Carried to its present location by horses, Holy Rosary has been through a lot of changes in its 100-plus year history. It began in 1893, when the friars of the Province of the Most Holy Name of Jesus of the Order of Preachers accepted the invitation of Archbishop William H. Gross’, C.Ss.R., to come to Portland. The construction of the church and convent were nearly completed when local residents protested a legal stipulation that prohibited any religious building or use of the property. As a result, an exchange of that block for two other blocks was made, and the church and convent were literally moved west to Holy Rosary’s present location by men and horses. On January 28, 1894, Archbishop Gross blessed the Dominican’s Palladian Italian Renaissance-style church. Dedicated to Queen of the Most Holy Rosary, the church’s title aptly symbolized the Dominican/Rosarian church’s iconography.
Initially, Holy Rosary was established as a conventional church to assist surrounding people and parishes with Masses, preaching and missions, hearing confessions, and promoting devotions, particularly the Rosary. However, on February 15, 1908, the church became a traditional territorial parish, and the following year the Dominican house was raised to the dignity of a priory, making Holy Rosary not only the first Dominican parish but the first priory in the Pacific Northwest.
The Divine Liturgy, with five Sunday and two weekday Masses, the administration of the sacraments, rich devotional practices, like that to the Sacred Heart, as well as two annual novenas honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary, under the titles of Lourdes and Queen of the Most Holy Rosary, nourished personal and communal life. Educational growth for the young took a significant step forward when Holy Rosary School, staffed by four Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose, opened on September 3, 1912, to 43 students. Growth brought the construction of a new school and parish hall in 1923. Adult formation was promoted and strengthened through homilies, missions, study clubs, and lectures.
Parish organizations, like the Third Order of Saint Dominic, the Holy Name Society, the Altar Society, the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament, the Rosary Confraternity, the Legion of Mary, the Angelic Warfare Confraternity, and the Blessed Imelda Confraternity strengthened Christian formation, met material church needs, and built community bonds. Building a strong parish community, church functions such as social groups-sponsored dances, outings, and card and bingo parties, brought together Catholics from all walks of life. The Catholic Order of Foresters provided for parishioners insurance needs. Nurtured by this integrated Catholic culture, Holy Rosary (particularly through the Saint Vincent de Paul Society) reached out to feed, clothe, and house those in the parish, the surrounding neighborhoods, and the city of Portland.
Holy Rosary was not, however, immune from external influences. The 1929 stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression saw an exiting of parishioners. By 1932, economic and population losses brought retrenchment and restructuring to the school. Shortly thereafter, in 1935, priest reductions saw Holy Rosary’s Dominican community status reduced from that of a priory to a house.
An infusion of federal money, World War II, and the postwar economic boom helped to financially stabilize Holy Rosary. It allowed the church in the 1940s to install its first public address system, retire its mortgage debt, make renovations to the church and convent, and reach out to support the material needs of war-torn Europe, the Portland metropolitan area, and the neighborhoods surrounding Holy Rosary, including the spiritual and educational needs of the African American community. A similar spirit of charity also led to the daily radio broadcast of the Rosary from the church, beginning in 1951. Later, in 1989, Holy Rosary was pivotal in creating the first lay-sponsored Catholic radio station in the United States, KBVM (later renamed Mater Dei Radio). Those charitable fruits flowed, of course, from the people’s vibrant faith that centered on the church, school, and convent within which worship, devotional, social, and recreational activities nourished Catholic belief and practices under the ministry of the Dominican friars.
Nonetheless, from the early 1950s through much of the 1960s, Holy Rosary experienced a steady decline in parish membership, and in 1955, Holy Rosary School closed its doors. Many of the reasons behind this change were external to Holy Rosary. The surrounding neighborhoods were decimated by the Banfield and I-5 Freeways, suburban flight, the building of the Lloyd Center and Memorial Coliseum, and the construction of attendant commercial and service sector structures.
Offered greener pastures, the Dominicans chose to stay and shepherd their flock. In 1958, the energetic Father William Aquinas Norton, O.P., was appointed the pastor. He quickly inaugurated the physical reconstruction of the church and its exterior grounds to maintain and attract people to Holy Rosary (such as a parking lot, and the movement of Our Lady of Lourdes shrine to a newly built grotto); interiorly, he oversaw the installation of a beautiful hand-carved statue of the Blessed Mother giving the Rosary to Saint Dominic. He also began annual parish picnics’ to maintain and attract people to Holy Rosary. To increase parish residents, he advocated building a retirement center across the street from the church, the present Calaroga Terrace.
Despite those efforts, the church continued to face severe challenges. The geographical area surrounding Holy Rosary saw family homes continue to give way to high-rise apartments and condominiums, while the construction of light rail, the Rose Quarter, and the Oregon Conventional Center attracted additional motel/hotel, restaurant, office, and retail building. Registered families at Holy Rosary continued to stagnate. The external cultural revolution of the 1960s and the internal turbulence surrounding the Second Vatican Council and the postconciliar era only furthered the church’s challenges. Nonetheless, Holy Rosary showed how to navigate the changing times with innovative pastoral decisions, framed by a Conciliar hermeneutic of continuity that faithfully implemented the documents of Vatican II.
Although Holy Rosary still had few registered families, Pastor Bernard Arnheim, O.P., wrote to his Dominican Provincial in 1972: “We're getting more visitors all the time. Portland will rise again.” Solid Catholic teaching, preaching, and sacramental practices, began to renew the parish. Moreover, that revival had a physical component. In 1980, a new parish hall was built. The following year, significant church renovations were undertaken, and in 1983, the Kilgen organ was completely rebuilt as a concert quality pipe organ. On February 10, 1987, a new convent was dedicated just in time to house the Dominican community that was once again elevated to the status of being a priory in 1988. While most Portland Catholic church’s Sunday Mass attendance declined between 1988 and 1992, Holy Rosary’s grew so that by the mid-1990s it had the largest Sunday Mass attendance in the Portland metropolitan area.
Numerical growth necessitated another great building renovation under the leadership of Father Anthony Patalano, O.P., in anticipation of Holy Rosary’s centennial celebration. With 95 percent of the massive renovation completed, however, a fire on November 9, 1993, threatened to destroy the church. Although the church suffered considerable smoke and water damage, the only serious fire loss was the 1924 vintage organ. With all the renovations and additions (a new baptistry mural, tabernacle, monstrance, stained glass windows, and a tracker pipe organ, etc.) complete, Archbishop of Louisville, Kentucky, Thomas Cajeton Kelly, O.P., formally re-dedicated the church on January 28, 1996.
Today, hours of confessions are heard weekly. Solemnly offered Masses, include both vernacular Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite and a Dominican Rite Latin Mass with Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony. Numerous devotions enrich people’s spiritual growth. That enrichment along with vital confraternities not only nurtures religious vocations but also inspires ongoing charitable endeavors and a public Catholicism that involves parishioners in civic and political affairs. A Catholic education and RCIA curriculum in conformity with sound Catholic teaching, the church’s support for home schooling, topical public presentations on Catholicism, and parish biblical, theological, literary, and church history study groups nurture parishioners’ faith and intellectual lives. Social gatherings for coffee and donuts, dinners, movies, and dances further contribute to draw geographically distant members of a largely commuter parish into a vibrant ethnically, racially, and age diverse faith community of about 900 registered families. Initially drawn nine blocks by horses, the church has traveled a long way.
Written by Robert Bunting
Edited by Tess Jones