This is the decree signed by Pope Pius IX on July 24, 1846, creating an archdiocese in the Pacific Northwest. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
This is the decree signed by Pope Pius IX on July 24, 1846, creating an archdiocese in the Pacific Northwest. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)

In a succession of struggles, the Catholic Church in Oregon has accomplished its finest hours. From almost the very start, the Archdiocese of Oregon City — later the Archdiocese of Portland — faced mistrust and slander. As Catholic migration surged, the attacks entered the very legis-lation of Oregon. But a major court win left the state’s Catholics feeling empowered and ready to comment on the common good and the dignity of life in the state. Clergy sexual abuse would erode some of that clout and trust, prompting the church to focus more on spiritual mat-ters.

Through all its 175 years, the church in Oregon endured, adapted and found new pluck to carry on the loving mission of Jesus.

Of course, for most western Oregon Catholics in the past 175 years, larger trends have not meant much. Families simply have tried to hold down jobs, feed children, afford houses, be good neighbors, thrive in marriages, get to Mass on time and maybe have something left over now and then for vacation. These stalwarts, whose chief concerns have changed little since 1864, are the foundation on which history gets built.

Death at the Methodist mission

It didn’t take long for anti-Catholic purveyors of false conspiracy to target Catholics in the Pacif-ic Northwest. On Nov. 29, 1847, 16 months after the archdiocese was formed, Cayuse warriors attacked and killed Dr. Marcus Whitman, a Methodist missionary and physician near Walla Walla, Washington. His wife Narcissa also died along with 11 others.

The Whitmans’ associates accused new Catholic missionaries in the area of fomenting the deaths, even though it was clear the Cayuse were angry because 200 of their people had died in Dr. Whitman’s medical care. Tribal leaders felt he had dispensed poison. What’s certain is that white settlement, as encouraged by the Whitmans, spread disease quickly to the Cayuse. To make matters worse, the mission had stored food and managed famine better than the tribe, creating resentment.

“White men were always suffering less,” historian Erwin Thompson wrote of the Whitman sa-ga in 1970.

It was Father Jean Baptiste Brouillet of the new Archdiocese of Oregon City who found the Whitmans’ bodies and officiated at burials. Father Brouillet also comforted survivors. For his pains, the priest was distrusted simply because he was Catholic. Survivors viewed him as com-petition in eastern Washington mission territory. The bad feeling soon turned into unfounded accusation.

Ironically, it was the Rev. Henry Spalding, a Methodist whom Father Brouillet had saved through entreaties to the Cayuse, who kept the conspiracy alive for decades. A group of Port-land Catholics came to the defense of Father Brouillet in the late 1860s, publishing his own ac-count of the Whitman tragedy.

“Of all the Cayuses who were concerned in Dr. Whitman’s murder, not one was a Catholic,” the Catholic Sentinel declared on a front page in 1872. “They were all Protestants and under the immediate control of Dr. Whitman.”

The accusations put the new archdiocese on the defensive from the start. Expansion of Catholi-cism may have slowed, but in a pattern that would repeat itself throughout the archdiocese’s history, the threats only energized Archbishop Francis Blanchet, his clergy and his flock, who sought to serve Indigenous peoples and settlers across a vast expanse. Though the California gold rush of 1849 depleted many Oregon settlements, the church opened schools and missions apace in the second half of the 19th century, fueled by new Catholic migrants from Ireland, Germany and elsewhere. In 1885, a magnificent cathedral rose at Southwest Third and Stark in Portland. On the east side of the Willamette, tall St. Francis church had hit the skyline in 1881. The impressive houses of worship were a sign that Catholics were not to be dismissed.

But a new challenge was about to arise.

The Oregon School Bill

In the disarray following World War I, the Ku Klux Klan rebuilt itself and focused on Catholics, since so many immigrants hewed to the faith. In Oregon, the new Klan raised the spurious Whitman massacre tale, even though it had been debunked definitively in 1901 by a Yale histo-rian.

By 1920, Catholics made up 12% of the Oregon population. Other Oregonians feared a growing Catholic culture would overtake them.

One priest from St. John the Baptist Parish in Milwaukie received occasional hoax calls to rush to an accident in a remote dell or field to give last rites, only to be met by threatening Klans-men. Children from Holy Rosary Parish threw marbles on the ground to confound one troop of hooded riders.

While many Catholics simply laughed at the middle-aged men in sheets, the Klan did succeed in filling legislative bodies with likeminded politicians. Parochial schools, seen as breeding grounds for papist ideas, became easy targets. In 1921, the Oregon Legislature created the Compulsory Oregon School Bill, a referral to voters that would require all children to attend public schools. Under the guise of achieving unity, the measure was a broadside against Catho-lic schools. In the fall of 1922, the measure passed by a majority of 14,000 votes, big at the time. The editor of the Oregonian wrote that if Catholics didn’t like it, they could move to an-other state.

“It is evident that if the people of Oregon can lightheartedly vote the destruction of private rights in one case they can do so in others,” warned John O’Hara, editor of the Catholic Senti-nel.

Father Edwin O’Hara, John’s brother and a sagacious Archdiocese of Oregon City priest, contin-ued to make the case that children belong to parents, not the state, and so parents should de-cide on the manner of education. That is the very idea the United States Supreme Court used to strike down the bill in 1925.

The court ruling gave Oregon Catholics legitimacy at long last. They felt damaged, but their logic and ways were vindicated. What emerged was a more confident Oregon church, one that took open pride in institutions like schools, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, hospitals, Blanchet House and other ministries to the poor and marginalized. Catholics knew they were making major contributions to society. The church even felt strong enough to comment more publicly on social matters.

This photograph of Msgr. Thomas Tobin appeared on the front page of the Oregonian in 1943. (Courtesy Archdiocese of Portland)

Weighing in on civic life

Msgr. Thomas Tobin, a close assistant to Archbishop Edward Howard, became a trusted medi-ator between labor and business in Oregon in the middle of the 20th century. Relying on a Catholic social teaching tradition going back to the 1890s, Msgr. Tobin began in 1936 by pro-testing the plight of a bricklayer who was having difficulty with a union. He also started unions at the archdiocesan chancery and Central Catholic High School, ruffling some feathers along the way.

Msgr. Tobin became the neutral member of the Joint Appeal Commission of the War Labor Board during World War II, named because his was the only name that appeared on the lists submitted by both labor and management. He appeared on secular radio and wrote columns that appeared in local papers as well as the Sentinel.

Msgr. Tobin founded and directed an annual labor-management conference that featured lead-ing figures from throughout the country discussing questions of social justice.

“Archbishop Howard was inclined to trust him and give him a lot of leeway,” historian Sam Mertz told the Sentinel in 2020. While the archbishop was a pragmatic leader with a knack for administration, Msgr. Tobin was the idea man of the archdiocese.

Msgr. Tobin inspired many people, including priests who to this day advocate for workers.

In the second half of the of the 20th century, debate over decency, family life, birth control, abortion and assisted suicide defined church life. Archbishop Robert Dwyer, an experienced columnist, was a prominent supporter of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” which af-firmed older church teaching on birth control, despite debate on a high level for reform. Arch-bishop Dwyer thundered against Oregon’s abortion law and general decline of a belief in meaning.

“When a nation abandons all standards as we are doing, when it permits all the barriers to topple, who is there to say what limits there are to our madness?” he wrote in June 1973. “Surely it is not without significance that the abortion decision and the Watergate caper oc-curred almost simultaneously. This says something to us, loud and clear, if we unplug our ears.”

A moral and criminal problem inside the church would soon occupy the archdiocese.

Interior scandal

In 1983, Father Thomas Laughlin of All Saints Parish faced accusations of child sexual abuse and arrest. The case made national news. Laughlin had been a superstar priest.

At the start of the millennium, news of other past scandals emerged. An onslaught of cases, exacerbated by Oregon’s permissive tort law and anti-establishment sentiment, pushed the amiable Archbishop John Vlazny into a corner. In 2004, he declared bankruptcy as a way to compensate victims while allowing the archdiocese to continue its mission. Oregon’s cases, it would turn out, were no more numerous or egregious than elsewhere, but state law made the suits more frequent and larger.

“We have kind of emptied the pot,” Archbishop Vlazny told reporters as he announced the bankruptcy, adding that it had been difficult to borrow money. Insurers fled the scene. The archbishop described bankruptcy as the best choice “if I am to be a prudent steward of our re-sources.” One victim picketed outside the archdiocese’s offices during the press conference.

Observers often said that Archbishop Vlazny was just the right leader for the difficult moment, since he was kind, but also clear and strong.

In 2007, Father Rick Sirianni lauded the leadership. “He never lost sight of the fact that he was the shepherd of a flock that included those who sought justice as well as those seeking to con-tinue the mission of the church,” the priest said. “He was a bishop to us all. The mistakes made in our dealing with the sexual abuse of children in this archdiocese were not made by him. The crimes committed did not occur on his watch. Regardless, he gave his all to bring healing to those injured, and a commitment to all that the protection of our children from sex-ual abuse would never again be compromised.”

The bankruptcy ended in 2007, but the mission of the church was again impeded. “It’s hard to make disciples when you’re spending all day in court,” said Tom Dulcich, the archdiocese’s le-gal counsel.

But Catholics again endured.

“Relief isn’t the right word, but we can now start moving forward again,” Kathy Reilly said in 2007. She’d been pastoral associate at St. Mary Parish in Albany for more than 20 years. “Eve-ryone wanted there to be justice for the victims, but at the same time, our parish had talked about expanding our school and expanding our classrooms — the bankruptcy put that off for a while. Now we can begin that discussion again.”

Hope for spiritual renewal

Catholics at the end of the Oregon Trail have shown themselves resilient.

Today, one challenge is how to relate to a somewhat libertine West Coast culture, in which abortion and assisted suicide are celebrated and expanded. At the same time, immigrants are not fully welcomed and critics say there is little steel in leaders to maintain public order. On top of it all, the coronavirus pandemic has curtailed church attendance.

The local church, which has not regained the public influence it had before the sex abuse crisis, has emphasized its spiritual course, hoping to reach souls that way.

Archbishop Alexander Sample, who arrived in Oregon in 2013, is a critic of the culture but also sees it as grounds for fruitful evangelization. He believes the church has what modern human beings are searching for.

“I’ve never been more enthused, excited, and filled with hope and energy for helping lead us all together,” Archbishop Sample said during a homily Oct. 24 at St. Mary Cathedral of the Im-maculate Conception. “I am not at all pessimistic. I believe God is doing great things, and I’ll say it, great things right here in western Oregon. I believe God is sparking something here that will be seen and be a witness to others.”

Plans call for building honest and healthy relationships among parish staffs, a culture that is likely to spread to people in the pews.

Archbishop Sample has been echoing St. Thérèse of Lisieux, telling Oregon Catholics that they are “made for this moment.”