Grant Company leaders strive for a family atmosphere. Laughing hard inside the firm’s Mount Angel office are Jason Augustus,  Lisa Stadeli, Mike Grant and Christiane Kraemer, Grant’s daughter. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Grant Company leaders strive for a family atmosphere. Laughing hard inside the firm’s Mount Angel office are Jason Augustus,  Lisa Stadeli, Mike Grant and Christiane Kraemer, Grant’s daughter. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)

MOUNT ANGEL — A small general contracting firm, in a small office, in a small town has built remarkable modern Catholic buildings in Oregon.

The Grant Company, lodged in a former liquor store and flower shop on Charles Street here, is headed by 69-year-old Mike Grant, one of Oregon’s most revered carpenters. Grant was called to Japan to teach his methods.

A member of St. Mary Parish in Mount Angel, Grant was yanked into the Catholic construction business. In 1990, architect Dave Richen wanted him to fashion a curving, branching handrail for the prayer house at the Trappist Abbey in Lafayette. Richen, who knew Grant can resist no woody challenge, said there was a catch to taking the handrail job — he’d need to gather a crew to construct the entire building, too. 

Grant had been a superstar carpenter and a superintendent for projects, but never a general contractor. The prospect of more paperwork irked him. But Richen, who died in 2016, knew a good leader when he saw one and wouldn’t let Grant off the hook.

“He told me, ‘Nope. You are at the time of life to do this and I’m going to make you do it,’” Grant recalls.

Prominent on the wall above Grant’s desk is a drawing of Jesus and St. Joseph at carpentry. It was a gift from Richen, whom Grant now considers a mentor on a higher plane.

‘The most beautiful churches’

“When we chose Mike Grant from the bidding I noticed he did a lot of the most beautiful churches,” says Father Gary Zerr, pastor of St. Edward Parish in Keizer, where the new church was completed in 2014.

The Keizer church was a technical challenge with clean arch joints and a loft that appears to hang in midair. Architects and builders from around the world come to see it and it has won awards for design and craftsmanship.

“He didn’t cut corners with this,” said Father Zerr. “It’s a matter of ethics for him.”

Father Zerr was worried about construction on the sacred property, including workers with blaring radios. Grant assured the pastor that, when it comes to church buildings, he demands reverence from staff.

“I had the sense they were praying it into existence as well as building it,” Father Zerr says.

“There are lots of wonderful relationships with these parishes and communities,” says Christiane Kraemer, Grant’s plain-dealing daughter and a chief project manager. “We put our hearts into each and every one of these.”

The Grant Company does many kinds of projects, big or small, for many kinds of people. But the team gets most satisfaction from church and monastery work. For churches, Grant builds the altars himself and donates the hours.

Richen’s designs — with soaring unpainted wood — called for high skill. A carpenter must know what will happen to wood as it ages. At St. Juan Diego Church in Northwest Portland, designed by Merryman Barnes of Portland, Grant placed massive wood pillars on swiveling and telescoping metal brackets to handle shrinkage and twisting.

Peggy Brice, business manager at St. Juan Diego, calls Grant “Mr. Amazing” who can “do anything.” Plans call for a new building at St. Juan Diego to house offices, classrooms and a parish hall. The Grant Company has been called back.

The cowboy code

Grant, the son of a builder from Madras, erected his first house at age 16. He moved to Mount Angel in 1976.

He became Catholic when he wed Mary Serres of Woodburn 45 years ago. The conversion didn’t take much convincing. He admired his wife and also his staunchly faithful mother-in-law, Adela Serres. He said to himself, “If that’s what being a Catholic is, I’m all for it.”

Grant and Mary have four children. Kraemer is the eldest. There are 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Grant is proud of the whole crew. “Every one of these kids is a hardworking, bright person,” he says.

Mary is a locally famous cook and the family is known for hospitality. Seminarians, local clergy, women religious and even monks have supped at the Grant table. 

One of the seminarians who frequented the home in the early 2000s was Peter O’Brien, now pastor of St. Edward Parish in Lebanon.

“What a wonderful man,” says Father O’Brien, who calls Grant “Mikey.” The priest, from Wyoming, feels kinship with the carpenter from the high desert of central Oregon.

“He is a straight shooter,” Father O’Brien explains. “He lives by the cowboy code. There is great integrity in him. If there is an easier way, he does it the right way.”

Fifteen years ago, the Grant home and woodshop felt like a “safe haven,” says Father O’Brien, who got so interested in carpentry that he has designed and built liturgical furniture for his parish and for the new church in Grants Pass.

“Mike often expresses how great and important the church community is in shaping families and shaping society,” Father O’Brien says. “He is not a theologian but he has a solid grasp of how important this is.”

‘They have an understanding’

Grant seeks a family atmosphere among employees. During the Keizer church project, for example, a crisis arose for one worker, and other men filled in instinctively.

The core crew at the Grant Company numbers 15, with a few reserves. It’s a union shop, meaning it may cost a little more, but tends to be worth it, Grant says.

Stephanie Fitzhugh, a project manager at Di Loreto Architecture in Portland, worked with the Grant Company on the Keizer church and a remodel of St. Joseph the Worker Church in Southeast Portland. She values the craftsmanship, the zeal to tackle challenges and the attention to detail needed to build a church. “They have an understanding of how a parish works,” Fitzhugh says. “They are more open to people than the average contractor. They have an understanding of the spiritual life of the community.”

Stepping back

Grant has a lot on his plate. He farms hazelnuts below the abbey and owns the Glockenspiel restaurant in Mount Angel, famous for its outdoor cuckoo clock. He admits that he has been building his own house piecemeal on weekends for 17 years.

He’s planning to slow down and step back from the contracting business, but will remain as a mentor.

Kraemer — whom Grant calls his “strong-minded daughter” —

will take over along with Jason Augustus, another project manager. Augustus met the Grants when his family owned a local lumberyard. He liked the Grants’ style and they liked his. Nowadays, he refers to Kraemer as “Sis.”

Grant dreams of building a winery of his own. He’ll also design a space to demonstrate old-fashioned food preservation techniques — pickles, meats, cheeses.

He exercises his inner cowboy by leading horse pack trips into the mountains, usually in northeastern Oregon. A wilderness guide, he explains, needs the same skills as a general contractor: Think ahead, hold a load of details in your mind at once, consider the good of the whole and say your prayers.