Blanchet House to relocate to another Old Town location
Blanchet House to relocate to another Old Town location
One by one, obstacles to a new Blanchet House of Hospitality have fallen away. Now the 58-year-old Catholic ministry in Portland's Old Town is appealing to donors for a modern building. Blanchet execs say the project will sustain the mission: feeding the hungry, housing the homeless and giving men in hard times a chance to work for a new life.

Blanchet's leaders are set to relocate just a block away, transforming a blighted corner on the west end of the Steel Bridge. The move comes after years of seeking city support, reaching agreements with neighbors and surmounting real estate challenges. Plans call for ground to be broken in the second half of this year. The hoped-for $9 million building will give the bustling organization twice the space for meals and 70 percent more room for housing workers in recovery from addiction. It will contain offices, plenty of windows and dozens of environmentally friendly features. Perhaps most important, those waiting to eat will be able to stay inside.

The waiting room is the humane option, organizers say, but it also will reduce complaints from neighbors who don't want the lines in their up-and-coming neighborhood.

Since Feb. 11, 1952, the hungry have stood in rain, wind and heat before getting a warm welcome at the door and a steaming plate of food. It's all taken place in a century-old brick edifice at Northwest Fourth and Glisan.

That first meal of beans, bread and coffee went to 227 people. Now, Blanchet serves breakfast, lunch and dinner to about 800 Portlanders each day. That adds up to 292,000 meals per year.

It all goes by with few hitches. The police have been called to the dining room only once in the past six years, and that was because a mentally ill woman insisted on disrobing.

"The consistency and the tranquility of the place is what's of value to the city," says Dave Gunderson, chair of the capital campaign.

"The building is very old," explains Gunderson, a CPA and member of Holy Family Parish in Southeast Portland and son-in-law of Gene Feltz, one of Blanchet's founders. "The guys have done a brillant job of keeping the place intact, but the time has come for a new building. We have to do this."

In addition to making a land trade that increases Blanchet's space dramatically, the city of Portland has allocated $2 million for the building fund. The campaign now has $4 million.

The most recent problem to be overcome was a challenge from advocates of historic landmarks, who said the old Blanchet building should be preserved. That would have foiled the land swap. A judge ruled in favor of Blanchet, saying demolition at Fourth and Glisan could proceed after the new building is complete.

Blanchet plans to apply for $1.5 million in new market tax credits, a special provision in the recovering Old Town zone. Several dozen trusts and foundations have donated and made pledges. This summer, there will be an appeal to the steadfast individual donors as well as an outreach to possible new benefactors.

"We need everybody's help," Gunderson says. "This is truly a community project. We want the community to give as a whole so they feel the ownership and responsibilty to keep Blanchet going for years and years."

The ministry began to emerge more than 60 years ago. That's when Father Francis Kennard, a priest of the Archdiocese of Portland, urged a University of Portland social club to emulate the work of Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day. A group of young UP graduates paid $35 in rent for the building in Old Town and named their house of hospitality after Oregon’s first archbishop, Francis Blanchet.

They took as their motto the challenging words of Jesus: "I assure you, as often as you did it for one of my least brothers, you did it for me."

Jim O'Hanlon, now a retired attorney, was among the founders.

"It's the realization of a real dream," O'Hanlon says of the building project. He thinks the need for the new building is important if the ministry is to continue in the long run.

"We're pushing ahead," O'Hanlon says. "There is no question. We are not giving up the ship."
Brian Ferschweiler, Blanchet's executive director for the last six years, often receives checks in the mail with notes that say something like this: "My brother used to eat there." A $2,500 check came from Seal Rock, Wash., signed by a man who once relied on Blanchet for food but later hit success.

"You never know who is in that line," says Ferschweiler, a 1973 graduate of Jesuit High School who wears a small crucifix at this throat.

There is no justification needed at Blanchet and no sermons with the food. The ministry is Catholic witness enough, organizers have long said, echoing the ideas of the Catholic Worker movement.

No other food program in the area offers three squares a day. The state health department recently gave the Blanchet kitchen a 100-percent score after inspection. Grocers and restaurants donate tons of food.

Discipline is sharp for the 29 men who now work and live in the old building. The early shift is up at 5 a.m. and the late shift works into darkness. The jobs build up esteem until the men can land other work and move out on their own, typically in six months or so. The new building will have transitional housing for 50 men.

In addition to feeding the hungry and helping homeless men get a new start, Blanchet gives 5,000 volunteers per year a chance to meet folks from the street. The new building, which can seat 80 diners instead of the present 41, may allow more time for fellowship. Volunteer slots are already booked well into May.

The footprint of the new building will be almost four times the size of the first floor of the current Blanchet House. There will be a basement for storing the massive quantity of donated food, a dining area, kitchen, waiting area, health clinic space, social services rooms, chapels, classrooms and libraries.

The second and third floors will be housing for the men who do the work and get their lives together. The digs will be clean and simple, nothing lavish.

SERA Architects, headquartered not far away, is designing the building to meet gold or platinum environmental standards. It will have super-efficient insulation, a geo-thermal pump system, radiant heating and cooling, solar-heated water, plenty of windows to keep electrical lighting to a minimum and rainwater recycling. Toilets will be flushed with graywater. Some building material will be from recycled stock.

The building's systems will work together for maximum benefit, says Joe Pinzone, the lead architect. As for the feel, Pinzone is making it the haven many of the diners and residents have never had.

"We're looking for warm, inviting and nurturing," he says. "We want to create a feeling of home."

Pinzone sees the building as a potential spark for new investment in the neighborhood. He expects shops and more housing to follow.

Almost all of the furniture for the new building has already been made in the workshop at a Blanchet-run farm in Yamhill County. The farm gets men in recovery away from the city and allows fresh air and hard work to heal them.

Those who know about Blanchet offer strong support. With the new building project, the task is informing more Portlanders, especially the young ones who will need to bolster the work in the future.

O'Hanlon last week spoke to a group of young business leaders about the history and mission of Blanchet. The audience seemed enthralled by the tale of a group of 20-somethings starting such a project so long ago.

In the fall, Gunderson organized a rock concert at St. Mary's Academy and raised $8,000. Meanwhile, a 10-year-old girl has been selling cookies on her own to raise money for Blanchet.

For more information or to help, go to www.blanchethouse.org or call Ferschweiler at 503-241-4340.