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Sisters in life and death

West Linn's Marylhurst Convent Cemetery provides a resting place for the Sisters of the Holy Names and fodder for local history buffs
by: Vern Uyetake, Deborah Weber, right, who once worked in food service at Marylhurst College, took a special trip to the cemetery during a recent visit to Portland after many years away. She was accompanied by her friend, Nancy Holcroft, at left.

Her first job out of college was anything but typical, but Deborah Weber loved spending afternoons preparing meals for the nuns at Marylhurst College.

She has fond memories of those early years, when she befriended many of the nuns and considered joining their order, the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary.

'Once, we catered a huge gypsy wedding on the commons,' she recalled with a chuckle. 'The nuns raised their eyebrows, but we took (the job) because it brought in a lot of money.'

After she left Oregon, Weber corresponded regularly by mail with one dear friend, Sister Caroline Ann Mary Theresa Gimpl.

Years later - and after many travels - Weber noticed Gimpl had stopped writing. It was 1988. The news came a few weeks later that Gimpl had passed away.

Traveling to Portland last week from her home in Miramonte, Calif., Weber paid a special visit to the Marylhurst Convent Cemetery to pay her respects to Gimpl and other sisters who impacted her life before they died.

She strolled along the rows of gravestones, pointing out the headstones of Sisters she knew to her traveling companion, Nancy Holcroft, and snapping photos.

'Some of these names I remember,' Weber said. 'They loved this school and wanted to see it maintained. It's neat to see it's done so well.'

Although construction on the school and the development of residential areas creep closer to it each year, the private cemetery still acts as a place of peace and remembrance for its many visitors, which range from Marylhurst students on lunch break to relatives of the Sisters interred there.

Lush grass and tall trees cover the graves - some marked by flat headstones; others set apart by tall marble crosses.

A simple concrete pathway divides the cemetery, leading to a statue of Jesus on a brick altar. Rows of hedges shelter the graves from the hustle and bustle of nearby Hwy. 43.

Local history buffs and Roman Catholics consider the cemetery a sacred place that pays quiet homage to the women who brought education and compassion to the public - despite an environment of famine, poverty and disease.

'Over the years, we've come to cherish that history,' said Sister Carole Stron, the cemetery's resident historian. 'Their mandate was really the education of women and serving people who education was not available for.'

It's a mission that continues today for the 173 Sisters who live in Oregon, she added.

For some historical background, Stron starts at the beginning, in 1859, when the Sisters of the Holy Names left Quebec and began ministering in the Northwest. At that time, the town of St. Paul contained the main official Catholic cemetery of the Oregon Territory, which included Oregon and Washington. Today, Stron's order has 40 sisters buried there in 'Nun's Corner.'

At the start, the Sisters worked primarily at St. Mary's Academy in downtown Portland and in rural areas where they were called to serve the needy. Then, in 1908, the Sisters purchased 184 acres of farmland between Lake Oswego and West Linn and named it Marylhurst, or 'Mary's Woods,' and established a small cemetery of their own in adajacent Christie Park.

As the order began to grow and thrive, the Archbishop and other congregation officials realized it needed a larger, more permanent space to lay aging Sisters to rest. So, around 1913, they moved the deceased Sisters from Christie Park to the cemetery's current location - in an area that was once a very rural and isolated farming field.

The nuns rested in that secluded part of Mary's Woods until the order renamed St. Mary's 'Marylhurst College' and built offices and classrooms close by. The college (now a university) has continued to grow and change, leaving little room between it and the cemetery - but the cemetery remains in its original form.

'I think, 'Oh yeah, I hope they don't run out of room before I get there,' Sister Stron said with a laugh.

The cemetery is a source of pride among the Sisters, who conduct a special remembrance service there each year.

In total, about 400 Sisters are buried in the cemetery, along with a few priests and orphans who presumably died during the Influenza pandemic. A long-time college maintenance man and his family members also rest there.

While certain aspects of the funeral process have changed with time, much of the service remains the same. Each Sister is buried in a selected plot after a traditional Catholic funeral Mass that celebrates her life's work. A personalized service includes music, stories, readings, a homily delivered by a priest and a reflection on the life of the Sister who died. One Sister even wrote her own eulogy, Stron recalled.

Following the Mass, a hearse drives the casket or urn to the cemetery where the Sister is interred during a prayer service that includes a rendition of 'Ava Maria.'

'It's a joyful occasion because you made it all the way … you've attained the goal,' Sister Stron said. 'It's kind of what you're working toward through life … becoming in a communion of saints and being with God forever.'

For record-keeping sake, living Sisters are encouraged to create a personal file with writings, photos and memorabilia from their lives. Officials at the new Holy Names Heritage Center have information on the founding Sisters through present day, including original writings. The public is invited to visit the center's research room to learn more.

Although many nuns died young due to exposure to disease and exhausting conditions, engraved dates show that many of the nuns lived well into their 80s and 90s.

Sister Julia Charbonneau, for example, was the last of the original 12 founding Sisters to die. She was estimated to be in her mid-80s, well beyond the average life expectancy of her time.

'It's either they died young or lived a long time … It was one or the other,' Stron said.

The pre-1940 graves are topped with marble crosses that, over the years of exposure to the elements, have chipped or crumbled. Important information - such as names and dates written on sandstone plaques - have begun to fade and disappear.

The Sisters have made cemetery upkeep more of a priority in the past two years, said property manager Kim Lewis.

This summer, Lewis will spend an estimated $80,000 to replace the dilapidated crosses with granite and spruce up the cemetery with new plantings, a cedar fence and an entryway.

During a typical week, his job entails trimming the hedges, mowing and keeping moss from growing over the headstones.

'We are concerned about privacy and keeping it a quiet, sacred setting for funerals or for people who just want to come out and spend some time,' Lewis said. 'They like to honor the Sisters' memories and in doing that, we honor their families, too.'

The white statue of Jesus, which is about 75 years old, is missing a finger. Lewis plans to use his sculpting skills to create a replacement.

'I take (my job) very seriously,' he said. 'I respect what the Sisters have done through their hard work to bless a lot of people in Oregon.'

Stron, a history buff who has spent many hours organizing a map of the cemetery plot-by-plot on her computer, hopes to one day erect a kiosk that contains information about each Sister buried there.

'I know there is a whole network of people out there who love historical cemeteries,' she said.

But for the young women who symbolically 'left' their biological families to become part of an international congregation of Sisters, being laid to rest there is like coming home.

It's comforting to know that you'll lay for eternity among Sisters, Stron said.

'It's sort of saying, 'Well done, good and faithful servant. You've lived a good, honorable life and here you are with people who have journeyed on that same path,' she said. 'It's like a family plot.'