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New OLL school is legacy for Father McMahon

Longtime local parish leader is retiring after 44 years in the priesthood


Father Joseph McMahon is ending his long career as a Catholic priest on a high note: the building of the new school and parish center at Our Lady of the Lake in Lake Oswego.

It was a difficult task McMahon faced in his 14 years as pastor of the parish. But he is leaving Our Lady of the Lake Sunday well prepared to meet the future for serving its students and the community. McMahon was able to accomplish this despite dealing with the worst economy the country has faced since the Great Depression.

"Virtually the week he arrived, Father Joe was faced with a decision about what to do with our aging school building," said Tom Lewis, OLL parishioner and facilities chairman. "Previous work had been done before he got here on the project, and he was the perfect person to provide the overall guidance and direction."

McMahon needed plenty of patience for the task. The project stopped and started several times before a new parish study for building the new facility and replacing the older facility was achieved, an endeavor that took four years.

Next on the agenda was starting a fundraising program to obtain $18 million for the new school and parish center. However, this was stalled by lawsuits against the archdiocese and subsequent bankruptcy procedures that put in question who owned the parish property. It took four years for this issue to be settled in 2008 - just as the economic crisis hit.

Despite the uncertainty, the parish committee decided to push ahead. McMahon played a major role in the successful outcome of the campaign. The effort was titled the "Building in Faith Capital Campaign."

McMahon held the effort together, and he was greatly assisted by some key developments, including a $5 million donation from former student John Kleinheinz, securing the fundraising services of Kim Caulkins and a dedicated volunteer leadership from within the parish.

"Through his spiritual insights, prayers and shared wisdom, Father McMahon has been a wonderful shepherd to us all," said Joan Codd, long-time principal of OLL School. "His administrative leadership and guidance in establishing policies and procedures has helped us form a strong base."

Janina Kokorowski of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary was a close associate of McMahon on the OLL parish staff. She called McMahon "a servant leader" who was always ready to pitch in on the humble tasks that kept the parish going.

McMahon's ability to see the big picture was a key factor in his success at OLL.

"In the Catholic priesthood we are building and structuring situations in which people can encounter Christ," he said. "So a parish that can create opportunities for many to be actively involved in their faith is really what our job is all about."

McMahon's first step toward the priesthood came when he decided to leave his home parish in Portland to attend Mt. Angel Seminary High School.

"It was a way to experience the world outside Portland," McMahon said. "Plus I could give up living with five sisters and a somewhat demanding father!"

After graduating from Mt. Angel in 1964, McMahon became a seminarian at the University of Louvain in Leuven, Belgium, where he received his priestly calling. His ordination came in 1968, just as the Second Vatican Council was closing in Rome. It was an exciting time in the life of the Catholic Church.

"The council wasn't a break with the past but made the whole past make sense," McMahon said. "If it wasn't for the council changes, I don't know if I would have gone on to be a priest."

The changing church presented McMahon with unexpected challenges, and he quickly discovered his priestly duties would include financial planning, fundraising, hiring and firing staff members and struggling with decisions on whether to close parish schools or keep them open. He served at parishes in Medford and Gresham and at Blessed Sacrament, his home parish in Portland.

His last and most challenging assignment was at OLL in Lake Oswego. He will leave behind many wonderful memories.

"The buildings are the most profound remembrances that people see," McMahon said. "But what I treasure most - and the reason we become priests - are the people we serve. My best memories will always be around adult education, faith formation and celebrating liturgy and sacraments. These are defining moments for me of my vocation."

As McMahon heads into the sunset, big things are on the horizon at Our Lady of the Lake. The new parish center will open this summer, while the new school will open its doors for the first time this fall. And McMahon will be remembered for his role in making it all happen.

As Codd said, "His legacy will continue to affect the work of the parish for decades to come."