Nuggets of History OLPH Catholic Church - Part I

Most of the early white settlers in this area brought with them strong Christian values within specific religious denominations and a compelling need to gather and worship together.

The gestation of churches usually begins in private homes. As the membership grows, a temporary location is established until the congregation raises enough money to purchase an existing building or to purchase land to build a new building.

As the 20th century waned, the Cottage Grove area had nearly 30 church congregations that varied in size.

Some were variations of main line denominations such as United Methodists and Free Methodists. Currently there are three different Baptist churches that are respectively affiliated with the American, Conservative, and Southern denominations.

Other churches outgrew their original location and established a new church. As the Church of Christ on 6th and Gibbs congregation expanded, its Delight Valley area members (north of Cottage Grove) built their own church on East Saginaw Road.

Sometimes a new church is planted and sprouts but doesn’t attract enough members to sustain it and quietly dies.

Recently, two local churches celebrated significant milestones. In May, Trinity Lutheran Church marked its 75th anniversary and, last Sunday, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church observed its 125th anniversary.

This week’s focus is on the long tenure of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Cottage Grove. Next week highlights the milestones of Trinity Lutheran Church’s 75 years in our community.

Early Years Era:

Pre-1888 - 1947

To support Catholics arriving at the end of the Oregon Trail, in 1846, the archdiocese of Oregon City was established. A year later, Richard Robinson was the first Catholic to stake his claim three miles north of Cottage Grove. Masses were usually held in people’s homes. Although not a Catholic, David McFarland opened his home to provide his neighbors with a meeting place large enough to accommodate the service.

The railroad reached Cottage Grove in 1872 and aided the early missionaries in their travels. By 1882, Cottage Grove was home to 12 Catholic families and missionaries visited several times a year. They baptized children and converts and performed marriages. The presence of a Catholic priest in the area was an occasion not to be missed. Several families traveled to town from outlying areas and stayed overnight to attend Mass the next day. The first recorded baptism was in 1888.

At various times from 1888-1895, Cottage Grove was a mission of Roseburg and Eugene. When St. Mary’s Church in Eugene had a series of short pastorates, Cottage Grove became a mission of Roseburg. (Parish ledgers noted Sunday collections amounted to about $6 and barely covered the cost of the round-trip train fare.)

The Catholic Sentinel of Sept. 26, 1895, reported, “There’s quite a demand for a church in Cottage Grove, and a number of liberal-minded, non-Catholics are willing to give a site for a church. They will also make sure of its being built as the few Catholics would not be able single-handedly to do it all.”

David McFarland donated a portion of his Donation Lane Claim to build the church on the corner of H Street and Birch Avenue. The church was completed in 1897 and dedicated on Dec. 5 by Archbishop William Gross of Portland. The unique octagonal design is credited to Father James Black and is said to be patterned after a church in Germany.

The church was built for $1,500 and also boasted two rooms at the rear so priests would have comfortable quarters during their stay. Local Catholics dug deep in their pockets to include beautiful stained glass windows in the design.

Finally, in 1907, Father J.B. Fitzpatrick became the first resident pastor and, in 1908, a parish house was built next to the church with lumber donated by the C.T. Lumber Company. It was short-lived and from 1909 through 1913, the church remained a mission served by the Catholic Church Extension Society’s chapel cars that seated 50-65 people.

In 1910, well-loved Eugene priest Father Daniel Patrick Curley began serving Cottage Grove Catholics and for 24 years he provided Mass to them on the first and third Sundays of the month. At this time automobiles became the best way to serve mission churches.

In June of 1920, Father Edwin V. O’Hara became St. Mary’s priest and brought with him a vision of what he foresaw Christian education in rural America to be. Cottage Grove provided him a real life laboratory for implementing his ideas on Catholic education. By October, the first local catechism classes were held after Sunday Mass with about 30 children. In May, the classes culminated with their First Communion in 1921. Father O’Hara’s also experimented here with his first vacation school that soon spread throughout the country and was eventually adopted worldwide.

By 1942, the congregation size was large enough for the archdiocese of Portland to establish the Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish. Sadly, during this period anti-Catholic sentiment ran high in Oregon. With the reestablishment of Cottage Grove as a parish, the congregation enjoyed a new feeling of prestige and acceptance in the community.

During World War 2, Cottage Grove Catholics supported the war effort by sponsoring emergency clothing drives and gathered canned food to send to newly liberated countries in Europe and Asia. Its youth sent presents and wrote letters to encourage the Cottage Grove men and women who were fighting in two wars.

Golden Jubilee Era: 1947-1972

The post-war “baby boom” was in full swing when OLPH celebrated its Golden Jubilee in December 1947. From the original 12 Catholic families in 1897, the small church building was now at capacity 50 years later. In 1949, church leaders purchased a five-acre site of land along Harvey Road owned by church member Joseph Bricher to build a school and a convent for the teachers.

In February 1954, ground was broken for the new school that was completed in just five months on August 29. The purchase of 1-1/2 acres and a house adjoining the church property created the housing needed by the nuns to run the new school. To save money, church members were heavily involved in the construction of the school and the renovation of the house.

On September 7, 1954, the school doors opened to welcome 41 students in first through fourth grade. It eventually expanded to eighth grade. With a shortage of teaching nuns, the cost to operate the school proved too much and the doors closed 15 years later. The building became the parish center and continues host both church and community events.

By the late 1950s, the congregation completely outgrew its little pioneer church and began celebrating mass in the school building. On Feb. 19, 1961, a church building fund raised the $60,000 needed to construct a 6,700 sq ft church between the school and convent. On Nov. 5, 1961, Archbishop Howard dedicated the new 400-seat church featuring sixteen arches that spanned 48 feet and rose 33 feet high were made of local Douglas-fir manufactured locally. In 1962, the old church building was sold to the Cottage Grove Historical Society to become a museum.

The original church bell, cast in 1899, was placed in a bell tower next to the new building in 1967. Also in that year, a rectory was built next to the church and Vincent Bricher donated another 2.97 acres to increase the church property to nearly 10 acres.

Diamond Jubilee Era: 1972-1997

In 1974, the bereaved grandfather of a young man killed in an accident on I-5 donated money to erect a cross atop the building to give drivers a sign to cause them to slow down. Installed in July 1975, the anodized aluminum cross towered 58 feet above the ground. The church garden was expanded and remains a quiet place of reflection that is open to anyone in the community.

On the morning of Jan. 21, 1993, an arson fire partially destroyed the parish center. It took two years to remodel and rebuild the building that was dedicated on March 17, 1996. In the early 1990s, the composition of the congregation began changing as many Hispanic families settled in Cottage Grove and Creswell. Father James Dowd learned Spanish to better serve them. In 1997, local Catholics found many ways to celebrate their church’s 100th anniversary.

Quasquicentennial Era: 1998-2022

As the 21st century began, OLPH continued providing for the needs of its congregation and the community. The newly restored parish center was large enough to host fundraising dinners for local nonprofit organizations.

Under the leadership of Jerry Vaverka, Community Sharing began its annual “Soup-er” Fundraiser. Habitat for Humanity’s Crab Feed drew a capacity crowd for two seatings and raised money to build houses for local families to become first time homeowners. The Cottage Grove Community Foundation and the Cottage Grove Area Chamber of Commerce held their annual award banquets there. Vaverka was also instrumental in establishing a free community meal on Christmas Day.

In 2009, OLPH took an active role in the creation of Beds for Freezing Nights. Members used their talents to establish its nonprofit status and wrote operational procedures to save the lives of un-housed people on freezing nights. OLPH and the First Presbyterian Church served as host churches for the program that ended in 2020 due to the pandemic.

The arrival of the deadly COVID-19 virus in March 2020 shuttered the doors of all Oregon churches. OLPH members waited out the quarantine and slowly began to resume services and parish activities with mandatory masks and sanitizing protocols.

On Sunday, June 26, church members celebrated OLPH’s 125th anniversary with a special Mass to honor their namesake. Following the service was a fiesta that featured food and games for all ages.

The current priest, Father John Boyle, was appointed in 2018. Reflecting on the church’s 125 years of existence, he said it is a time of new beginnings for local Catholics.

“The world was very different when the parish was created,” he said. “We are embracing a new world of immigrants from Latin America who have joined the church and enriched us. We anticipate an exciting time ahead.”

Note: Information in this story was provided by the church and the Cottage Grove Historical Society.


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