson and Veronica Bosse chat before the Sept. 5 centennial Mass.
Amy Cookson and Veronica Bosse chat before the Sept. 5 centennial Mass.

SHERWOOD — Joe Corello notes that St. Francis Parish here is even older than he is. “That’s a long time,” said Corello, 87.

A parishioner for 18 years, he contends his suburban/rural community has aged gracefully in the past century. He sums it up: “Nice. Friendly.”

St. Francis church, a 600-seat modern building set amid soaring firs, is the second for the parish. The first was a 110-seat country house of worship plenty big enough in 1921. That’s when the parish was established defiantly in the middle of the Ku Klux Klan’s drive to dampen Catholic life in Oregon. Parishes like St. Francis endured and even thrived. In 2004, St. Francis opened its own parish grade school, the first in the Archdiocese of Portland in 40 years. 

You can’t keep a good community down.

The parish has navigated struggles in recent years involving priest misbehavior. But attendance and morale are up under the leadership of the new pastor, Father Amalanathan Irudayaraj, Father Amal for short.

“Our hearts are filled with lots of hope for the bright future,” Father Irudayaraj told the crowd at a Sept. 5 centennial Mass. “And my wish is that we will all be carrying the same grace and blessing to the future.”

‘Moving forward’

A centennial calls for retrospection and celebration but also serves as a “springboard for moving forward,” Archbishop Alexander Sample told parishioners Sept. 5.

“I am profoundly proud of this community of faith,” Archbishop Sample said during his homily. “In acknowledging the difficulties you have been through, I want to give testimony to your faith, to your resilience, to your trust, to your hope in the Lord.”

The archbishop urged parishioners to serve as modern Christian apostles. “The message with which we have been entrusted is the answer to all that ails the world,” he said.

A parish family that wants to remain anonymous donated a relic of St. Francis, which Archbishop Sample embedded in the altar. Pope Francis sent an apostolic blessing for a parish that shares his name.  

Remarkable growth

Adolph and Vida Eppich joined St. Francis in 1971, a year after getting married. Sherwood was a farm town of about 1,500 souls. The small quiet congregation had no music at Mass. Adolph found an organist and began leading hymns himself.

The population began soaring in the 1980s and now stands at 20,000. The Eppich family contributed six children to the demographics. “People joked that we needed a new church just because of the Eppichs,” said a laughing Adolph, a 77-year-old retired mechanical engineer.

He credits Father Irudayaraj for having “energy, discipline and organizing skills.” He also thinks the wooded campus and the inviting semicircular church can be a draw.

Adolph chaired the interior design committee for the 1983 church. When trying to gauge the correct height for a statue of the risen Christ, he convinced Benedictine Father Isaac Brown to stand on a 10-foot ladder and hold out his arms. Six feet was the right answer. When the statue came from Italy in a wooden box, Father Don Buxman saved it, quipping he’d use it as a casket someday.

Building a family

Keith Blau led the centennial committee. He and wife Jacque arrived 53 years ago. “It’s so nice to see that our parish has grown so much,” Blau said, explaining that the school in particular makes him feel hopeful. It has brought more young people.

Blau, 75, credits Msgr. Buxman for starting activities in the 1980s that stabilized the parish. Now, he praised Father Irudayaraj as a “breath of fresh air.”

“I hope we continue to grow and get more young families,” he said. “And I hope we renew and strengthen their faith.”

Deacon Bill Bloudek and wife Jeananne, a longtime Catholic educator, joined St. Francis two decades ago. Deacon Bloudek, a retired engineer, said the centennial signifies both stability and forward motion. His hope for the parish, and for the whole church, is to win more worshippers back after the pandemic and expand everyone’s understanding of God. The best method to begin that, he explained, is a welcoming environment.

Msgr. Buxman arrived in Sherwood in 1982 for his first assignment as a pastor. He recalls walking through the woods and seeing stakes in the ground marking future construction of the current church, which was dedicated in 1983. More than the building, Msgr. Buxman cherishes human memories.

“Every time I went into a parish I wanted to build a family and this place responded incredibly well,” he said. “The people have been wonderful all through the years.” 

They love their parish

Affection for the parish is high.

“This centennial means a lot to me. This parish is absolutely marvelous,” said Bill Rhodes, who became Catholic five years ago after attending Mass with his wife for more than four decades.

Frances Stevens, a parishioner for 17 years, calls Father Irudayaraj a “good priest” that makes her confident the parish will grow.

Glen and Carol Morelli, who joined 19 years ago, appreciate the history of the parish and feel hopeful that it will attract younger people.

One of those youthful Catholics is Siena Biallas, an eighth grader at the parish school. “I love the school and the church,” Siena said, explaining that its Catholic traditions and volunteer work make a big impact. She is intrigued by the history, especially families whose connections go back to the start.  

Linda Brabham, a parishioner for a decade, thinks of the faith of the people who got the parish started and those who have kept it vibrant. “I think of all the strong people who made a very good foundation for us to worship and have a community,” Brabham said.

Facility improvements are in the works for the centennial year. Upgrades are coming for the hall and church, including the baptismal font; an Eagle Scout will build an outdoor sign with an image of St. Francis. 

“We are looking at the past, and we need to use it to spring forward into the future,” said Tim Mixdorf, president of the pastoral council. “I hope that we continue to grow in faith together, that our congregation continues to grow and that we thank God every day for everything we’ve got.”

Veronica Bosse, parish secretary for 26 years, felt two ways Sept. 5. She was happy because of the milestone but dejected because longtime former pastor, Jesuit Father Tom McCarthy, was not there to celebrate. Father McCarthy died in August 2020. “He would be so excited,” Bosse said. 

In his last weeks at the parish in 2012, Father McCarthy asked Bosse to print lists of all the children he had baptized and all the youngsters who received first Communion from his hand. He kept the bulky documents as sacred mementoes.

edl@catholicsentinel.org