At a glance

St. Stephen Parish, Portland

1112 S.E. 41st Ave., 97214

(503) 234-5019

Sunday Masses: 5 p.m. vigil; 9 a.m., 11 a.m.

Size: 280 registered households

School: St. Stephen School, with 100 students grades kindergarten through eighth

Established: 1907

By Kristen Hannum

Of the Sentinel

Babe Ruth was there in 1924 when they laid the cornerstone of the new St. Stephen's Church in Southeast Portland.

Today, parishioners say they think the church has the same color scheme as it did in then. Indeed, to walk into St. Stephen's is to step away from modernity and the Northwest and into an older and more gracious time, reflected in the sanctuary.

'It's a beautiful church,' says longtime parishioner Eva Roberts, who especially points out the rosetta window over the choir loft.

Parishioner Gary Thornton says that the parish is middle-of-the-road, mixing contemporary and traditional elements in a way that people find comfortable.

The parish has a solid base of parishioners who have been here for decades, plus younger families who have moved into the many-bedroomed homes in the neighborhood.

The parish was founded in 1907 as part of the breakup of the then-huge St. Francis Parish. St. Stephen's school, with the St. Mary of Oregon Sisters teaching, was founded in 1908. From the first, the school was seen as a primary ministry here, and the parish has boasted several pastors who were well known across the archdiocese and beyond for their devotion to Catholic education.

St. Stephen's first pastor, Father Warren Waitt, from the beginning wanted not just a grade school but also a Catholic high school for his parishioners. In 1927 he opened the first Catholic high school on Portland's eastside: St. Stephen's High School, which was coeducational, with 90 students.

Four years later a fire destroyed the school. Father Waitt and parishioners set up portables, and classes continued. The students missed only four days.

The worldwide Depression meant that money wasn't easy to come by. When Central Catholic opened in 1939, St. Stephen's High School closed in 1940 - its last classes still being held in the portables.

Father Martin Thielen, superintendent of archdiocesan schools, became St. Stephen's pastor in 1954.

'Under his direction, a lot of guys went to the seminary,' says Thornton.

Father Thielen hoped to bring other orders to the archdiocese, easing the load for the two orders already here who did most of the teaching at that time - the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon and the Holy Names Sisters. The St. Mary of Oregon Sisters withdrew from the parish, and the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur arrived.

A fund-raising drive brought in enough money to build a new school, dedicated in 1961. Enrollment during these baby-boom years topped out at about 400, with close to 50 students in each grade.

Parishioners typically name the school as the parish's finest achievement - while so many small parish schools closed during the 1970s and 1980s, St. Stephen's held out.

Part of that was due to an idealistic young principal, Jim Galluzzo, who energized the school and parish community during the early 1980s. (Father Galluzzo was ordained in 1991.)

For close to a decade now, Judy Smith-Dennison has led the school. A long-time parishioner, she's endlessly upbeat and enthusiastic about the little school's prospects.

Just south of upscale Laurelhurst, St. Stephen's sits in the midst of an old working-class East Portland neighborhood. Porches here may be in need of a bit of paint, but it's not worth cutting back the 50-year-old wisteria that climbs and forms a living ceiling. A meticulously restored home, fit for a magazine cover, sits between a drab condo built in the '60s and a forlorn-looking house that looks as if maintenance has been deferred by at least 20 years - with a chicken run out back. This is old Southeast Portland at its best: retirees making ends meet on Social Security, physicians and laborers all living on the same block.

Despite being close to downtown Portland (Father Morton Park, pastor, says you can practically walk there), there are still affordable homes in the area and, in the owner-occupied homes, great stability. A high percentage of residents, many of them widows or widowers, raised their children in the homes where they still live.

All Saints Church is a mile north, on the other side of Laurelhurst Park, and St. Ignatius is less than a mile and a half south. Go two miles west and there's St. Francis; it's two miles east to Ascension.

'We're the little parish between All Saints and St. Ignatius,' says Father Park.

Those two parishes, located on Southeast Portland's busiest avenues - 39th Avenue and Powell Boulevard, respectively - are big, bustling places. St. Stephen's, tucked away a couple blocks east of the little Belmont library on 39th Avenue, has, rather, an air of serenity and seclusion.

'We struggle along,' says Barbara Ringquist, another longtime parishioner. 'We've had good times and worse times.'

Ringquist leads the choir for the 11 a.m. Mass. The group once sang from the choir loft. Ringquist misses the acoustics from that location, but says that the increased participation - both in people willing to join the choir and in the congregation's singing - after the group moved to its present location near the altar makes up for it. Ringquist helps people who can't read music sing by showing where the music is going with her hand. 'A visitor told me he couldn't believe the amount of singing we get out of this group,' she says.

From her place near the altar, Ringquist says that one of the best parts of Sunday morning for her now is looking out at the congregation as they sing. 'They're singing, and they're smiling,' she says. 'It's so wonderful to see them smiling ñ to know they've enjoyed coming to church and praying.'

Ringquist also sees a scowl now and then. 'I say a prayer for them,' she says.

For parishioner Thornton, the parish's small size is the biggest part of why he chooses to attend Mass and volunteer here. 'They need me,' he says. 'I'm able to help.'

Thornton is a greeter, but he has also been a parish visitor to the homebound and an all-around volunteer when help is needed. He has never married and works especially hard to remind people that in the parish family that the never-marrieds can sometimes feel as though they don't belong. He has a small group of adult singles who meet together through St. Stephens.

A small group also work through the St. Vincent de Paul Society chapter to get food, energy and rent assistance to people in the neighborhood.

Father Park is active with Catholic Charities and has been instrumental in helping refugees settle in Portland. Bosnians and Nigerians are just some of the people who have actually lived in the rectory for a time.

'It's kind of his baby,' says parishioner Eva Roberts.

'Father Park has brought in a lot of people because he opens his arms,' says Thornton. 'I've met people on the bus who praise him.'

St. Stephen's participates in the strong Sunnyside Neighborhood Association, which typically meets at Mount St. Joseph - another Catholic neighbor. A couple of weeks ago, the parish opened up its parking lot for the association's 'Clean-Up Day.' Neighbors brought all kinds of unwanted stuff - from mattresses to unused paint and yard debris - for disposal.

The Altar Society is one of the busiest groups at the parish, meeting regularly and helping to keep the church looking beautiful.

With a building this old, stronger measures sometimes need to be taken as well. Father Park jokes that anyone who has ever lived in an old house knows what he and the parishioners are up against when it comes to keeping St. Stephen's in good shape.

Parishioner Jay Sticka says that Father Park has been conscientious about keeping the place repaired.

The parish has joined up with Italian Women United for the bazaar that took place earlier this month - on the same weekend as the neighborhood clean-up.

Come spring, parishioners will again support their school at a dinner auction. Last year's first-ever dinner auction for the school took place at the River Place Hotel and featured dishes created by four of Portland's best chefs, including Pascal Sauton and Capriel.

Roberts, who has been a parishioner since 1950, says she remembers when the parish put on a spaghetti dinner. 'There aren't enough of us anymore for that,' she says.

Roberts' husband died in 1989, and she says she appreciated the parish's support at that time.

'Everybody was really good,' she says.

Her husband, who was active at St. Stephen's long before he converted to the faith, was a leader in the St. Stephen's Boy Scout troop and then served on the parish council.

She never asked him to join the church, but when she was pregnant with their youngest child (who came along 13 years after the one before), she remembers him telling her, 'You know, it looks like we're going to be in that church a long time. Guess I better join.'

For Roberts, it's the camaraderie at St. Stephen's that makes it different than another parish could ever be. 'I've known the people here so long,' she says. 'My kids grew up with their kids.'