In the 1980s and 1990s, the Sentinel and El Centinela did stories on the inadequacy and danger of housing for migrant workers. (Gerry Lewin/Catholic Sentinel)
In the 1980s and 1990s, the Sentinel and El Centinela did stories on the inadequacy and danger of housing for migrant workers. (Gerry Lewin/Catholic Sentinel)
The writers of the Sentinel produced an eclectic Catholic journal from the start. The first issue in 1870 led with a 6,000-word tale about a Spanish Jew whose pride was tamed by life, leading him back to a beloved daughter. If the editors intended a Catholic allegory there, we missed it. The last page of the first issue includes a yarn about an Irish youth playing soccer with ghosts.

Oregon Catholic historians often complain that the Sentinel showed precious little local interest in its first 30 years. The gripes are justified. Mostly, the paper kept Catholics in touch with morality and world events, especially in the editors’ beloved Ireland.

It was not until the middle of the 20th century that local news emerged as the paper’s bread and butter, and today the pages are packed with parish and school items and Catholic personalities, along with analysis of Oregon Catholic trends.

That said, five storylines have stood out in Catholic Sentinel history, taking years of attention and forming the journal.


A paper of apologetics

Odd but true: The earliest formative story in Catholic Sentinel history came 23 years before the first issue was printed.

In 1847, Cayuse warriors killed more than a dozen Methodist missionaries near Walla Walla in southeast Washington Territory. Among the dead was Rev. Marcus Whitman, who had encouraged white settlement in the area, a campaign that brought disease and devastated indigenous tribes. It was fear of that sickness that fueled the attack.

A Catholic priest, Father Jean Baptiste Brouillet, arrived on the murder scene and tended the wounded. He also warned another Methodist missionary, Rev. Henry Spalding, that danger was afoot.

No good deed goes unpunished.

Rev. Spalding began spreading the rumor that Catholics had aided the murderous Cayuse. He eventually amplified his charges, saying the Catholics put the tribesmen up to it. In a twist that indicates the state of church-state relations at the time, the federal government printing office eventually ran off copies of Spalding’s scurrilous booklet. Incensed, a group of Portland Catholics came to the defense of Father Brouillet in the late 1860s, publishing his own account of the Whitman tragedy.

It was the same general crew that would found the Sentinel in 1870, fed up with calumnies against Catholics.

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

The Sentinel editors ran verbatim government interviews with Cayuse who said they preferred Catholic missionaries because they did not try to steal land. An extensive account of the Spalding affair appeared in the Sentinel again in 1878.

The scandal seemed to end only by 1901, when a Yale scholar disproved Spalding’s assertions. That year, a Sentinel front page story ominously called Spalding “father of the lie.”

The scandal slowed the acceptance of Catholics into Oregon society and necessitated a defensive, apologetic posture that lasted for decades. The Ku Klux Klan raised the old Whitman bromide when it began criticizing Catholics in the 1920s.


The dawn of more local news

A front page editorial on June 17, 1920, raised an alarm for Oregon Catholics. Two candidates for the Portland school board openly boasted to Sentinel editor John O’Hara that they planned to eliminate private elementary schools. One of the fellows, J.N. Pearcy, even announced he would confiscate private school property for the school district.

“Their purpose in bringing the matter into the contest is to make a bid for the anti-Catholic vote,” O’Hara surmised.

“The American school system was built on private initiative and developed under religious auspices,” O’Hara concluded, then offering a list of preferable school board candidates.

It was a precursor to what was about to become a large national story with ramifications that continue a century later.

In the chaos following World War I, the Ku Klux Klan reconstituted itself and decided to focus on the Catholic Church, which had more immigrants than any other American institution. Parochial schools, seen as breeding grounds for papist sensibility, became the easiest target.

Klan leaders looked west, considered Oregon a land largely of the native-born and decided it was the place for a fight. Instead of riding out on night raids, the new Klan seized the levers of local government.

Catholics in 1920 made up 12% of the Oregon population. While many simply laughed at the middle aged men in sheets, the Klan did succeed in filling legislative bodies with simpatico politicians. In 1921, the state legislature created the Compulsory Oregon School Bill and offered it for a 1922 popular vote. The bill required children to attend public schools, thus nixing parochial schools.

The Sentinel, with its small underpaid staff, was at first alone among local media in pointing out the wrongheadedness of the school bill. O’Hara, whenever he mentioned a state official, noted whether he or she was for or against the offensive legislation. He covered the talks of professors who lectured against the bill.

But in the fall of 1922, the bill 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 another 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,” O’Hara warned.

Parishes like The Madeleine wrote to the Sentinel, proudly reporting that residents in their districts voted majority no.

Father Edwin O’Hara, John’s brother, continued to make the case that children belong to parents, not the state, and so parents should decide on the means of education. That is the very idea the U.S. Supreme Court used to strike down the bill in 1925.

“The high court thus brushes aside the reasoning on which the Oregon school law was based, in so far as it was based on reasoning at all and not on mere prejudice,” John O’Hara wrote that summer, not so much triumphant as exhausted by the conflict.

But for most Oregon Catholics, the court gave legitimacy at long last. They felt damaged, but their side, their logic, their way of life were vindicated.

What would follow in the Sentinel would be an air of greater confidence and an intensified celebration of Catholic institutions, including schools and social organizations like the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Parish news picked up steam.

Sparked by a victory over bigotry, it was the advent of a local news movement in the Sentinel, a trend that surged in the 1950s and reached new heights in the 21st century.


Setting aside dialogue to proclaim church teaching

For a span of 30 years, debate over birth control, abortion and assisted suicide defined Oregon Catholic news. The Sentinel was a major forum of discussion.

Earlier editors would never have dreamed of allowing diverse opinions to be expressed on artificial birth control, but by 1968 veteran secular newsman Gorman Hogan was in charge and the topic seemed up for debate. There certainly was disagreement among theologians. Pope Paul VI himself agonized over the issue for years. In one of the most divided times in U.S. history, Hogan believed in local voices exploring many sides.

In the Sentinel of Aug. 2, 1968, a large front page headline about the encyclical “Humanae Vitae” read: “Encyclical written in ‘charity, concern, love.’” A wire story quoted Msgr. Fernand Lambruschini, who said Catholics were to give the document, which affirmed opposition to artificial birth control, “loyal and full assent.” But Msgr. Lambruschini explained that the encyclical is not infallible, a fact the Sentinel repeated in a separate article.

At the bottom of the front page, then-Portland Archbishop Robert Dwyer drove home his approval for the pope’s plan and asked clergy and laity to adhere in a spirit of faith and reason. “It simply clarifies the question in relation to certain of the more recent techniques designed to frustrate nature or to destroy the seed of life,” the archbishop wrote.

But on Page 21, Hogan ran a wire story about 87 U.S. theologians from colleges and seminaries who dissented. The dissenters, some of whom were from the Catholic University of America, said Pope Paul had ignored the witness of lay Catholics.

An article in the Aug. 9, 1968, Sentinel reported on unprecedented opposition to the pope. Then, on Aug. 16, Hogan carried a large front page column by Benedictine Father Cyprian Cooney of Mount Angel Seminary. Father Cooney said the breadth of dissent meant that the church should remain receptive to other ideas, times and situations. He argued that the encyclical did leave the door open for artificial birth control for those couples who would otherwise face “deep and serious disadvantage.”

It was all too much for Archbishop Dwyer. He told Hogan that only official teaching on birth control could be expressed in the pages of the Sentinel. Hogan faithfully obeyed.

Fritz Meagher, a Sentinel reporter at the time, later complained that from then on, Dwyer wanted the paper to publish only what he wanted to teach. Thus came an end to offering multiple sides on some issues.


A time of transparency

Clergy sex abuse became a local story in 1983 when the well-known Father Thomas Laughlin faced accusations and arrest for pedophilia. New Sentinel editor Bob Pfohman, fresh from the secular journalism world in Salem, insisted on reporting the story fully. He knew that the abuse might only continue if kept secret.

Pfohman faced pressure from archdiocesan leaders to desist, but with the backing of Oregon Catholic Press publisher Owen Alstott, the articles were published. Reaction was mixed. Some priests and clergy appreciated the openness. Some thought it sensationalizing.

“Never in all my years in the priesthood have I been so shocked and scandalized by the all-out coverage in a Catholic publication on the sad case of Father Thomas Laughlin,” wrote Dominican Father C. V. McEachen of Holy Rosary Church in Southeast Portland. “It shows not only utter callousness, but a lack of sensitivity, of which even the secular press was not guilty.”

At the start of the millennium, a new set of scandals emerged. Sex abuse reporting and commentary caused Archdiocese of Portland officials to feel the need to review letters to the editor and editorials before publication. That practice has continued.

In recent years, Archbishop Alexander Sample has emerged as one of the strongest voices in the hierarchy when it comes to addressing clergy sex abuse. He told the Sentinel that transparency is his policy, and so the paper has reported on all credible allegations.

In 2016, one religious community complained to the archbishop after the Sentinel reported on one of its members who’d been accused. The archbishop defended the newspaper.


Defending those on the edge of society

In the late 1980s, the Sentinel ran multiple stories looking into the case of a young Mixtec Indian farmworker who’d been accused of murder and convicted in a trial that used languages he did not understand. Santiago Ventura Morales eventually was freed. It was a new moment in Sentinel reporting on immigrants.

The story began a trend of looking out for people on the margins.

In 1995, the Archdiocese of Portland began El Centinela, which quickly became a voice for Spanish-speaking migrants, much as the Sentinel had been for the Irish in the 19th century.

Both the Sentinel and El Centinela began looking into conditions in migrant labor camps. And encouraged by Father Emmet Harrington of All Saints Parish, the newspaper launched an investigative piece on immigrant women who cleaned rooms in hotels and were suffering from the strong chemical agents they were required to use.

As Spanish speakers became the fastest growing part of the church, the paper shifted from advocacy for poor Latinos to telling stories of Latino families and parish ministers, including several deacons. The lively beauty of liturgy in Hispanic culture became a regular feature.

Still, the paper covered immigration raids at factories and other arrests. The establishment of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals brought many young Catholics out of the shadows. El Centinela and the Sentinel told their stories.

In 2015, when presidential candidate Donald Trump announced policies to curtail immigration, the Catholic Hispanic community was gripped by fear. The newspapers have reported on border conditions and the plight of local immigrants, including a popular young family from St. Andrew Parish in Portland who were forced to move to Canada to avoid deportation.

The notion of reporting on those who occupy the fringes has extended beyond the Hispanic community, with frequent stories on homelessness, poverty, human trafficking and sexual assault survivors.