St. Francis of Assisi Church Roy serves parishioners in parts of Washington County, 23 miles west of Portland. (Bob Kerns/Catholic Sentinel)
St. Francis of Assisi Church Roy serves parishioners in parts of Washington County, 23 miles west of Portland. (Bob Kerns/Catholic Sentinel)
Attending Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Roy for the first time, one would be impressed with the full-throated volume of the entrance hymn. The voices resonate in unison within the walls of this immaculate, 100-year-old church like a close-knit, well-rehearsed choir. Except there is no choir. It’s the worshippers, the whole congregation filling the holy space with joyful, faithful song because everyone is used to the old melodies and everyone takes part.

The rhythms heard this bright morning parallel the rhythms of the rural parish’s life. In this small-town faith community 23 miles west of Portland, everyone knows the patterns and events from year to year. Everyone knows each other. And when something needs to be done, everyone knows people need to step up and volunteer.

There are scores of country parishes in western Oregon with many of the same joys and challenges as those found at St. Francis. Many are served by priests like Father Michael Vuky who efficiently parses his time between two other parishes as well: Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Verboort and St. Edward in North Plains. This morning Father Vuky pulled into the parking lot ten minutes before Mass time, fully vested and ready to go. The church had already been opened up by parishioners and was half full.

Again, as in many country churches with rich histories, the same family names appear on stained glass windows and in this week’s bulletin listing committee volunteers. Visitation was founded in 1875 by six Dutch families who were intent on establishing a “Catholic colony” near Forest Grove. Father Vuky explains that “three of the original six families got into an argument, moved 3.8 miles west” and started St. Francis in Roy. To this day several family names are common to the three communities. “There’s a fun rivalry because they're all related to each other. But like I said, Dutchmen can be a little bit stubborn,” says Father Vuky.

All three parishes are surrounded by farmland, but agriculture is becoming a declining part of the rural economy. “Farmers are a really small share of rural populations,” says Bruce Weber, emeritus professor and director of the Rural Studies Program at Oregon State University. “Nationally, about five percent of the rural population is farm related. And only about two percent or of the population physically lives on a farm. Rural is mostly in the service industry or manufacturing… pretty much what urban people do,” says Weber, a member of St. Mary Parish in Corvallis.

Father Vuky’s parishes may not reflect those statistics exactly. He says there are more farmers at St. Francis, more retirees at St. Edward and even some Intel employees at Visitation. Whatever the occupational mix, rural communities share certain characteristics that help explain the makeup in a parish. “The things that make a place rural,” says the professor, “are size and density and remoteness. They are smaller, have a much less dense population and are remote from larger population centers.”

“Some rural areas have had influxes of new people,” he says, while in others, “there are generations of people in the same place.”

Jim and Lynda Hertel sent their eight children through the parish school Jim’s father helped build in the 1950s. Like generations before him, Jim grew up on a farm, but he now runs a business out of his home, manufacturing and selling hooks used in the loading and offloading of shipping cargo. And like on a farm, “the kids are able to work for him,” says Lynda. When Jim says he needs help, “I grab some kids and tell them, ‘You’re coming to work today.’”

Like many rural parishioners, the Hertels do a lot of volunteering. They organize an annual parish dinner and tractor show that attracts Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

Generational ties and helping out are common in urban parishes as well, but the roots might be a little deeper and the time given a little greater in the country simply because there’s a greater need. Weber suggests “helping neighbors is a rural characteristic perhaps because people are farther from services.”

Down the Willamette valley, just east of Salem, near Aumsville sits Shaw. In 1962, during construction of the second St. Mary’s church, the Columbus Day storm blew down the arching laminated beams that framed the modern structure. Unfazed, workers and parishioners hoisted them back up and finished their house of worship. It was not the only crisis to rock this country parish.

In October 2005 St. Mary’s pastor Holy Cross Father Jim Brady, suffered a medical episode while celebrating Mass. Parishioner Ken Graves remembers it well. “All of a sudden he was talking gibberish.” Father Brady was diagnosed with a brain tumor and called back to Notre Dame for medical care. He died two months later. “And suddenly, we were without a priest,” said Graves. Before he left, Father Brady named 20 key parishioners to run the place. The group organized themselves into a parish council. They arranged for a permanent deacon from another parish to conduct Communion services on weekends and lobbied the Archdiocese of Portland for a new pastor.

Father Patrick Brennan was vicar for clergy at the time. He was “concerned that with such a big number we wouldn’t get anything done… and was surprised that we were a pretty cohesive body and that we were serious about things,” according to Graves. Father Brennan found a priest to lead the parish until a more permanent appointment could be made.

These days, Father Paul Materu serves as pastor for St. Mary and for St. Boniface in Sublimity. In residence at St. Mary in Shaw is Father Dick Rossman, a wry-witted veteran with several decades of pastoral service in western Oregon. The two split the Mass schedule between them, with Father Rossman saying most of the Masses at St. Mary. Now that he’s retired, he doesn’t have administrative duties, but he’s well-schooled in the challenges facing a country priest. “There's more administrative things that you have to do, because you don't have the full-time secretary, or even a secretary at all sometimes.” Unlike serving in a large parish, “you're less of a sacramental machine,” he jokes. “And you get to know the folks a whole lot better… In a large parish it sometimes takes years to know all the faces,” and understand all the relationships.

Back up north, Father Vuky has three parish administrative councils, three finance councils and two schools to run. He is supported by Bishop Ken Steiner who is in residence in Roy and the nearby priests from the Missionaries of the Holy Spirit who help out covering Masses. “I’m the DRE (director of religious education), I'm the youth minister, I do the sacramental prep and I do have very, very generous and dedicated volunteers,” he says. To serve everyone, he has combined programs like the RCIA and CYO.

In 1923, Father Edwin O’Hara, the innovative educator and pastor at St. Mary Parish in Eugene, saw the need to support underserved rural churches and founded what has become Catholic Rural Life. At that time half of the nation’s population, 60 million people, lived in rural areas. A century later, the rural population is still about 60 million, but the portion has shrunk to 17%. “Fewer families are running farm operations,” says executive director Jim Ennis. And consolidation of parishes has strained staffing and resources.

Based in St. Paul, Minnesota, Catholic Rural Life offers retreats, “for priests to share best practices on how to handle multiple parish ministry, challenges of multiple schools or multiple church councils… what’s working and sharing ideas and between priests who are coming together to share their best ideas.”

The last two years retreats have been offered at Mount Angel and Ennis says Catholic Rural Life is exploring a collaboration to create a program with the seminary, which educates seminarians from dozens of dioceses in the West.

Back in Shaw, across the street from St. Mary Church is the parish cemetery. The oldest grave dates back to 1896. It is well-kept and on Memorial Day weekend every gravesite had its own flag. Mark Wolf serves on the parish cemetery committee. His parents are buried there and Mark’s name is already carved into their headstone. His parents were ever-present volunteers at church events. “My mom used to make the best scalloped potatoes,” he says. Like his father before him Wolf is in the Knights of Columbus.

“I feel this is just a good old country church… I mean, you feel real comfortable with everybody. It's not stuffy or anything… Everybody's really friendly.”