Dear Friends in Christ,
Recently I received some welcome news about the Catholic grade school I attended in Portland, Oregon, dedicated to Saint Charles Borromeo. Located on the corner of 42nd and Emerson Streets, right next to the parish church of the same name, both the church and the school were constructed around the time I was born, the early 1950s, and into the mid-1960s. Saint Charles Parish is over one hundred years old, begun in 1914 and at its current location since 1950. I was in the school from the fall of 1959 until the spring of 1967.
Those who have followed my musings over the past several years likely realize the importance of my eight years of Catholic education at Saint Charles School, under the tutelage of the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus, as well as some lay teachers. Even so, I was very happy to exit the school after the eighth grade, at the age of fifteen, and move on in the fall of 1967 to a public high school. At the time, I would have preferred to attend North Catholic High School, where one of my cousins, whom I admired very much, had studied, but my family couldn’t afford the several hundred dollars for tuition, let alone books, that the school charged. Yes, it is laughable now, but dead serious back in the summer of 1967, between finishing grade school and entering high school, when funds were not plentiful in my family. Furthermore, North Catholic High was quite a distance from where I lived, so getting there and back each day would have been an added expense.
James Madison High School, in whose district my family lived, thus became the default high school by necessity, and in fact I very much enjoyed the two years I spent there. Only two years? That is the topic of another essay, of course. Though some miles from my home, I usually walked or rode a bus to school. Madison High had good art and drama departments, and I immensely enjoyed participating in both. Classes were not too demanding, since Catholic education had placed me ahead of what was being offered at the high school. As a result, I had time for art and drama.
The drama department at Madison was under the direction of a rather well-known teacher, Melba Day Sparks. She put on very professional plays during her many years at Madison High. I even aspired to become a professional artist and/or actor at some moments during those high school years. The “art scene” of Los Angeles and Hollywood itself wasn’t all that far away, just a several hours drive south of Portland on Interstate 5 or Highway 101, but alas, it was not meant to be. Even having family friends in Anaheim, near Los Angeles, whom our family visited every summer, wasn’t enough to have me eventually live or work there.
Back to Saint Charles Grade School, though, where I was instructed for eight years, from 1959 to 1967, where reading, writing, English grammar, spelling, mathematics, science, and of course, religion, were all given pride of place. In fact, it was obvious that belief in God and Catholic practice was at the heart of all we did at Saint Charles. The Sisters and laywomen who taught us always seemed to have that foremost in mind. Regular Mass attendance, receiving the Sacraments of First Confession and First Holy Communion, at the end of first grade, as well as the Sacrament of Confirmation, at the end of seventh grade, were part and parcel of our general education and formation.
During those grade school years I was nearly always present, attentive and generally grateful for what I was being given. I did have friends who enjoyed skipping school, which I also did on occasion, escaping to the one and only mall in town, the Lloyd Center, but not on a regular basis. Saint Charles School was where I was expected to be, except on Saturdays and Sundays, of course, and at vacation time. Since school was only a few blocks from home, I was able, beginning around the sixth grade, to go home for the hour-long lunch break and recess period, Monday through Friday. Recess seemed to me a waste of time, so I was better engaged at home, though probably watching something completely useless on TV, until I had to scurry back to school on my bike at 12:45 or so, for the 1:00 pm continuation of classes.
I was sorry to learn that my grade school, which opened in 1950, finally closed its doors in 1986. Changing demographics, the closing of the Portland Air Force Base and other factors, such as no more Sisters to teach there, made the school closing necessary. The parish retained the school building, used it some and leased several of the dozen or so classrooms, but was definitely not utilized to its full potential. The sprawling but single-storied L-shaped building, constructed mostly of cinderblock, was and is nearly fireproof, built to last, and fortunately never fell into disrepair over the past thirty-three years of near-vacancy.
I was very pleased to learn this spring that De La Salle North Catholic High School, a college preparatory school for underserved students in Portland, had recently signed a fifty-year lease of the former Saint Charles Grade School. The new campus of De La Salle will accommodate around three-hundred fifty students and plans are to begin using the Saint Charles property in the fall of 2021.
The current principal of De La Salle North Catholic, Tim Joy, has expressed happiness that the students will be able to attend Mass together in the parish church, which is attached to the school building. De La Salle High is currently housed in a former public elementary school building, owned by Portland Public Schools. Paying an increasingly high monthly rent eventually caused De La Salle school leaders to look for another location, considering more than forty possible sites, before settling on the Saint Charles plant.
Part of the attraction of the Saint Charles campus was what Principal Tim Joy calls, “an intuitive reverence” about the place. Could the Holy Child Sisters and we students of so many decades ago, have contributed to that accolade? I can only hope so! The gym and auditorium at the present De La Salle campus can’t compare with Saint Charles, according to De La Sales’ principal, so having better space for assembly and a church on campus is a real plus for the school’s leaders and students.
Another draw to the new location is the nearness of Saint Charles to downtown Portland, just a few miles away. The students of De La Salle typically spend one day a week working for local employers, often at a business establishment in the downtown area. Bus service can take people fairly quickly to the city’s center, though I suppose that many (most?) of the De La Salle students have their own cars.
The move to the Saint Charles property means that De La Salle High School will be the first new Catholic high school campus in more than fifty years in the city of Portland. A capital campaign is underway to raise funds for the needed renovations and additions to the Saint Charles school building.
How do the parishioners of my home parish of Saint Charles take to the idea of students, albeit older, returning to the old school? The pastoral administrator of the parish, Leif Kehrwald, is quoted as saying that the parish community will offer a warm welcome to the new students and staff, and that they look forward to the merging of the parish and school communities.
Saint Charles Borromeo Parish will maintain its operations and parish offices in part of the school building, as well as their Saint Vincent de Paul Food Bank. The present parish priest, Father Elwin Schwab, sees real benefits to the two entities working side by side and says he is looking forward to the venture.
About 73% of De La Salle Catholic students are Afro-American or Latino, and many come from low-income families. Statistics also show that 95% of the students who stay four years graduate and enter college. That is impressive and I applaud all who are making my former school, dormant for many decades, come back to life. “That in all things God may be glorified,” Saint Benedict says in his sixth-century Rule for Monasteries. And De La Salle principal, Tim Joy, says, “What we are doing is at the heart of the Gospel.” To which I reply, “Amen.”
(For this essay, I am indebted to an online article from the “Catholic Sentinel” of the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, which appeared on March 12, 2019, by Katie Scott, entitled, “De La Salle North Catholic High School to Relocate to Saint Charles Parish.”)
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB