The origins of a downtown Catholic Chapel lie in a service center, pictured here in 1920, that aided soldiers returning from World War I. The Knights of Columbus and St. Vincent de Paul teamed up on the project, which included an altar and weekly Mass. (Sentinel archives)
The origins of a downtown Catholic Chapel lie in a service center, pictured here in 1920, that aided soldiers returning from World War I. The Knights of Columbus and St. Vincent de Paul teamed up on the project, which included an altar and weekly Mass. (Sentinel archives)

At this church, some drive Teslas and others push shopping carts.

St. André Bessette Parish in Portland’s Old Town, which turned 100 this year, stands at a crossroads of transients and downtown workers. It’s always been a place of social contrast and the surprising Christian love that results.

Post-war ministry

In 1919, with soldiers and sailors returning from war, the St. Vincent de Paul Society and the Knights of Columbus teamed up on a reading room and employment service at Northwest 2nd and Couch. Volunteers installed an altar for weekend Mass, which was celebrated by priests from Portland’s nearby cathedral. The driving genius behind the ministry was Father Edwin O’Hara, who was a friend of workers and eventually Archbishop of Kansas City.

The veterans appreciated the place, which reminded them of the Catholic hospitality huts in wartime France. With shell shock and poverty, one can imagine that along with reading and prayer there was likely salty language and fisticuffs. The building leaked in the rain and the floor had wet spots. Someone was always playing a piano and the checkers tables were full.

“There are men, still in the khaki overcoats, breeches, and now and then the overseas cap,” the Sentinel reported after a 1920 visit to the reading room. “There are the newspapers, the magazines, the books, the pool tables, the benches, the cigars and tobacco, the plates of bacon and beans, but hunger of the home-kind, and all that that means.”

The reporter said the reading room had a smell of “tobacco and heat.”

Each month, staff placed hundreds of men in jobs. In 1920, national representatives of the Knights of Columbus came to inspect the ministry and went away praising it.

It was not a shelter, but during a snowstorm that first year, volunteers put out more than 100 cots for destitute veterans.

Refuge amid disaster

The ministry faded in the Roaring 20s to gain new strength during the Great Depression. In partnership with their chaplain Father John Larkin, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul opened a new reading room and chapel at Southwest 3rd and Ankeny in 1935. A good deal of the initial funding came from Father Larkin’s mother, who had logging company profits at her disposal. Open 8 a.m. – 10 p.m., it had a Mass each Sunday morning and later a midday weekday Mass, a custom still followed. The general public could attend liturgies from the start. To support the project, St. Vincent de Paul held an annual bazaar in the rooms.

The new reading room could hold 100 men at a time. In its first year, it had 20,000 visits. After two years, the running total had surged to 220,000. About a quarter of the visitors were between ages 19 and 25, some of them college graduates stunned by economic collapse.

“The large numbers who at the present time are using the facilities of the reading room are proof that its establishment in the heart of the workingmen’s district fills a long felt need,” the Sentinel reported in 1936.

The reporter explained that many non-Catholics were being exposed to good Catholic journals and literature. The writer also hypothesized that the reading room kept unemployed men away from the grips of communists and “other pernicious social tenets.”

Reading room staff held baggage and offered meals and showers. They mailed guests’ letters, about 2,500 per year. A family from Sacred Heart Parish owned a downtown restaurant and offered chapel guests meals for 15 cents at Father Larkin’s urging.

“What was it but love of the poor that prompted Father John

Larkin to launch the project?” Bishop Francis Leipzig would write years later.

Father Larkin would hear from former guests writing to tell him of their ups and downs. Some sent cash as thanks for prior hospitality. 

The chapel was home base for a band of street-preaching priests and also helped open a school nearby for the children of Japanese migrants.

By 1940, the ministry had moved to Northwest 4th and Couch. The little church got a new name: The Chapel of Christ the Worker. Archbishop Edward Howard offered a pontifical high Mass for the dedication.

“It is impossible to estimate the number of men who have returned to the practice of their religion, and the thousands of others who have had their first contact with the Catholic Church through the Reading Room and Chapel,” the Sentinel reported in 1940.

Becomes a parish

By the end of 1940, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul was back in charge. By 1943, the archdiocese made the enterprise an official parish and named it after St. Vincent de Paul and moved to Southwest 5th and Burnside. Everyone knew the place as simply the Downtown Chapel.  

In 1948, the archdiocese announced plans to remodel the chapel and facilities. The chapel was expanded to hold 300 worshippers and workmen decorated the outside of the building in a way worthy of a church. Workers hung a bell gleaned from the old St. Joseph Church in Northwest Portland. Crews added a confessional and built lodgings for priests and a sacristan. The whole project cost $30,000 or about $315,000 in today’s dollars.

By 1954, 1,100 people were attending Masses each Sunday and 400 worshippers came for daily liturgy, many of them downtown office workers. The Eucharist was exposed for adoration in the afternoons. In the 1960s, the chapel hosted a popular novena in early December each year.

Back to homeless ministry

The transient population had waned during World War II and after, so ministry to them faded. But by 1970 the street population was up again and the chapel reopened a drop-in center with showers.

Local business owners started to complain, but around the same time, U.S. Bank purchased the chapel building for a future skyscraper and a wrecking ball knocked the parish down in 1972. The ministry moved across the street and away from businesses into the old Glenwood Hotel at Northwest 6th and Burnside, its current home.

Father Louis Weis was pastor of the chapel for 13 years until 1981, when the Jesuits agreed to serve there. In 1983, the Jesuits undertook a renovation of the old hotel at a cost of $75,000.

“We've modernized it for a number of reasons, one of them being to put forth a more inviting environment,” said Jesuit Father Peter Byrne, the pastor.

The parish had 85 registered families at the time, many from other parts of Portland and its suburbs. Other parishioners included low-wage workers and some alcoholics, many of them aged World War II veterans, hearkening back to the original reading room days generations before.

“Jesus’ number one command— to love one another — has reality in this church,” Father Byrne said. “It has to in order for this to work.”

The chapel hosted spiritual renewal groups for businesspeople and early morning Mass.

Holy Cross takes charge

In 1989, the Jesuits departed and a dean from the University of Portland agreed to become pastor. Holy Cross Father Richard Berg had served at the chapel as a young priest in the 1960s and had never forgotten it. The gregarious Father Berg, a psychologist, immediately began new ministries, including a visiting program to people isolated in dozens of area residential hotels. He also began a weekly anointing Mass that became popular.

“So many of the people we deal with are in great need — emotionally, physically and spiritually,” Father Berg told the Sentinel in 1992.

Father Berg often said, “Our mission is to bring healing to the heart of the city.”

The basement of the chapel offered all manner of social services with many University of Portland students involved. Soon, the chapel offered a Friday night café free to all. The idea was to break isolation. One man told Father Berg and the other priests that they were the only family he had.

“We’re a small and fragile parish doing one of the biggest jobs,” Dorothy Laskowski told the Sentinel in 1992. She was longtime parish secretary.

The parish held walks of the cross through Old Town, stopping and reflecting on social ills of the day. One man waited for the 45-minute march to end, then came to the group and asked them to pray with him and let him join the church. As the man set aside the hot dog he was eating, Father Berg and the group formed a circle around him and prayed for healing.

Meeting changing needs

By 1998, the parish had taken note of what was needed in Old Town. Atop the list was housing for elderly and disabled homeless people. So Father Berg began a drive to build an assisted living community. The six-story Macdonald Center, built at a cost of $6 million from donors and public grants, is home more than 50 people, the poorest of the poor.  

Other parishes and Catholic schools around the Portland region began collections to support the chapel.

Ministries became creative. One group washed and cared for the battered feet of people who are homeless. The chapel also gave insider’s tours of Old Town so Portlanders could experience the poverty and human goodness in their city. Homeless people helped lead the sessions, which included prayer and reflection.

In 2011, the parish changed its patron to St. André Bessette, the Canadian Holy Cross Brother known for healing and a deep connection to St. Joseph. 

“Miracles happen here because Christ’s love happens here,” Holy Cross Father Tom Gaughan, pastor, told supporters in a recent letter. Referring to Jesus’ teaching about serving him when we serve the poor, Father Gaughan called the parish a place “where Matthew 25 really comes to life.”

The chapel has continued its daily hospitality in the tradition of St. André, welcoming hundreds of people inside for hot coffee, toasty food and a warm welcome. Among the regular volunteers is Archbishop Alexander Sample and dozens of University of Portland students.

A future nurse, Annie Voegele, volunteered at the parish throughout her four-year career at UP.

“Every time I come here, it re-centers my mission,” Voegele told the Sentinel in 2018. “It’s like a holy mystery.”