This photograph of Msgr. Thomas Tobin appeared on the front page of the Oregonian in 1943, when he was a key leader in wartime labor negotiations. (Courtesy Archdiocese of Portland)
This photograph of Msgr. Thomas Tobin appeared on the front page of the Oregonian in 1943, when he was a key leader in wartime labor negotiations. (Courtesy Archdiocese of Portland)
A prescient man, the priest wanted to reform Oregon society according to Catholic social teaching. When that sputtered, he turned to bringing new life to local Catholic worship by reviving ancient rites of worship.

That’s one way to sum up the 81-year life of Msgr. Thomas Tobin, one of the most influential Catholic thinkers in Oregon history. The biographical synopsis comes from Sam Mertz, who wrote about Msgr. Tobin last year for a graduate degree in history from Portland State University.

Mertz, a 28-year-old member of Holy Redeemer Parish in North Portland, begins his 89-page thesis by telling the story of Father Tobin’s first Mass after being ordained in Rome. A carriage arrived to transport the new priest to a catacomb chapel. When he saw that his seminary friends would get no ride, he stepped out and walked with them.

“This concern for those less privileged foreshadowed his lifelong concern for the laborer, the poor, and the downtrodden,” wrote Mertz, who believes Msgr. Tobin’s inspiration remains strong in Oregon. Local Catholics are still engaged with his ideas on economics, labor, liturgy, politics and the good life. A regular lecture on social justice is named for him.

“I think I am so interested in religion and politics because this is where we are trying to answer ultimate questions of the good life,” said Mertz, a Minnesota native who attended Holy Cross College in South Bend, Indiana.

Intellectual prodigy

Born in 1897 into an Irish-American family in Pittsburgh, Thomas Tobin came of age in a society that felt threatened by Catholicism. In the early years of the 20th century, as anti-Catholicism surged, the gifted boy joined Catholic groups that combined faith and patriotism. The pairing encapsulates the Catholic project of the time: Show that we are loyal to church and country simultaneously.

Thomas was the first in his family to attend college when he went to the University of Notre Dame. There, he wrote feisty essays for a student journal, advocating for Irish independence. He took Communion daily and was valedictorian of the class of 1920. He also organized a dance at the all-male school and had his sister ride a train from Pittsburgh so there would be more women in attendance.

The Congregation of Holy Cross hired the star student to teach at Columbia University in Portland, perhaps sensing his vocation and hoping he’d join their ranks. He taught for a year and was a boxing coach and weightlifting instructor.

Mertz theorizes that the charismatic Archbishop Alexander Christie, who had founded Columbia University (later called the University of Portland), persuaded the young teacher to become a diocesan priest instead.

Influenced in Rome

After Father Tobin’s ordination in Rome, Archbishop Christie died and the new leader of the archdiocese, Archbishop Edward Howard, brought the priestly prodigy home as a personal secretary. Young Father Tobin saw the inner workings of the church. He also traveled western Oregon to speak about the Italian Renaissance. By 1929, he was offered a show in KGW radio, where he lectured on the papacy.

In 1933, Archbishop Howard sent Father Tobin back to Rome for a canon law degree. The young priest seemed on course to become a bishop. In Rome, his path shifted when he met thinkers at the Pontifical Gregorian University. The group was proposing that the church should move toward engagement with the modern world. In dispatches across the ocean to the Catholic Sentinel, Father Tobin reported positively on the new developments.

He fell deeply for Catholic social teaching, which, Mertz tells us, he saw as neither Marxist nor laissez-faire. Instead, Father Tobin endorsed a market economy, insisting that laborers and management work together to ensure just compensation and working conditions.

Mertz speculates that Father Tobin also had been influenced by several Oregon priests, including Father Edwin O’Hara, a famous labor advocate in Portland who would become Archbishop of Kansas City. Another role model was Father George Thompson at The Madeleine Parish, also a champion of labor.

Working on Oregon society

Back in Portland by 1936, Father Tobin worked to establish unions for staff at Central Catholic High School and the archdiocese’s chancery building. That ruffled some feathers.

He also brought home the Roman liturgical movement that sought a return to more ancient forms of worship. He oversaw construction of a new St. Francis Church in Southeast Portland, aiming to reflect early church practice that had people participate more in Eucharist. Father Tobin noted that he had based St. Francis on the designs of several ancient churches in Rome.

“And it was a big deal to him to build with local materials to reflect the church’s inculturation in the Northwest,” Mertz told the Sentinel in an interview.

Melding his great passions, the priest began to speak to Oregon Catholics of the connection between liturgy and social action. “With Archbishop Howard’s support, Father Tobin began to advocate on behalf of working people by mediating labor disputes, organizing worker pension plans, and advocating for women’s rights,” Mertz writes. The priest even encouraged local banks to stay open until 5 p.m. to better serve working people.

“Archbishop Howard was inclined to trust him and give him a lot of leeway,” Mertz said. While the archbishop was a pragmatic leader with a knack for administration, Father Tobin was the idea man of the archdiocese.

During World War II, Father Tobin became a trusted mediator between labor and management, applying Catholic teachings on solidarity and subsidiarity. It was tough work, but he helped keep workers happy and shipyards humming. In 1943, he was featured on the front page of the Oregonian for his efforts.

“The Portland wartime industries were an exceptional instance of cooperation between labor and management and Tobin was the glue that held them together,” Mertz writes.

Father Tobin was attentive to the spiritual needs of laborers. He held Masses as early as 5 a.m. on Sunday mornings to accommodate them.

As the war was winding down, he had a big dream. He hoped to build a local culture along the principles of Catholic social teaching and to start held a discussion group that began in the locker room of the Multnomah Athletic Club. But the end of the war brought the flight of labor from Portland, and racism re-emerged.

So Father Tobin stood up for Japanese Americans locked up during World War II, insisting that they have their property returned. He helped found the Urban League in Portland to combat discrimination against black residents. He brought the language of Catholic social teaching into secular contexts, where he influenced some nonbelievers. For example, he once said that voters who opposed more money for low rent housing would be “guilty of an immoral action.”

Still, Father Tobin’s efforts to create subsidized housing for black laborers foundered from lack of support in City Hall.

That was the moment the priest began to withdraw from secular public life, Mertz said. The disillusioned priest even saw unions become tainted by bigotry and materialism, a far cry from the Catholic principles he so cherished.

Looking at liturgy

After his social dreams failed to catch on, he began to focus on his other area of passion — the liturgy. In 1947, he hosted the National Liturgical Conference, where scholars discussed new ideas.

It’s important to note that in the 1940s and 1950s, it was the progressives who pushed for things like lace on vestments and incense at Mass. The conservatives favored low Mass at the time, Mertz explained. Msgr. Tobin and those who thought like him preferred the vernacular for worship but wanted beauty and transcendence in liturgy.

In 1960, when he was pastor of All Saints Parish in Northeast Portland, he gained national attention for facing the people during Mass and teaching them Latin so they could participate more.

By now a monsignor, he attended the Second Vatican Council as a theological expert and representative of the Archdiocese of Portland. Many of the liturgical changes he wanted were enacted.

In a 1965 letter to a friend in the liturgical movement, he wrote, “We must all rejoice in the progress which has been made in the Liturgy. I, myself, am astounded at the rate we have been progressing.”

He also had become a pivotal figure in the ecumenical movement. All Saints, where he was pastor from 1942 to 1970, was among the first Catholic parishes to join the Portland Council of Churches. All Saints would host ecumenical and interfaith dialogues.

In one session at Vatican II, he discussed the ecumenical movement with St. Paul VI. The council later issued a seminal document encouraging ecumenism.


Msgr. Tobin returned to Portland “a newly-empowered man,” Mertz writes. But the feeling was short lived.

By his retirement in 1970, he was haunted that Oregon had largely rejected his church-inspired social ideas. Then, even the liturgical changes he and the council had wrought were meeting resistance. A new archbishop, Robert Dwyer, questioned the implementation of many changes, as did many Catholics in the pews.

“Tobin was a tired, disillusioned man,” Mertz writes.

The monsignor asked to move to his beloved Rome and worked part-time for the Vatican’s Congregation of the Sacraments, the office then responsible for ensuring that sacraments and liturgy are celebrated appropriately. Msgr. Tobin received financial support from one of his sisters, who had married into the family that owned the Oregon Journal.

His health soon declined and he was brought back to Oregon where he died at Maryville Nursing Home in 1974.

“Tobin had remained theologically orthodox, but he was always eager to find new ways to preach the Gospel,” Mertz writes.

In terms of understanding the Catholic Church in Portland in the mid-20th century, Msgr. Tobin is the main figure, Mertz said, adding that the churchman was ahead of his time. Many young men who met Msgr. Tobin were inspired to become priests and get involved in social action.

Asked why Msgr. Tobin was never made a bishop, Mertz speculated that the priest’s grouchiness in later years may have been a detriment. It’s also possible, Mertz said, that Archbishop Howard didn’t want to lose his right-hand man. And perhaps the labor-friendly priest was suspect in an era of fear over communism, though Father Tobin frequently criticized communists. In the cold war era, he had a bomb shelter built at All Saints.

Mertz admires Msgr. Tobin for merging loyalty and innovation: “He always seemed to be interested in trying something new, rolling something out, to bring the Gospel into the culture without watering down the Gospel.”

In the final years of his life, the intellectual giant suffered from dementia. But his unparalleled impact had already shaped a local church.

“With him,” said Mertz, “the question is, what did he not touch?”

Learn more

Sam Mertz’ thesis on Msgr. Thomas Tobin is available at