The baptismal font at St. Joseph the Worker Parish has a plumbing system designed by Riedl, who’s worked for Gormley Plumbing for 35 years. (Courtesy Terri Fessler Boris)
The baptismal font at St. Joseph the Worker Parish has a plumbing system designed by Riedl, who’s worked for Gormley Plumbing for 35 years. (Courtesy Terri Fessler Boris)
On the job JR Riedl wields a variety of wrenches, plungers and pliers to install pipes, clear drainage systems and subdue unrelenting faucet drips. Be it at work or in his personal life, though, his most important tool is faith.

That’s not always been the case. “For years I was a Mass at Christmas and Easter kind of guy,” said the 66-year-old, a longtime employee of Gormley Plumbing in McMinnville.

Born in Spokane, Washington, Riedl grew up with his four siblings in Salem, where he attended St. Vincent de Paul Parish and its school. His parents were devout, and Riedl recalled how his mom seemed to pop up in every aspect of parish life. She taught religious education, played the organ and sang in and directed the choir.

At St. Vincent de Paul School, the Holy Names Sisters taught him discipline and hard work. But his view at the time was that they “were cramming religion down our neck,” he said. “I just didn’t grasp it. I should have paid more attention.”

Life, as it often does, got messy as Riedl grew older. He was married and divorced. There were family tensions and losses, and he’s grappled with health issues.

Several years ago, one of Riedl’s brothers convinced him to return to the faith of his childhood. He began attending Saturday vigil Mass at St. Edward in Keizer — drawn to the parish by Father Gary Zerr’s incisive homilies — and he now prays the rosary on his way to and from work. He’s swapped his country tunes for Catholic radio in the car and curbed foul language.

Riedl said a consequence of these changes is greater internal peace, which has been especially valuable during the coronavirus and as one of his brothers, John, endures cancer.

“Work and family can be stressful,” he said. “When I pray I have this relief.”

Riedl misses in-person Masses but has had some powerful moments participating in St. Edward’s livestreamed liturgies.

“A few times when doing the virtual Communion, something happened,” he said. “I felt this real closeness to God; it was almost a hair-raising experience.”

For the first few months of the pandemic Riedl was home. He’s gradually taking on work again, doing some estimating in the office and plumbing jobs at a restaurant and in high-end houses.

He’s felt nervous about his vulnerability to the coronavirus. “I’m not in the best of health,” admitted Riedl, who has diabetes and sleep apnea among other conditions.

With Gormley Plumbing for nearly 35 years, most recently as a foreman, Riedl is the longest-serving employee after its owner, Ed Gormley. Retirement is on his mind, but he’s not ready to finish his career quite yet.

One of the reasons Riedl enjoys his job is because of how varied the work is. He’s tackled everything from kitchen faucets to large swimming pools and has done residential and commercial plumbing.

Gormley regularly partners with the Grant Company in Mount Angel — the plumbing and the construction companies both are run by Catholic families — and there have been joint jobs at Mount Angel Abbey, the Trappist monastery in Yamhill County and St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Southeast Portland. Riedl designed all the plumbing parts for the baptismal font at St. Joseph. It’s one of his all-time favorite projects.

Riedl used to climb into ditches and up ladders, scramble under houses and navigate attics. Now he leaves such undertakings to younger plumbers. “I’m not as agile as I once was,” he said.

Among his least favorite tasks was going into hospital manholes to fix sewer ejection pumps. “Part of this business is moving waste, and some of it is not the most pleasant,” he said.

Most of the time he finds work gratifying. Riedl recalled one of his early assignments was helping replace a paper mill’s boiler, which reminded him of an old steam engine from a tractor. The new boiler was a box with computerized controls.

“Every job is a little different; every year the work is higher tech,” he said.

Ed Gormley said Riedl is great about adapting to changes, “and he’s thorough and detail-oriented.”

“We’ll sometimes tease him about being a grandma, but for him it’s all about getting things done just right.”

Gormley, a member of St. James Parish in McMinnville, knows Riedl has had some hurdles over the years. “His faith has been a buoyancy for him,” Gormley said.

He said Riedl is not only a good man but also a fun and happy person to be around. The two men talk about their shared beliefs, swap stories about formidable, caring nuns and discuss what they’ve heard on Catholic radio.

“We are very close since he’s worked here for so darn long,” said Gormley with a laugh.

“He’s one of the kindest people I’ve ever known,” added his brother John Riedl, 68. “He doesn’t speak poorly of people, and he does what he can for others. He’s stood by me, no matter what.”

Riedl’s been spending time helping his 90-year-old mother along with assisting John, whose prognosis is poor.

“I have a lot of prayers going out right now,” said Riedl.

He believes the coronavirus may be God’s way of telling everyone to slow down and reassess their lives. “If it’s go, go, go all the time you can work yourself into the grave,” he said. “Money and work are important, but they are not the most important thing to focus on in this short life.”