Alice Shelley is pictured circa 1938 as a student of the now-closed Girls Polytechnic High School in Portland. (Courtesy Kathy Fonaas)
Alice Shelley is pictured circa 1938 as a student of the now-closed Girls Polytechnic High School in Portland. (Courtesy Kathy Fonaas)

MILWAUKIE — These days she can’t hear the digital version, but Alice Shelley nonetheless has an effective alarm clock. “God gets me up in the morning for daily Mass,” she said. “He is my alarm.”

Along with friends, family, belly laughs and nightly salads, frequent Communion and prayer likely have contributed to Shelley’s longevity. A loved and respected member of St. John the Baptist Parish here, she turned 100 March 23.

There were numerous celebrations to honor her century of life, but the highlight was a blessing from Father John Marshall and her parish community after Sunday Mass.

 “Alice, after we blessed her, whispered to me that was all she wanted, not all the attention and parties,” said Father Marshall.

Not that she didn’t appreciate the festivities. “She just never she likes attention on herself,” said the priest. “She’s a giver, all about the other person.”

Alice Mituniewicz was born March 23, 1921, the year Warren G. Harding took office. One of eight children, she grew up on a small farm in Southeast Portland. There were chickens and cows, berries and an orchard.

“It was the Depression, and we had no money, but there was plenty to eat, and I don’t remember feeling deprived,” said Shelley. “We gave a lot of food to other people. In those days you had to help one another.”

That sense of generosity stuck, and friends describe Shelley as quietly giving. She’s been a longtime supporter of St. John the Baptist School, and when its fundraising auction moved online last year due to the pandemic, the 99-year-old Shelley adapted and was bidding on her iPhone.

“Age certainly is not an obstacle for her,” said Father Marshall.

Fr. John Marshall, pastor of St. John the Baptist Parish in Milwaukie, blesses Alice Shelley for her 100th birthday. (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)

When she was young, Alice worked on the farm, and after high school she had secretarial jobs.

“She set a standard of you work for what you want, save for what you want, stand up for what you believe in, and family comes first,” said her daughter, Kathy Fonaas.

Alice met her husband, Joe Shelley, at a dance when she was about 18. There was a boxing demonstration as part of the night’s events and Joe was in a match.

“I thought, ‘Oh how awful that is at a dance,’” recalled Shelley, laughing. “But he won me over.”

The two courted via letters for a time, as Joe served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. They married when he was on leave at St. Peter Church in Southeast Portland. Joe went on to earn a degree in electrical engineering and worked for an electrical contracting business. 

Alice and Joe Shelley show how smitten they are with one another in this 1945 photo. The couple was living in Oakland, California, while Joe finished his service in the U.S. Navy. (Courtesy Kathy Fonaas)

Joe was not Catholic, but after several decades of marriage he began studying Catholicism — unbeknownst to his wife — and decided to convert.

“I don’t think she ever pushed him,” said Fonaas, 65. “I think it was her quiet and steady faith that moved him to do it.”

Joe and Alice were married for 72 years and had two children. Joe died in 2015 at age 95. Shelley still lives in the house that her husband built and makes the short trip to St. John the Baptist nearly every day.

“Mass starts my days off right,” she said. “Instead of sitting alone in a bathrobe all day, I feel blessed to be able to go to Communion. That protects me.”

Before bed she prays for herself and others, including her four grandchildren and any parishioners in need. “I also pray to the Blessed Mother for peace on earth,” she said. “There seems to be so much violence and hate.”

Shelley has gotten a bit frailer recently but remains “fiercely independent,” said Fonaas. “I know she has some issues that cause her pain, but she never complains.”

She also keeps active, regularly meeting up with three of her sisters, all in their late 80s and 90s. Pre-pandemic they had outings to nearby casinos. Shelley also has regular get-togethers with church friends.

One of her best friends is Jean Rutter. “Alice answered the request for a bridge player in the parish bulletin in 1962, and we’ve been playing together ever since,” said Rutter.

Rutter described Shelley as “a dear person with a heart of gold.”

“She is never gossipy, never gripes, a real quality human being.”

The day of the birthday blessing, Shelley lingered in the church as a stream of mask-clad parishioners of all ages came to wish her a happy birthday and hand her a card or gift.

JoEllen Newton, another close friend, has been bringing Shelley to Sunday Mass for the past year.

“Alice has such a can-do spirit and so much energy and care for others,” said Newton as Shelley chatted with a teenage parishioner. “And she loves Jesus more than anything.”