St. Henry Catholic Church rings in its 100th anniversary

by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: NORM RAGNONE -  St. Henry's  10 a.m. Mass Sunday overflowed the sanctuary with generations of church members. The afternoon luncheon and museum display drew 735 people.

When President John F. Kennedy Jr. was assassinated Nov. 22, 1963, the first bells in East Multnomah County tolled at St. Henry Catholic Church.

The church filled a few hours later for a requiem Mass, where Father Augustine Meyer said, “Only through prayer, love and charity will we heal the wounds.”

Today, the church that began in January 1913 is home to at least 1,500 families and remains a leader in the religious community, with involvement in numerous ministries including Zarephath Pantry and St. Vincent de Paul.

“There’s a marvelous core of folks who form the spirit of this parish,” Father Charles Zach said. “It’s a very special time to highlight who we are.”

Sunday, Jan. 13, a 100th anniversary Mass and open house drew 735 people, including former priests and Archbishop John Vlazny. The event featured a museum display with decades of relics — photos, songbooks, baptism and wedding gowns, newspaper clippings and devotional items — including artifacts unearthed from a 1988 time capsule.

“People were very taken with seeing themselves as children — seeing the legacy of the parish and how it connects to the whole Gresham community,” Father Zach said. “This is a church of volunteers. There are a lot of fingers connected with the community.

“It was important for people to see so many returning pastors and clergy. You really don’t see it as a work force, you see it as family,” he said.

Early beginnings

The first St. Henry service was held Jan. 1, 1913, above the Gresham Drug Store at the site of the current Jazzy Bagels on the northeast corner of Main Avenue and Powell Boulevard, led by the newly appointed Rev. Henry Bruenagel. Its first church, on Northwest First Street, which cost $800, was blessed Sept. 21, 1913.

A succession of additions came when the 1,378-pound bell tower arrived in 1914, when the sanctuary and sacristy were added in 1915 and when the parish house was constructed in 1918.

“I sense the same zeal and commitment that moved your parish founders to build and sustain a place of worship for the community still prevails,” Vlazny, the archbishop of Portland, wrote in a letter to St. Henry before the 100th anniversary event.

Al and Ben Olbrich, now St. Henry members in their 90s, were baptized by the original Rev. Bruenagel and are among the members of six founding families who remain involved in the parish CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: NORM RAGNONE - Archbishop John Vlazny presides over the Jan. 13 100th anniversary mass at St. Henry. Many former priests and clergy attended the celebration.

“It’s rather impressive to look back,” said Father Zach, the 10th pastor at St. Henry who came to the parish in 2009 from Junction City. “In 1912, Gresham was a town of 500. By the time we got to building our school and new church, the population was between 5,000 and 10,000. Today, our population is upwards of 100,000.”

From the 90-somethings down to the infants, St. Henry is now a largely multiethnic parish with members from Indonesia, Samoa, Nigeria and Kenya. Father Zach said the church wants to welcome more Latino families as one of its pastoral goals.

“We’re a melting pot at St. Henry, but we’re really missing the multicultural wealth of the Mexican community,” Father Zach said. “There’s a saying that ‘We’re going to be integrated in heaven.’ It’s time we start here.”

A new church and school

In 1951, Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary told St. Henry they would staff a Catholic grade school at the church. The next year, the church was remodeled, with an imported wooden crucifix and bronze tabernacle added. A school, auditorium and convent were built in 1953.

St. Henry transitioned to a modern building more fitting of the downtown Gresham neighborhood in 1964; Father Meyer called it a “house of God” rather than a temple or cathedral. Members have called the building home for nearly 50 years.

On Sept. 25, 1969, St. Henry made the front page of The Gresham Outlook when it announced it would dismantle the 56-year-old church and one of Gresham’s oldest landmarks, which hadn’t been used since the new church was completed.

The school operated until 1971, when the Superior General of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary determined they no longer were able to support the St. Henry school because of a severe personnel shortage.

The 2013 centennial

time capsule

As St. Henry rounds out its centennial celebration in July — the church decided to span the festivities over the course of a year— it once again will bury a time capsule, this time with 100th anniversary mementos.

“It’s nice to see this correlation of where the church was to where it is — to see the camaraderie among different parishioners,” said Angie Eckroth, a museum coordinator for the centennial celebration.

“I love the atmosphere and the people of St. Henry’s,” said Ilene Burkhardt, another planning member for the centennial celebration who organized the luncheon.

Kevin Williams, a young member and the time capsule committee chairman who became affectionately known as “The Digger” after bringing up the 1988 capsule, will do the honors of burying the 2013 capsule, a hermetically-sealed vault provided by Bateman Carroll, at a picnic in July on church grounds.

“We go back over the 100 years and think it was the Stone Age,” Father Zach joked. “In 100 years they’ll think this was the Stone Age. The capsule will celebrate this era.”

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