Mary Dieringer of Gifts of the Spirit helps Alison Olsav of St. Ignatius Parish find catechetical supplies for her children. After 35 years at the helm, Dieringer has sold the store. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Mary Dieringer of Gifts of the Spirit helps Alison Olsav of St. Ignatius Parish find catechetical supplies for her children. After 35 years at the helm, Dieringer has sold the store. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)

A veteran of the Catholic book, gift and supply business has retired. But Mary Dieringer found new owners for Gifts of the Spirit, a religious fixture in Southeast Portland for 35 years. 

Natalie and Jeff Duffy have promised Dieringer they will take Gifts of the Spirit into the future.

“Customers were going on the internet and we were more of the 20th century than the 21st century in our capabilities,” said Dieringer, a 75-year-old lifelong member of St. John the Baptist Parish in Milwaukie. “It’s time to take it totally into the 21st century. It’s time to pass it on to the next generation.” 

In their pockets, nightstands or on home altars, many Oregonians cherish sacred medals, pictures or icons — all purchased at the small shop at Southeast 52nd Avenue and Bybee Boulevard. It’s within five miles of about 10 Catholic parishes.

Earlier this year, when it appeared the shop might simply close, many Catholics were alarmed. “This would really be a loss,” said Providence Sister Margaret Bischoff, who lives in the area. “There is no other Catholic bookstore on this side of town.”

But keeping business going is in Dieringer’s blood. Three brothers, including her father, came to Portland in the 1930s. They got into the grocery business and eventually property management.

Dieringer attended grade school at St. John the Baptist, St. Mary of the Valley and a boarding school in Toledo, Washington. She went on to Mount Angel College and then earned a master’s degree in education at the University of Oregon. She found that teaching was not her calling and so was open to different paths.

Opening the Catholic gift store was the idea of Dieringer’s sister Gladys, who had worked at the Grotto and saw the possibilities.

The first location of Gifts of the Spirit, at Southeast 39th and Lincoln, started with a bang. There was a car crash outside the store during the first week, and the sisters rushed out to help the victims. Not long after, the building was burglarized twice.

When the sisters moved to the new site in 1997, they had their priest brother, Father James Dieringer, hit the building with extra prayers and holy water. The result? No break-ins or crashes for decades.

Gladys did the ordering, Mary managed the accounting and both handled customer service. The busy time was spring, with Lent, Easter, new Catholics, first Communions and confirmations.

The sisters’ mission was to spread use of sacramentals and help educate people in the faith, especially about saints.  

“We knew we would not make a million dollars,” Dieringer said. “But we also knew if the Lord wanted it to be here, he would allow us to pay the bills.”

Gifts of the Spirit became more than a market. People of all kinds, Catholic or not, met each other there and became friends. It is still a relational hub. 

On occasion, a new-ager or even a Satanist will come seeking supplies for their rituals. Dieringer is polite, but sends them packing.

“I pray every day, ‘Lord, help me with my teacher voice,” said Dieringer, who is kind yet direct.

Most non-Catholics are very welcome. They tend to be fascinated by sacred medals and cards. Dieringer does a brisk business in selling clerical shirts to black Protestant pastors. She enjoyed her conversations with them and was always happy to help them understand Catholicism better.

Gladys died unexpectedly in 2005. “When God decided she had to be up in heaven, I had to take over everything, which was a little scary,” Dieringer said. 

Dieringer, now alone, resisted email and website ordering because she knew she could serve people better after a conversation on the phone or in person. In part because of that know-how, Gifts of the Spirit survived a rash of Catholic bookstore closures a decade ago.

“It has been an enjoyable time,” said Dieringer, who has promised to mentor the new owners.

She will travel a bit, not much, and attend more lectures, concerts and conventions around Portland. She will read, including mysteries.

Kay Haberlach has shopped at Gifts of the Spirit for more than 15 years. She has ordered books, holy cards and other items to take when visiting inmates at the Multnomah County Jail. That selfless ministry got her a 20-percent discount from Dieringer.

“It’s been so helpful,” Haberlach said. “I got such good service.”