Never underestimate the determination of a woman, or of a group of ladies. Sellwood had to have its own Catholic Church, and by persistence and determination, it came to be.
During the late 1890's and early 1900's, Sellwood's Catholic congregation had to travel three miles up the then-unpaved Milwaukie Avenue, to attend church services at the Sacred Heart Church on the corner of 11th and Center Street in the Brooklyn neighborhood.
Not only was the trip an inconvenience to Sellwood residents, but young students there attending class at the Sacred Heart School trudged the route on foot five days a week. By 1910, desiring to have a Catholic school of their own, Mary Schneider, Elizabeth Dell and Angeline Leonard appealed to Archbishop Alexander Christie down the valley in Mt. Angel.
When permission was granted, 65 Sellwood members of the Catholic faith went about collecting donations. Land was purchased, lumber was donated by the Eastside Mill (then located at the foot of Spokane Street) - and, with the volunteer and hired work of masons and carpenters, a two-story brick American-Renaissance-style building was constructed on the southeast side of the 15th and S.E. Miller Street intersection.
Reverend John Commisky, who was the first pastor of what became St. Agatha's, was the driving force behind planning and naming the school and church. In the fall of 1912 the school bell was rung, and the Benedictine Sisters of Sacred Heart from Mt. Angel welcomed 35 students to their new classrooms at St. Agatha's School.
Besides teaching in other Catholic classrooms in Portland, the Benedictine Sisters of Mt. Angel also operated and served several parish schools throughout the state. However, by 1915, the Sisters of St. Mary's in Beaverton took over the responsibility of staffing St. Agatha's. The sisters' convent was housed in a small bungalow on the north side of Miller Street across from the school.
For many years students and teachers have gathered at small reunions to reminisce or reconnect with childhood friends about those memorable days in the classroom of the St. Agatha's. Here are just a few of their memories:
'I was a hell-raiser,' conceded Joan (Schofield) Bloomberg, Class of 1956, who perhaps more properly should be described as the school's prankster. In a sleepover at Joan's house that included a horde of girls from St Agatha's, the young ladies thought it would be fun to parade around the streets of Sellwood in their pajamas during the late hours. But, when they returned from their excursion - Joan exclaimed, 'I locked them out of my parents' house!' Joan still meets yearly with her past classmates, and chortles 'they still remind me about that time'.
Joan's bad-girl behavior finally caught up with her one day. She broke the school teeter totter while attempting to bump a fellow classmate off the top end of the board. This was evidently considered a greater infraction than locking girls out of a house in their nightwear, because, Joan recalled reluctantly, 'That was the day I was called into to see Father Urban' - surely a dreadful experience for any young student. But Joan is evasive about whether the confrontation led to a decline in her pranks.
Another student memory given to us was simply that of an annoying fabric: Both Genevieve and Joan Gilbertz, Class of '43, recall the blue skirt and blouse made of an itchy twill fabric called serge which was part of their school uniform. They also remember without enthusiasm that it was the young ladies' responsibility to keep their removable white collars and cuffs clean during the school year, too.
While attending classes or mass at St Agatha's, it seems that everyone had a favorite nun or priest who stood out. For Patrick Hainley, who graduated in 1965, It was Father Urban Keber. Calling each pupil by name, 'Father Urban personally handed out the report cards to each student,' remembered Hainley. Father Urban Keber would praise the students with good grades, or shake his head in disgust at the low performance of others - always encouraging every student to perform to his or her best ability.
Father Keber was also an impressive figure on the baseball diamond during practice! Taking time out from writing sermons and his many church duties, the pastor, clad in his robes, would take his position on the pitcher's mound, striking out one batter after another. He would follow that up by grabbing a bat from the rack and standing imposingly in the batter's box, waiting patiently for the next pitch. 'He would toss his robe up around his shoulder, and then hit this screeching home run ball over the heads of the outfielders,' grinned Pat.
Besides educating the young, the St Agatha School building was also initially used as a chapel. Students attended classes on the first floor (with two grades sharing a classroom), and church services were held on the second floor. The kitchen, located in the basement, was used to prepare food for church suppers, and also provide lunches for the students who didn't walk home for their mid-day snacks. It also doubled as an indoor playground on wet, rainy school days.
A two-story Parish Hall was constructed on the south side of the School in 1914. A host of activities could now thrive in the new Parish Hall.
The parish hall provided lavish homemade spaghetti and ravioli dinners to the community as a fund-raiser, leading to picturesque scenes of Italian ladies cutting tables full of rolled pasta for the feast. Bingo, card games, and bazaars were similar annual fund-raisers - and school plays were performed on the stage to packed crowds.
Genevieve (Leipzig) Hainley, class of 1941, was part of the six-team girls basketball unit that travel to Gervis, St.Johns, Milwaukie, and other areas, to compete against the local religious schools. But the memory she produced for us was about one of those popular dramas: 'I don't know why, but I remember a scene in one of the plays where the lead actor was supposed to drink from a bottle of deadly poison,' recalled Genevieve Hainley. 'One of the audience members was so enthralled that he screamed out, don't drink that, Jimmie, it's poison!' Jimmy probably drank from it anyway, since the plot could not advance unless he did.
With the completion of the school and parish hall in place the St. Agatha parish turned their attention to building an actual church. Tufa stone, a porous rock or type of limestone, was quarried near the Benedictine Fathers of Mt. Angel, and on New Year's Day of 1920, the cornerstone was laid for St. Agatha's Church at S.E. 15th and Nehalem. Archbishop Christie was again summoned to dedicate the completion of the Early Gothic Style structure later that same year - on October 3rd, 1920.
In the 1960's, the Old Parish Hall was torn down and replaced with a new brick building just north of the church.
By the year 2000, the congregation of St. Agatha's had come to agreement that it was time to replace the school. The brick building was looking old and decrepit, and did not meet new city earthquake standards.
Once the brick school house was demolished, the quaint bungalow that served as a rectory was sold and moved to S.E. 8th and Sherrett. In the fall of 2001, construction was begun, and a new school building and gymnasium were opened for students to attend in January of 2003.
And that brings us to the present. Next month, on the weekend of October 8th and 9th, St. Agatha's School will be celebrating its 100th year. Because of limited space, the formal celebration will be by invitation only. For those who can't attend, a cookbook with augmented with memories and stories will also be available at St. Agatha's Parish - if you are interested in obtaining it, call 503/236-4747.