Dinner in spring, 1970, at the Harris family house. Mrs. Harris hosted to celebrate Tom Maguigan’s being elected senior class president for the North Catholic class of 1971. The school would burn down a couple months after this photo was taken. From the left, John Maguigan (’72), Barbara Harris (’70), Tom Maguigan (’71), Jim Maguigan (’72), Gayle Harris (’73), Tim Maguigan (’71). (Courtesy Tim Maguigan)
Dinner in spring, 1970, at the Harris family house. Mrs. Harris hosted to celebrate Tom Maguigan’s being elected senior class president for the North Catholic class of 1971. The school would burn down a couple months after this photo was taken. From the left, John Maguigan (’72), Barbara Harris (’70), Tom Maguigan (’71), Jim Maguigan (’72), Gayle Harris (’73), Tim Maguigan (’71). (Courtesy Tim Maguigan)

They all remember where they were when they first heard their school, North Catholic, was burning the morning of July 14, 1970.

“One of my aunts called about 5 a.m.,” remembered Tim Maguigan.

The Maguigan family walked over, joining a crowd watching. “People were crying,” Maguigan said.

North Catholic had been a linchpin of a classic Catholic American community in the tightknit North Portland neighborhoods.

Its students, said Maguigan, were mostly “the grandchildren of immigrants from Poland, Germany, the Slavic countries, Ireland, and Italy, who came to this country looking for the American dream. … Their children, our parents, came of age in the Depression and in the World War II years. They wanted their children to have a better life, and they looked to North Catholic to provide a solid education grounded in Catholic values so that their children could realize the dreams that had brought their families to America.”

Maguigan and his twin brother, Tom Maguigan, as well as his two younger brothers, John and Jim (also twins, and born less than a year after Tim and Tom) would be among the 51 seniors in the North Catholic Class of 1971 who commuted for their senior year to La Salle High School in Milwaukie.

Before September came, though, the optimists of North Portland had been scrambling, working to convince the Archdiocese of Portland that the 430 students should remain together, perhaps using the facilities at Cascade Community College or the University of Portland. Another idea was to keep the classes together as units at another Catholic high school.

Because North Catholic was coed, and the only other coed school was La Salle, in Milwaukie, that seemed the school where it all could happen.

These options would just be temporary, as the archdiocese rebuilt the school.

But within a month the archdiocese announced it would not rebuild. It would be too expensive, the Archdiocesan Board of Education ruled, both to rebuild and to maintain the school.

“It was a big loss for North Portland,” said Maguigan.

An estimated 180 North Catholic students, including the four Maguigan brothers, transferred to La Salle; another 30 girls transferred to St. Mary’s Academy and 27 boys to Central Catholic. One boy went to Jesuit.

The rest transferred to Roosevelt, Jefferson and Benson high schools, all in North or Northeast Portland.

“My class disappeared in a way,” said Peggy Magnett Barnery, who thought she would graduate as part of the North Portland Class of 1973. “It was heartbreaking.”

Barnery ended up at Roosevelt. “Everybody had to make that decision quickly, about where you were going to end up,” she said.

More former North Catholic students arrived at Roosevelt the following year, the commute and different culture at La Salle proving too tough.

“We were considered the North Catholic kids,” explained Barnery. “We had a name.”

A good number of North Portland’s students had walked to their school — with its powerhouse sports teams. To go to La Salle they commuted 15 miles south. For students from Scappoose or other points north, the commute would have been more than 30 miles.

They went from wearing uniforms that erased differences between rich  and working class to a school where students wore what they wanted, within the era’s dress code. Sometimes the North Catholic kids wore their uniforms to La Salle, in solidarity with one another.

“It was especially devastating for those who hadn’t graduated,” said Gary Sosinski, who graduated from North Catholic in 1969.

“North Catholic was special,” Maguigan said. “That fire, following the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 — and with the Vietnam War going on — we could see that life was going to be a little more complicated. The burning of the school was the final straw, ending our Shangri La.”

The North Catholic school spirit, however, “is still strong and lives in many of them,” said Sosinski.

Maguigan said that began early. He remembers North Catholic students renting a bus and traveling to a football game in Scappoose in September 1970. A North Catholic section cheered on their old Scappoose rivals.

All-school reunions have high attendance, with many who would have graduated in 1973 or 1974 attending the gatherings.

Maguigan has been involved in organizing those reunions, and beyond that, a number of people in Maguigan’s class get together at pizza parlors a couple times a year.

Not everyone, of course. Maguigan’s twin, Tom Maguigan, had not kept in close contact with classmates. Still, after Tom died last November, Tim counted more than 50 former classmates and their families in the pews. “The students have a lot of deep loyalties to each other’s families,” he said.

Barnery laughed when offered a name of another woman in her class. “I just saw her today,” she said.

That despite the fact that they’d ended up at different schools.

“We went through a lot together,” said Barnery.

The memories still connect.

kristenh@catholicsentinel.org