Fr. Kennard wheels a cart of sandwiches to serve to homeless people in Portland in 1987. (Sentinel archives)
Fr. Kennard wheels a cart of sandwiches to serve to homeless people in Portland in 1987. (Sentinel archives)
He came from a broken family, and after his mother died of cancer when he was 8, he went to live at St. Mary’s Home for Boys in Beaverton.

Francis Kennard would grow to become a burly, tall, dark-haired, big chinned, fiery man with a booming voice. His visage was like that of a football lineman’s in the era before facemasks.

Nurtured by nuns at the orphanage, he had sensed a vocation, attending Mount Angel Seminary High School and St. Edward Seminary in Washington state. As a seminarian during World War II, he registered as a conscientious objector.

After ordination in 1949, he became an assistant priest at St. Mary Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland and was invited to travel giving, lectures on church architecture and art, his passions.

Along with his artistic sensibilities, Father Kennard had been paying attention to Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, which was standing up for people who are poor. In 1952, while the priest was chaplain for a University of Portland social club, he convinced the young men to change course and do something big with their lives. Out of that grew Blanchet House of Hospitality, a feeding and jobs effort that still is going strong in Portland’s Old Town.

Along the way, Father Kennard urged the young men to engage in serious devotions. He kept them posted on Lenten obligations, for example, and passed out copies of homilies for meditation. He had the group show up at 8 a.m. Mass at the cathedral on Saturdays.

“An awful lot of us are different because of him,” Kev Collins said in 1994. Collins, who served as an early president of the Blanchet Club, added, “The idea itself — of such magnitude and import as to dwarf our original fraternal organization and its petty objectives — was thrust on us by Father Kennard.”

In 1954, Father Kennard acted on an appeal from Pope Pius XII, who had urged U.S. priests to consider serving in Latin America, a land with many Catholics and few clergymen. The priest packed up and left for Peru with permission from Portland Archbishop Edward Howard. By 1958 at age 33, Father Kennard was pastor of a parish with 70,000 people in 52 towns in the western Andes, in an area a quarter the size of Oregon. There had not been a resident priest there since the Spanish missionaries converted the indigenous peoples in about 1600.

He cleaned up a 200-year-old mission church, designing some of the liturgical art himself. That included a large plaque showing Noah’s Ark with God’s hand reaching down, lighting bolts and a phrase in Spanish: “El Senor es mi amparo,” the Lord is my protection.

Word of the big American priest spread by mouth. In the course of four years, Mass attendance surged from 15 per weekend to about 2,000. The faithful walked as long as five hours to attend worship.

The pastor rode a mule from town to town, saying Mass, preaching missions at 12,000 feet. He trained laypeople to lead prayers when he was not there, a necessity in missions.

Father Kennard returned to Portland on occasion to observe doctors and nurses at Providence Hospital because he was not only the priest but the medical man as well. He learned to set bones and sew up wounds.

“There is no doctor or nurse in my entire province,” he told the Sentinel in 1958. “The things I have learned will help to alleviate the suffering of these people and spread God’s word.” Always conscious of his religious identity, he knew he was not just a social worker.

He noticed a high school in the region run by Marxists and told the chiefs and families that the teachers eventually would destroy the freedom of the people. The chiefs listened and asked the priest to take the school over. He did. In interviews with the Sentinel, Father Kennard constantly chided the Marxists, especially for separating faith from daily life.

In 1960, Father Kennard took a lower-altitude post in the Peruvian jungle near the border with Brazil. He traveled by boat to three dozen villages.

Oregon Catholics wanted to be part of his work. With help from the Portland Council of St. Vincent de Paul, he formed a conference of the society at his mission in 1963. By 1966, he welcomed a team of four Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon to join him as teachers. Lay Catholic volunteers began going from the Northwest to Peru.

Father Kennard led the building of a civic center and high school at his Peruvian mission, with most funds contributed by Sentinel readers 7,000 miles away. It was one of the few high schools in the area.

Meanwhile, Father Kennard played a leading part in getting the pay of Peruvian sawmill workers more than doubled to $1.08 per day. On another occasion, he found that public workers were being paid too little, with the extra being skimmed by officials. Then he discovered that under Peruvian law, natives who had been living on the land for two generations were entitled to ownership but were being deprived of this by absentee landlords who continued to claim the parcels. Through legal action, he helped 200 families claim rightful ownership.

In 1971, after 17 years in Peru, Father Kennard returned to Portland. His health had suffered from the hard work and the environment, but he picked up his priestly ministry with zeal. Appointed vicar for Spanish-speaking Catholics in western Oregon, he set up headquarters in the small town of Dallas, Oregon. The people were thirsty for a priest who knew their language and culture.

In 1975, he fought to get back pay for 200 Mexican workers at a mushroom packing plant in Salem. The men had been deported for illegal entry.

Always seeking to go where the need was great, he traveled to Arkansas in 1981 to serve at a camp for 6,500 Cuban refugees. Noting despair among them, he phoned back to Portland to find refugee sponsor families. He said outright that the biggest problem for a lack of sponsors is racism.

In the mid-’80s, his health was waning. Despite that, he made ham sandwiches and coffee several times each week and rolled them in a cart to give to homeless people in Portland’s Park Blocks.

Father Kennard died in 1994, 25 years ago, collapsing at the altar at San Martin de Porres Mission in Dayton. He was 69. Tributes poured in. Father Leo Donnelly, an Australian who had known Father Kennard in Peru in the 1960s, pointed out his peer’s deep love of liturgy and love for the common person.

“Father Kennard was a lone ranger with the stamp of a pioneer about him, a prophetic figure,” Father Donnelly told the Sentinel. “His feel for the underdog was a strong characteristic of the man.”