Parish mourns drowning of pastor and peers
Parish mourns drowning of pastor and peers
NEWBERG — Following his drowning death, a priest who returned to his home state after decades in other parts of the country is being recalled as brilliant, generous, open-minded and willing to grow.

Father Jim Nibler, 54-year-old pastor of St. Peter Parish here, died Saturday morning along with his brother and a friend when their fishing boat capsized near the mouth of the Columbia River.

The funeral for all three men will be at 11 a.m. Saturday, March 1, at St. Mary Cathedral in Portland preceded by a rosary at 10:30 a.m. There will be a service at St. Peter’s at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 29.

Father Nibler had been pastor of St. Peter’s since 2003.

Parishioners were tearful and shocked at Masses last weekend.

“It was the best day Kleenex ever had. It still hurts,” says a choked-up Larry Bernards, who with wife Dorothy often took Father Nibler fishing on his day off.
Bernards recalls the priest as a man who became talkative in his element and who knew a lot about almost everything, from saints to diesel engines.

“Everything that went into his head stayed there,” Bernards says.

The Coast Guard found the bodies of Father Nibler and Curtis Heurer, 62. One of the bodies washed ashore near Hammond and the other was tangled in the boat’s anchor line. Lawrence Nibler, the priest’s 64-year-old brother, is still missing. The Coast Guard estimates that a person overboard would survive no more than four hours in the 44-degree water.

The weather was clear Saturday morning, with wind about six miles per hour out of the east. A potline become tangled in the propeller of the 17-foot boat’s motor and waves capsized it, authorities say.

The weekend before the accident, the priest told parishioners that he was being taken on a fishing trip. Many parishioners found out about the accident Saturday, when a phone tree passed information, asking for prayers for the rescue of Larry Nibler.

On Sunday evening, worshipers gathered for a rosary in memory of their lost friends and pastor.

“He was quiet but had a great sense of humor,” says longtime parishioner Diane Nave. “He used that humor at the pulpit.”

Nave and others noticed the priest stepping out of his comfort zone in recent years. He had learned some Spanish. He began asking at the start of Mass if guests were present. He prepared for his homilies, but spoke from his mind and heart rather than a script. After daily Mass, he would join worshipers for coffee and snacks.

At first hesitant to do a blessing of pets, he became enthused by the rite, especially when someone gave him a basset hound named Obi.

The priest had shown excitement and support for an upcoming pasta dinner and golf tourney that were meant to help pay bills for construction of the new church. The dinner, set for this weekend, has been postponed.

Father Nibler attended Oregon State University and earned a degree in chemical engineering. During the summers, he would work on fishing boats off the Oregon and Alaska coasts. He then worked for five years in engineering. He told friends that something happened in that period that made it clear he was to become a priest. He did not specify. He studied in Rome, joining the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, an Italian-founded religious community with a U.S. provincial house in Massachusetts.
Father Nibler was in the process of leaving the order and becoming a priest of the Archdiocese of Portland.

Before returning to Oregon in 2003, Father Nibler had served in New Jersey and Illinois and even at a chapel in a Boston shopping mall.

“He was very concerned about others, always trying to help everyone,” recalls Violet Hosey, the housekeeper at St. Mary Parish in Alton, Ill. for 12 years.

“He was always very generous when asked to do something, even when it was a sacrifice,” says Father Bill Brown, U.S. provincial of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary.

Father Brown calls his former colleague a prayerful man who was attentive to the sick and who was dedicated to his priesthood. Oblates teased Father Nibler as a walking encyclopedia who sometimes offered more information than absolutely needed.

“He was a good man, a very great guy,” says Father Larry Darnell, who serves at St. Peter Chanel Parish near Long Beach, Calif.

One website asking for prayers said that though Father Nibler was a devout Catholic, he had traveled the world and was open to other spiritualities. Parish staff are continuing to operate St. Peter’s and the Archdiocese of Portland is planning how to cover the gap in ministry. The day after the accident, Father Terry O’Connell traveled to St. Peter’s from McMinnville to preside at Masses. St. Peter lost its previous pastor just last year. Father Greg Gage had served for 14 years when he retired in 2003 because of Parkinson’s disease. The condition killed Father Gage in November.
St. Peter’s celebrated its centennial in September, with Father Nibler playing a lead role.

“People get excited about their faith, that’s why we’re here today,” the priest said at the anniversary Mass. “This is a gathering of 100 years of passing the faith on to your children; to sharing it with others; to living it out.”

The local newspaper, The Newberg Graphic, often looked to Father Nibler for insight. In a 2004 article on stem cell research, he told the paper that the Church is against creating a life merely to harvest parts to preserve another life. In 2007, he explained that some Catholics are fond of the Latin Mass but quipped that he himself is not “very conversant in Latin.”

Catholics here are also mourning the loss of two parishioners.

Lawrence Nibler owned Newberg Auto Electric and was looking forward to retirement. Heuer, an active member of St. Peter’s, was the owner of Design Your Own Dreams in Newberg, a craft wood products shop he opened more than 15 years ago.

“All three were very involved with the community; the community will really feel the gap left by them,” Natalie Nibler, Lawrence Nibler’s 18-year-old daughter, told the Graphic. “My dad is a great father, Jim is a great uncle and Curtis is a great guy.”

Natalie Nibler said that from as early as she could recall, her father and uncle went on trips together to hunt elk and to visit Alaska.

The Nibler brothers came from a family of 14 siblings who grew up near the ocean at Newport. Their family owned and operated a fruit stand that catered primarily to tourists.

Family members say their only consolation is that the deaths appear to have happened quickly.

Heuer, who had three children and one stepchild, was one of three brothers. The Heuer family moved to Newberg from North Dakota in 1961. Heuer’s younger brother, Doug, told the Graphic his brother was doing what he loved when he died.