With its Italian Renaissance stone walls and towering Florentine dome, St. Patrick's Church is the most prominent visual feature of Slabtown, a section of Portland, Ore., that got its name from the massive slabs of lumber long stacked there.

Like the community it served, the parish drew its vitality from the European immigrants who had come west with the railroads to the farthest edge of North America.

In time, the immigrant families dispersed. Growing industries stretched out, consuming block after block of homes for factories and parking lots. Nicer houses could be had in the suburbs. A highway obliterated Slabtown landmarks and most of the old business district on Vaughn and Thurmon streets.

Yet St. Patrick's Church remains. Now standing in the shadow of an elevated highway on-ramp, the pride of Slabtown is the oldest surviving Catholic church in Portland.

Established in 1885, the parish was initially called Sacred Heart by Archbishop William Gross. To house it, the archdiocese built a plain, two-room structure on Savier Street, at 19th Avenue, adjacent to the current church site. For six years, the wooden building did double duty as both church and school for 130 students. That arrangement gave parishioners time to build a permanent edifice.

The Irish-born pastor and mostly-Irish parishioners of the period inscribed the cornerstone: “To the glory of God in honor of Ireland's Apostle, St. Patrick” and, when it was dedicated on March 17, 1891, St. Patrick's became an instant regional landmark. Father Patrick Gibney and his 400 parishioners had erected a towering, yet efficient, church and hall. It covered less than a quarter of a city block. They also built an adjacent rectory and church office in the simple Queen Ann style of the period.

Designed by Portland architect Otto Kleeman, the Greek-revival church was constructed of local materials, including basalt for the walls and foundation quarried at the nearby village of Boring. The opalescent windows are among the earliest work of Portland's Povey Brothers Studio, which went on to become a leading stained-glass maker for churches, public buildings and mansions throughout the West Coast.

Long, Slow Climb

As impressive as the church was from the outside, it would take another 23 years to finish the interior. The 50th anniversary commemorative history records that, “to build a church like St. Patrick's was too ambitious an undertaking, it seems, for the financial resources the parish then had available. The interior was left entirely bare, with the rough interior surfaces of the stone walls showing, and with rain and even snow, at times, drifting in upon the worshippers at services.”

In spite of a series of fund-raisers, even the walls weren't plastered until 1899. Meanwhile, additional work had to be done outside the church building, including replacement of the classic, pyramid-style stone steps with a more conventional, but safer, staircase.

It was 1914, the silver anniversary of the 1889 laying of the cornerstone, before the interior was substantially complete. Described by a contemporary newspaper account as “decorated more elaborately than any Catholic church west of Chicago,” the achievement benefits visitors and worshippers to this day.

While it took more than 25 years to finish St. Patrick's Church, it has taken another quarter-century to restore and preserve it. Isolated and deteriorating, with less than 60 registered families in the early 1970s, the parish and church have been rebounding in the years since, largely with the assistance of families who once called St. Patrick's their parish.

New families are also arriving, says Father J. Aidan Mayo, the church's current pastor. He celebrates Mass in Spanish and English each week to accommodate the new waves of immigrants. “In the 1970s and 1980s,” he adds, “as they began to come to Portland in quantity, St. Patrick's Church became a center for Hispanic ministry.

“Over the years, other parishes began offering services to the Hispanic community, too. So this is no longer the only place in town for the new immigrant population, but many continue to see it as their parish.”

Irish Interiors

For St. Patrick's visitors, the church's most striking feature is its newest — the front façade. The front steps and original portico, supported by four pillars, were condemned by the city in the early 1970s as unsafe. While the portico could not be saved, the painstaking reconstruction work has preserved the façade's architectural integrity and permitted construction of a circular stone staircase that matches the original stonework of the church.

The focus of the church's interior is on the domed sanctuary, capped by a stained-glass skylight. The high altar and tabernacle, flanked by frescos of St. Patrick and St. Bridget, are surmounted by a fresco of the transfiguration, painted by popular early 20th-century artist Phillip Staheli from European masterpieces.

Along the nave he painted 14 additional frescos, each depicting the principal saints of Ireland.

Restoration continues at the parish, with work on the church's plaster and frescoes and stained glass ongoing, as well as interior woodwork. At the same time, the parish continues to function as the parish church of northwest Portland.

In this capacity, 112 years after its dedication, St. Patrick's Church remains faithful to its mission to the Catholic Church, the archdiocese, immigrants and the community they played a major role in building on the continent's farthest shore. St. Patrick himself — feast day: March 17 — would be proud.

Philip S. Moore writes from Portland, Oregon.

Planning Your Visit

Mass is celebrated Monday through Friday at 12:10 p.m. Saturday Mass in Latin and English is at 6:30 p.m. Sunday Mass is celebrated at 8:30 a.m. in Spanish and 10:30 a.m. in English. The church office, in the rectory, will open the church for special visits and tours, within reason. Given the high and steep stairs at the entrance, it bears mentioning that St. Patrick's is not easily accessible to the handicapped.

Getting There

St. Patrick's Church is at the corner of 19th Avenue and Savier Street. Southbound on I-5, take the I-405 exit, across the Fremont Bridge. Take the Vaughn Street exit and turn left onto 23rd Avenue. Turn left again at Thurmon and go to 19th Avenue. The church is on your right. From Portland International Airport, use I-84 to I-5 north and the I-405 exit to the Fremont Bridge and Vaughn Street exit. On-street and off-street parking is ample.

------- EXCERPT: St. Patrick's Church, Portland, Ore.