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The Oregonian: Downtown's St. Michael fundraising to repair 112-year-old church, expand social outreach
Author: Sara Hottman
Posted: July 22, 2013

Read the original article in The Oregonian here.

At 10 a.m. five days a week, a line -- mostly of men, mostly quiet -- forms along the Southwest Mill Street side of St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church.

It's caught the attention people who live in the neighborhood's high-rise condominiums and work at Portland State University. Many of those people are nonbelievers or of a different religion, says Father James Mayo, but they've since become volunteers or donors for St. Michael's social services.

The church has been an outreach center in the downtown University District for more than 30 years, despite its cramped kitchen and pantry.

"It's a work of mercy," laughs Rosemary Rettig, a parishioner and social services manager at the church, which serves lunch five days a week and distributes food boxes three days a week.

A $6.2 million expansion project has been in the works for a decade to repair St. Michael's 112-year-old sanctuary and expand its kitchen, pantry and community room, in turn growing its social service offerings. Fundraising has surpassed $4 million, and now the church is beginning to look beyond its 300 parish families to finance the project.

His first winter at the parish nine years ago, Mayo was struck by the fact that the church served sandwiches to people who had to eat them outside in the rain. With a new community room, they'd be able to eat inside, fulfilling Mayo's broad vision of social outreach, including meals, groceries and medical care.

"All people are of our interest and care," Mayo says. "The hopes, joys and sorrows of all people are our hopes, joys and sorrows."

Mayo says the church's care for the marginalized returns it to its roots, when poor Italian and Jewish immigrants who formed the neighborhood used the church as a social center.

The Italians constructed the church in 1901 from bricks they made on site. The simple structure is three layers of brick. Grand, bright Povey Brothers stained glass windows decorate the sanctuary; the parish was poor, but still opted for the stained glass known as the Tiffany lamp of windows, Mayo notes.

After 112 years, the mortar is weak and the balcony and dropped ceiling are weighting down the walls, requiring wires stretched across the curved ceiling to stabilize the building.

The project plans for a seismic retrofit and removing the dropped ceiling and balcony, displacing the parish for more than a year.

Removing the balcony will reveal stained glass windows that have been obstructed for more than a century. All 15 stained glass windows will be repaired and cleaned, and new exterior protection will be applied so the stained glass is as striking from the street as it is from the sanctuary, Mayo says.

The community room area will be nearly doubled, expanding underground to add a full-sized commercial kitchen and a larger pantry with more storage, so the meal programs can stock more nonperishable food and produce. Rettig says she often has to turn down fresh produce from the Portland Farmers Market and Whole Foods for lack of space.

Rettig's pantry at present is a neatly stacked wall of canned and boxed goods that looks like an old-time corner store. Like a neighborhood market in the 1950s, people pick out what they want and someone behind the counter bags it up for them. Last year the church gave 4,671 people 107,880 pounds of food.

The expansion will also create a meeting room for social workers and medical providers to meet with the people the church feeds, adding a new service to the church's outreach.

To top it off, the church will replace its fenced off garden -- and Mayo's private garden -- with a public garden. A staircase from Southwest Fourth Avenue will lead to a garden with seating.

"We want it to look like a welcoming place," Mayo says. "Jesus met people's immediate needs first and then looked at their spiritual needs."