Early on July 14, 1970, a fire destroyed North Catholic High School on Lombard Street in North Portland. The school had been a point of pride in the blue-collar neighborhood for a dozen years, and residents wept as a column of smoke rose above their bungalows.

The Portland Fire Bureau declared the cause: “a firebomb.”

But that is all that is left of the arson investigation report, which the fire bureau destroyed because of the age of the case. The Sentinel requested a copy of the record and found it no longer exists.

The Archdiocese of Portland decided not to rebuild, adding to the pain in North Portland and adding speculation about what sparked the blaze.

Rumors have bounced around North Portland for decades, blaming disgruntled North Catholic students, teens from a rival school, a vagrant and even a mentally ill cleric. Investigators found little evidence to pursue anyone.

The last man in the building was Father Karl Schray, then a hardworking teacher and counselor who often stayed late at the building, a converted wooden 1920s public grade school that had suffered earlier fires.

Father Schray, now administrator of All Souls Parish in Myrtle Creek, doesn’t recall details of being interviewed by investigators but presumes he did get grilled.

He had left the building through the front door at about 2 a.m. July 14, and the blaze started after that. “Whoever started the fire must have come after I was there,” said Father Schray. It was not common procedure for North Catholic faculty or staff to walk around and make sure doors were secure. “I wish I had,” the priest said.

Father Schray said investigators told him that the fire started in a pile of items that the arsonist or arsonists stacked and ignited in an upstairs hallway.

The priest lived at nearby Blessed Sacrament Parish. He stepped out of the rectory on his way to celebrate 7 a.m. Mass, short on sleep, when he saw smoke in the sky. Someone told him what had happened. After Mass, he rushed to North Catholic and saw it in flames.

Father Schray is not sure who started the fire. But given the evidence, he doubts it was a vagrant. And given what he knew of North Catholic students and families, he does not believe it was an inside job.

“It was a such a happy community,” he said.

edl@catholicsentinel.org