A 1962 Sentinel photo shows Olivia Conner, then a 15-year veteran lay teacher at St. John the Baptist School in Milwaukie. (Catholic Sentinel archives)
A 1962 Sentinel photo shows Olivia Conner, then a 15-year veteran lay teacher at St. John the Baptist School in Milwaukie. (Catholic Sentinel archives)

MILWAUKIE — In the archives of St. John the Baptist Parish here sat a defunct pocket-sized voice recorder. The parish recently loaned the device to the Catholic Sentinel to see what could be made of it.

After some tinkering and insertion of fresh batteries, what emerged was a 90-minute interview from 2011 with Frankie Abernathy, her son Ed Fisher and her nephew, Ralph Leedham.

Abernathy, then 89, would die within the year. A Milwaukie native, she attended St. John the Baptist School and raised her seven children in the town south of Portland. All the youngsters attend St. John the Baptist School.

Abernathy’s family tales are pieces of the mosaic that is the living story of St. John the Baptist Parish.

Irish immigrants

Her great grandparents were Patrick McCann and Sarah McCarthy, who emigrated from Ireland to the United States in 1862. In 1868 they headed to Oregon, settling in Clackamas County to be near relatives, including Sarah’s sister, who was married to the mayor of Oregon City. Patrick became foreman at one of the mayor’s farms.

In 1864, Catholics had erected a chapel in what is now downtown Milwaukie. The McCanns became pillars of that community. They kept a large home on Oak Street, running it as a boarding house. They had four children, including Maggie, born the same year the chapel was built.

In 1884, Maggie married James Isaac Johnson. A member of every committee ever established at St. John the Baptist Parish and the mother of seven, Maggie Johnson would be a church stalwart until she died in 1956.

Force of nature

Her daughter Olivia would carry the torch. Olivia, born in 1894, graduated from Marylhurst college in 1916 and wed Clarence Conner. The circumstances are unclear, but the couple adopted young Frankie, born in 1921 to Frances Johnson, Olivia’s younger sister.

Olivia Conner was a legendary Milwaukie parishioner and a force of nature. She began teaching at St. John the Baptist School in 1947 at a time when lay teachers were rare.

Leedham tells the story of young Jimmy Sullivan, a student in Mrs. Conner’s class in the 1970s. One day, Father Lawrence Saalfeld came to visit the classroom. As was the custom, all students rose to their feet —except Jimmy, who was extremely active and prone to wander. When Father Saalfeld inquired why the boy had not stood, the lad answered: “I would, Father, but Mrs. Conner has me tied to my seat.”

Olivia Conner taught for more than three decades. Her students later filled roles like the chief of police and the school principal and other lofty offices. To be her adopted daughter, as Frankie was, and her grandsons, as Fisher and Leedham were, was to bear heavy responsibility.

“If I did something wrong, Olivia brought the whole litany of saints upon me,” Frankie said.

“My grandmother could be a terror,” added Fisher. “We were always expected to reflect credit on our family.”

Human imperfections

Olivia’s descendants did not always hit the mark. Fisher’s brother and a cousin one day in the 1960s dipped into the sacramental wine and Father Carl Wachter, then pastor, found them passed out behind the altar. Grandmother Olivia gave the boys a tongue lashing that is still family lore.

For his part, Fisher learned early that not everyone in Milwaukie loves Catholics. He and a classmate went to sell cookies door-to-door to benefit their scout troop. One woman answered the door and seemed prepared to buy when she sweetly asked where the boys went to school. When they informed her that they were proud students at St. John the Baptist, she informed them they would burn in hell and slammed the door. Ed’s pal, to his everlasting credit, knocked again and asked the woman, “Does this mean you don’t want the cookies?”

Frankie herself had a complicated love life. She wed right after high school in 1940 and had three children. The marriage ended in divorce in 1947. In 1948, Frankie began a 23-year marriage with Robert Fisher. They lived in Milwaukie, had five children, and divorced in 1971. After 1972, she lived with her third husband, Chet Abernathy, a retired civil servant. She worked for several years in the kitchen at Rose Villa Senior Living in Milwaukie. In her spare time she enjoyed painting, gardening, photography, dancing, and spending time with her many friends at the Gresham Eagles Lodge.

Three of Frankie’s daughters died before she did, tragedies she spoke of quietly and with acceptance on the tape. Her own funeral was at St. John the Baptist.

Longtime pastor

One priest led St. John the Baptist Parish in Milwaukie for decades as the 20th century began. Fr. John Bernards had been ordained in 1912 after working himself through college and seminary. A Catholic Sentinel story years later would say his ministry was marked by “energy, zeal and unselfishness.” He served at St. John’s from World War I to the advent of World War II.

The late Frankie Abernathy, in a newly-recovered recording from 2011, recalled Father Bernards as strict. As a child who attended the parish school, she was somewhat afraid of the man, who was a frequent guest of her adoptive parents. One Saturday during confession she sought to disguise her voice. Father Bernards gave her absolution. The girl felt she had pulled it off until the priest said matter-of-factly: “Frankie, tell your mother I’ll be over for supper tonight.”

Ralph Leedham, Abernathy’s nephew, recalled that his ancestors, as children, referred to their pastor as “Father Goodie Two Shoes.” But apparently the priest had a sense of humor. Leedham’s mother had Father Bernards over for a ham dinner and asked him to say grace. The reverend man bowed his head and said, “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, the one who prays gets the most.”

In the 1920s and ’30s, Father Bernard would receive calls in the middle of the night from people claiming to be sick and in need of last rites. The dutiful pastor always went, but soon learned to take backup. Sometimes the calls were from Ku Klux Klan members seeking to lure the priest into out-of-the way places. One night in 1930, Father Bernards had a beefy young parishioner named Louis Cereghino drive him to a dark curve on Lake Road where the churchman had been summoned to help at a so-called accident. The lights from the parish’s Packard illuminated a scene in a gully there: A group of men had readied a noose in a tree. Cereghino made a quick U-turn and escaped with the Klan in pursuit.

“Father Bernards never refused to go on a call. He never flinched from his duties,” Ed Fisher, Abernathy’s son, said in the recording. “A person who was a coward would never have done this.”