Department of Catholic Schools




Department of Catholic Schools Staff

Superintendent of Schools

Phone # 503-233-8300
Fax # 503-236-3683
Email:  Schools Department

Director of Personnel and Faith Formation
Gregory VanderZanden
Phone # 503-233-8348
Fax # 503-236-3683

Instructional Services & Accreditation Director

Phone # 503-233-8307
Fax # 503-236-3683


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    Brief History of Catholic Education in Oregon

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    THE ARCHDIOCESE OF PORTLAND IN OREGON is the second oldest Archdiocese in the United States. It follows only the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Maryland, which was founded in 1789. In 1996 the Archdiocese celebrated the Sesquicentennial (150th Anniversary) of its founding.

    To understand the development of this area within the Pacific Northwest as it was first colonized by American men and women pioneers, most of whom were of European extraction and many of whom were Catholic, mention must be made of two key geographic features, both rivers -- the Columbia (the northern boundary of the state of Oregon) and the Willamette, which runs on an approximately north-south axis from Portland.

    Exploring the Pacific coastline, American Captain Robert Gray discovered the mouth of the Columbia, which he christened for his vessel, in May of 1792. Gray's discovery of the river laid the groundwork for the United States claim to this territory. The first white settlement in Oregon took place under a party dispatched by the Pacific Fur Company who settled near the mouth of the Columbia in 1811, at a site they named "Astoria" in honor of German-born New Yorker, John Jacob Astor the founder of their company.

    Further inland, the Columbia was recognized for its extreme importance to transportation and commerce by the British-based Hudson's Bay Company, who established a trading post and supply depot, known as Fort Vancouver, in 1824, which is incorporated within the city limits of present-day Vancouver, Washington. One of the key reasons Hudson's Bay Company settled at Fort Vancouver was to take advantage of the opportunity for fur trade within this area, in part because of the number of streams which were home to the indigenous beaver whose pelts were so highly marketable at the time.

    The Chief Factor of the Hudson's Bay Company at For Vancouver, Dr. John McLoughlin (1784-1857), was a man of such tremendous importance to the future of our state, he earned the epithet, "Father of Oregon". As in many other areas his influence affected education: It was he who instigated the first school, which was begun at the Fort in 1832. Another aspect of Dr. McLoughlin's vision was that he personally sought to take advantage of the other major waterway, the Willamette River, by establishing a town site at its famous falls. Having staked a land claim there in 1829, Dr. McLoughlin named his town Oregon City when he plotted it in 1842.

     As early as 1829, former Hudson's Bay Company fur traders of French Canadian Catholic origin began to settle along the Willamette River near Champoeg. Wishing to continue in their faith, they appealed to Canada for missionary priests to serve the sacramental and spiritual needs of their growing families, many of which were of mixed cultures because of intermarriage with Native American women. Although the Hudson's Bay Company would not originally allow missionary activity south of the Columbia, Dr. McLoughlin interceded. As a result, Canadian-born Rev. Francis Norbert Blanchet (1795-1883) and Rev. Modeste Demers were dispatched as missionary priests from eastern Canada. On January 6th 1839, Father Blanchet was able to offer the first Mass in the town he christened "St. Paul" in the humble log cabin church the former Canadians had built in 1836 in anticipation of his arrival

    In 1843 Oregon was established as a Vicariate Apostolic with Father F. N. Blanchet as the first Vicar Apostolic. In 1846 this Vicariate was erected into the Province or Archdiocese of Oregon City and then-Bishop Blanchet was promoted to the singular position of first Archbishop.

    Although Oregon City was designated his See city (site of his ecclesiastical government), many of Archbishop Blanchet's "Firsts" were in St. Paul, which remained beloved to him and where he chose to be buried.

    Realizing the need for formal education for the children of what is known as "French Prairie", the Jesuit community established the first Catholic boys' school in the Pacific Northwest, St. Joseph's College, in St. Paul, which opened on October 17, 1843. To promote Catholic education among the female population (both women and girls), Archbishop Blanchet sought help from a Belgian Order, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. As a result, on September 9, 1844, six Sisters of Notre Dame opened the first convent school in Oregon, "Ste. Marie de Wallamette", in the premier Catholic center, St. Paul.

    Development in Oregon remained on a fairly even keel until the famous California Gold Rush of 1849 lured much of the male constituency south, which rapidly depleted both the manpower and financial resources of this young Archdiocese, leaving it nearly bankrupt. The Jesuit boys' school closed in June of the fateful year followed by the inevitable closure of the female academy in March of 1852. However, in October of 1859 (the same year in which Oregon became a state), twelve Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary arrived in Oregon and, on November 7th of that year, opened St. Mary's Academy in Portland, the oldest, continuously operated Catholic high school in the state. (Attendance the first day was six girls: Three Catholics, 2 Jews, and one non-Catholic.) By 1861, four Holy Names Sisters also reopened the school in St. Paul formerly run by the Sisters of Notre Dame.

    Catholic education was almost aggressively promoted by Archbishop Blanchet's successors, particularly by his immediate successor, Most Rev. Charles John Seghers (1839-1886). Seghers often lectured on Catholic education, opposing state involvement in the education of Catholic children. Unfortunately some of his remarks no doubt contributed to the anti-Catholic prejudice in Oregon that didn't fully manifest itself until the 1920s, the period of the nationally famous "Oregon School Bills." Putting his words into practice, Archbishop Seghers establisher more Catholic schools in the state. He also enlisted the services of Benedictine priests and Sisters in Oregon, which resulted in the founding of Mt. Angel Abbey and Seminary.

    Our third Archbishop, Most Rev. William Hickley Gross, C.Ss.R. (1837-1898), established the first community of women religious specifically to serve this Archdiocese in 1886. These Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon still serve the educational and nursing care needs of today. In August of 1885, the first group of Sisters of St. Francis (Glen Riddle, Pennsylvania) in the Pacific Northwest arrived in Baker City in eastern Oregon (which became the See for the Diocese of Baker City in 1903) to reopen the school that had originally been operated by the Holy Names. Archbishop Gross looked to California for educators, too, and invited the Christian Brothers to this Archdiocese. They came from San Francisco to open St. Michael's College in Portland in 1887. Gross also invited the Dominican Sisters to Oregon from California, which led to Dominican Sisters coming from San Jose to Portland to operate Immaculate Heart School in 1889.

    Our fourth Archbishop, Most Rev. Alexander Christie (1848-1925), was a champion of the parish school, but was also interested in higher education, and is famous for having promoted the founding of the University of Portland (1901). Toward the end of his term of office, he "fought the good fight" in dealing with the famous "Oregon School Bill." Introduced in July and passed in November of 1922 the bill provided that children must attend public school, rather than private. The bill was opposed by the Sisters of the Holy Names and the Episcopalian Hill Military Academy. This was a landmark case of national import which was finally appealed to the United States Supreme Court, where it was defeated in May 1925, just weeks after Christie died.

    Also during Christie's time, in June of 1921, then-Father (later Archbishop) Edwin Vincent O'Hara pioneered the first Catholic religious summer vacation school in the United States, in Cottage Grove, Oregon. O'Hara's catechetical program was the beginning of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, "C.C.D." O'Hara, famous for promoting the minimum wage and fair labor practices, was a former superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese.

    Fifth Archbishop, Most Rev. Edward Daniel Howard (1877-1983), who made personal history for his longevity, was also a long time promoter of Catholic schools. His determination was tested early, in 1931, in the case of All Saints Church in Portland, which involved a local zoning ordinance that would have stopped the building of a parochial grade school. Archbishop Howard appealed and won. He also championed an archdiocesan secondary school that resulted in the opening of Central Catholic High School in Portland in 1939.

    During Archbishop Howard's office, in 1928, the name of the Archdiocese of Oregon City was changed by Papal Decree to the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon to formally recognize the relocation of See city and cathedral that had unofficially occurred prior to 1900.

    Sixth Archbishop, Most Rev. Robert Joseph Dwyer (1908-1976), contributed to the cause of Catholic education in Oregon on a most pragmatic level. Leaving his former Diocese of Reno both solvent and better for having increased the number of Catholic schools from five to nineteen and having built a high school in Reno Archbishop Dwyer faced a debt of approximately $7 million when he came to Oregon. However, thanks to a pledge campaign caller "Action", the debt -- partly accrued due to the building of schools -- was liquidated.

    Our seventh Archbishop, Most Rev. Cornelius Michael Power (1913-1997), actively promoted Catholic education in Oregon during his office from 1974 to 1986, and named an established figure in Catholic education, Most Rev. Paul E. Waldschmidt, C.S.C. (former President of the University of Portland), as one of his two Auxiliary Bishops, with Most Rev. Kenneth D. Steiner.

    Archbishop, Most Rev. William Joseph Levada. (1936-__), was a staunch supporter of Catholic education at all levels and established a scholarship to encourage Catholic students to academic excellence. As an interesting parallel to the work of our first Archbishop Blanchet and his invention of the "Catholic Ladders" (a catechetical device used to teach the history of salvation), Archbishop Levada is also involved in Catholic education of a catechetical nature. He served as the only member from the United States on the Papal committee for the creation of the new Universal Catechism.

    Although only briefly stationed in Oregon before his appointment to the Archdiocese of Chicago, Archbishop Francis George, O.M.I., (1937-__) was equally supportive of Catholic education within the Archdiocese. He was a frequent visitor to schools, meeting with students and visiting classes.

    The appointment of Archbishop John George Vlazny (1937-  ) in October, 1997 to be the 10th. Ordinary for the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon was a wonderful gift to Catholic education over a period of fifteen years. As one who spent a long period of time as a Catholic educator and administrator in his lofty ministerial career, Archbishop Vlazny promoted and guided  Catholic education particularly in the area of catechetical foundation, formation, and growth. He inspired and encouraged our Catholic high schools to understand, support and implement the “Doctrinal Elements of A Curriculum Framework” for the development of catechetical materials for young people of high school age. Additionally, he tasked the Department of Catholic Schools with the responsibility to research, develop, and implement the catechetical certification of all Catholic elementary teachers. Finally, with the backing of his episcopal motto, “Go and Make Disciples,” he encouraged all involved in the ministry of Catholic education to embrace the “New Evangelization” as an active ministry in our Catholic schools in order to touch the hearts of our students. He was always pleased to celebrate Mass for our students, appealing to their best instincts in his homilies, and he will be remembered as a very joyful minister of the Lord with a bounding laugh

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