e-mail us

Cover story

St. Anthony Parish

Portland, Ore.

It’s 10:20 on a cool, sunny Sunday morning. St. Anthony’s parishioners are headed for Mass. For many of them, the church is just two minutes away, along the curving path around the fountain.

These parishioners, residents of St. Anthony Village, are about 10 percent of the Mass-goers. They use canes or walkers, or steady themselves on someone’s arm. Some amble along unassisted. Others ride in hand-propelled or electric wheelchairs.

It’s an informal, Lourdes-like procession of friends and neighbors from an assisted-living accommodation along with their visitors and their caregivers. They talk or chat. One or two from the Alzheimer’s units gaze curiously at their surroundings as they head toward the 3-year-old, 375-seat church -- the first in the archdiocese designed by an all-female architectural firm.

This is a phoenix parish. Nine years ago, Fr. Michael Maslowsky was sent in to close it. Instead it rose up to give new life to the community -- from the 4-month-olds in the daycare center, to nonagenarians in the village accommodation.

For 45 years “church” had been the basement of the increasingly tumbledown, finally closed parish school in this modest, changing southeast Portland neighborhood.

In 1993, tall, trim, ascetic-looking Maslowsky, a big-league Portland lawyer ordained in 1987, was sent in by Portland’s then-archbishop, William Levada, to assess the place. Maslowsky saw a basement church with “exposed pipes, collapsing ceiling tiles, cracked walls and windows. Most of the property was overgrown with weeds and contained discarded mattresses and tires. It was not a very attractive place.”

The priest spent three summer months having evening Mass three times a week and meeting for dessert with groups of parishioners. “Their faith was so strong,” he said, that he resolved to find some way to keep the parish open.

St. Anthony had land, five acres. With a committed parish team, insights into nonprofit housing from Maslowsky’s business community friends, financial support from federal tax credits and state guarantees, plus a strong though risky commitment from Portland’s Archbishop Francis George (now Cardinal George of Chicago), Maslowsky and the parish took the plunge.

The result: A decade later, St. Anthony, with its 425 registered families, is the new model of church for the Portland archdiocese.

The village does not dominate parish activities.

Parish outreach takes many forms -- not least people helping out at the Goose Hollow overnight homeless shelter. Several years ago, when a 12-year-old boy in a disintegrating family needed help, one parishioner provided a home, another helped place him in a Catholic school, a third acted as mentor. Today, the prognosis for the youngster is great, and he is active in the parish.

This Sunday Mass, youth director Chris Wojnar was on the altar giving an account of parish teens’ wide-ranging service activities. In the congregation was Maureen O’Shaughnessy. She directs the thriving religious education program. The village model of parish encourages an easy interaction across the age range, with seniors from the apartments sometimes helping out at the daycare center, and children from the religious education program making cards and little gifts to deliver to the elderly in their apartments on special days.

The village operates as a separate entity within the parish boundaries. It is a nonprofit organization with its own governance and operating structure. Maslowsky is president of St. Anthony Village Enterprises, which is developing villages at Assumption Parish in north Portland, and in Corvallis, home of Oregon State University, where the village will include student housing, the Newman chaplaincy and commercial space. In Roseland, in southeast Oregon, there will be special needs housing for young adults with physical and mental disabilities mixed in with a variety of low-income housing.

The overriding operating structure is fairly complex. Maslowsky has a separate entity for managing and operating the archdiocesan villages, and another for consultation work not under the archdiocesan umbrella. The villages are gaining wider Catholic attention. Officials in the Toledo, Ohio, diocese and the Atlanta, Ga., archdiocese are studying the Portland projects.

At St. Anthony, the bright blue, yellow, green, rose and russet apartment buildings surrounding the church include 16 units for independent senior living, 84 assisted living units, and 24 Alzheimer’s residences. There is a flourishing daycare center for children 4 months to 5 years, currently at capacity with 80-plus children.

Mass is over. There is a reception and recognition lunch underway in the parish for the village residents and caregivers. It’s just before noon. Maslowsky’s been and gone.

Right now he’s atop a 30-foot ladder in the stripped-bare Assumption parish church examining the blue ceiling paint. David Frye of Walsh Builders has a steadying hand on the ladder. Deacon Robert Lukosh, who will manage the 110-unit assisted-living facility at Assumption explains the layout to a reporter. The facility will open in April.

The former Assumption Church -- in a region where four parishes have been consolidated into one -- will serve as the village chapel. Lukosh is a former engineer who, after marriage -- he and his wife have two young children -- switched his life around, became a deacon and a prison chaplain. Now he’ll be Assumption’s chaplain, as well as facility administrator.

Lessons have been learned from St. Anthony. Assumption residents will not have to go outside to reach the chapel. “We’ve learned how to better integrate the chapel into the village,” said Maslowsky, “and, quite frankly, use it as a marketing strategy.”

Maslowsky, on his way down the ladder, rules the blue satisfactory, but turns thumbs down on the pastel brown for the walls. Something lighter, cheerier, he says. Something “less brown.”

Picking paint, managing real estate or holding the hand of an elderly parishioner with dementia wasn’t quite what Maslowsky had anticipated as he approached the priesthood in 1983.

He is a Nebraska-born 51-year-old Air Force “brat” who graduated from high school in Japan, majored in history at Kalamazoo College in Michigan and has a law degree from Northwestern University Law School. After ordination he received his doctorate in theology from the Gregorian University in Rome and presumed he might teach at the Portland seminary. Instead he was appointed director of ministry formation. His office developed both a master’s degree program and a certification program.

The archdiocese has a cabinet form of government in which six cabinet members (heads of departments) serve as senior advisers to the archbishop. After two years, Maslowsky was part of the cabinet as director of archdiocesan pastoral services with responsibilities for the elderly, campus ministry, people with disabilities and similar issues.

Then came the St. Anthony appointment.

There was the initial idea of building a joint center with the Korean Catholic community, which was also using the premises. But the Koreans opted out. Maslowsky recalled, “I was just praying to our Lord to show me what he wanted us to do. And the idea of a village came to my mind. I’d spent a lot of time in Europe, England, Germany, Italy -- and it was a village with a faith community center kind of idea.”

For Maslowsky, several threads wove themselves together. He had a parish. In his pastoral services post he had seen the “graying” of the Catholic church across the archdiocese and knew elderly people’s needs. There was land and, as a Portland lawyer, he had good contacts. Plus, as a priest, he knows that Oregon is one of the least churched states in the country.

“I believe we can and should evangelize the elderly,” he said, “and this is one way to do it.” Why not, he thought, welcome the elderly into close proximity to the parish by making it the center of their living arrangements -- to the extent they want to take advantage of it. Some 52 percent of St. Anthony’s residents are Catholic, and about another 20 percent are Christian.

The idea persisted. The grunt work began.

It didn’t look as if the proposal would clear the first hurdle, the archdiocesan finance council. But the new archbishop, George, threw his weight behind it, “and God rewarded him by making him a cardinal,” said Maslowsky with a laugh.

Catholic Portland soon had its third prelate in a decade, Archbishop John Vlazny, previously in Winona, Minn., who is regarded around town as a low-key leader and good listener. Vlazny was not only supportive of St. Anthony, but has established an archdiocesan housing office and provided official and financial impetus to the new projects.

Maslowsky admits that finding the St. Anthony financing was “tricky -- because our mission was to provide care for the low-income population.” Seventy-eight percent of the residents are on Medicaid.

The millions in basic construction funding come from federal tax credits and bonds sold under state authorization. Plus there was $1.5 million raised from private donors. That money helped with the childcare facility -- and with the raised gardens where residents, parishioners and the children can have plots for vegetables and flowers.

The entire five-acre site was razed, the church placed at the center and the village built around it. “The financing has always been touch-and-go,” said Maslowsky. “We’re subject to fluctuations in the economy. Oregon is facing a severe cut in Medicaid funding, the governor has cut Medicaid reimbursement to assisted living facilities -- and I’m spending a lot of time at the state legislature testifying. Our bonds are at a high interest rate, but with the archbishop’s support we’re going to be able to refinance at a lower rate.”

The village has a few “market-rate” apartments and plans to open some more. The hope is that the market-rate units will help provide some additional funding, particularly for the Alzheimer’s unit. (When the elderly are dying the village staff try hard -- unless specialized nursing is essential -- to keep their residents until the end.)

Maslowsky is full-time pastor and full-time real estate man, but a move is in the air. The priest expects to be reassigned sometime in the year ahead. He has no idea where. Whatever the job, however, his role in the villages will continue.

Monday morning. One of the village residents was out, determinedly taking her morning exercise, pushing her walker along the village paths.

Inside, resident Maureen Dentler, 81, talked about her transition from her own apartment to the assisted living unit. She moved because her children worried about her living alone.

“I love it. I like people,” she said, and she likes her room. There, she reads and writes poetry. She talked about her 10 children and many grandchildren, and some of the hard times. We held hands and sat quietly during tearful moments. But she quickly brightened and agreed to bring out some poetry.

For decades her poetry, along with her prayers, have kept her buoyed.

She won’t give poetry readings, and only rarely shares it. But appropriately, there was one about St. Anthony. One from a few years earlier, though, caught the flavor of aging gracefully -- the ability to laugh at oneself. (See poem below.)

St. Anthony’s -- and “Fr. Mike’s” -- reputation is spreading. He provides a weekly commentary on a local TV station and through the parish Web site, www.fathermikeonline.com. Maslowsky has a small but growing following in India, a place he’s never been. That’s because parishioner Ed Newbigin sends Maslowsky’s Sunday homily overnight on a disk to Mexico where his son, John, who runs a branch of the family agricultural sprinklers firm, downloads it onto the Web site and distributes it to the world.

A poem by a resident of St. Anthony Village:
A Writer’s Consternation
There are juices seemingly flowing
In this partially rusted out brain
For ideas come tumbling and rolling
With the speed of a thundering train.

I don’t know what to do with these words
Left orphaned and hanging in air
As they leap through my head and then vanish
While I sit bewildered and stare.

I hunger to capture these thoughts
Before they become just a glimmer
But one should possess a high-voltage brain
Instead of one turned on to simmer.

-- Maureen Dentler

Arthur Jones is NCR editor-at-large. His e-mail address is ajones96@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, March 15, 2002