The early years in Oregon: from Jordan to Sublimity to Beaverton
The train arrived at Portland’s Union Station barely one year after Portland had been linked to America’s national railroad network.
From Portland, the group – including Emma Bleily and 16 other Sisters and aspirants – traveled to Jordan, Oregon, on an Oregon Railway Company train consisting of an engine, a wood car, two passenger coaches and three freight cars.
Located in a beautiful valley at the foot of Snow Peak, Jordan became their home. But as they settled into a two-room log cabin that was still unfinished, the women were isolated. The lay trustees claimed power over the Sisters and the money that Father Albrecht had left for them.
This photo and description are from “These Valiant Women,” written by Wilfred P. Schoenberg, S.J. © Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon, 1986.
Officials in the Archdiocese of Oregon City (now the Archdiocese of Portland) were frustrated. The trustees preached but had no education in theology. They established a “convent” but weren’t within the jurisdiction of the church.
Worried about their spiritual development, the young women asked for help from a Benedictine monastery in Mt. Angel – 30 miles away. Father Wernher Ruettimann, OSB, was the answer to their prayers. He became their spiritual leader.
In 1885, the new archbishop – William H. Gross, CSR – traveled to Jordan. Speaking to the women in German, he told them – kindly but firmly – that they were not religious women in the eyes of the church. But, impressed by their faith and sincerity, he asked them to “be my Sisters and help me with my work.” The trustees were furious. The Sisters were determined. They signed an oath of allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church and severed their ties to the Jordan community.
With only the clothes on their backs, eight of the women boarded wagons headed for Mt. Angel, where they would be housed and fed by Benedictine monks and Sisters. A ninth young woman, who had been in hiding with a sympathetic family, joined them in Mt. Angel.
After the young women had settled at Mt. Angel, Archbishop Gross offered two locations for their new Oregon convent: Milwaukie or Sublimity. They chose Sublimity, where a building was already in place. On Aug. 14, 1886, Emma Bleily and Catherine Eifert traveled to their new home. One day later, they took part in their first Holy Mass at Sublimity.
Seven months later – on March 25, 1887 – the Feast of the Annunciation – five Sisters made their first Profession of Vows: Theresa Arnold (who soon left the Community), Emma Bleily, Cecilia Boedigheimer, Josephine Eifert and Clara Hauck.
Emma Bleily – now known as Sr. Wilhelmina – was elected as the first Mother General. She was just 29 years old.
The community was penniless. When Sister Cecilia’s father provided $100 for train fare, Mother Wilhelmina and Sister Cecilia went to the Minnesota, Wisconsin, Philadelphia and Baltimore to raise funds. They returned with money, a teacher and three postulants. In 1888, the Sisters began their educational ministry at St. Boniface in Sublimity, later expanding to Verboort.
Because the Sisters had little formal religious training, Archbishop Gross believed that the presence of a trained Sister would benefit the future Community. In 1890, he invited Sister Mary Ludmilla Langenbach of the Sisters of the Precious Blood to serve as the ecclesiastical superior of the congregation. Mother Ludmilla oversaw the daily activities at the convent, requiring studies, manual labor and lessons of obedience, poverty and humility until her departure in 1892.
A home for children and a new home for the Sisters
The creation of a home to care for and educate orphan children was a priority for Archbishop Gross. In 1889, he approved construction of St. Mary’s Orphanage in Beaverton, Oregon, and asked the Sisters to staff it.
By June 1891, three Sisters were serving in Sublimity and three were serving in Verboort. All of the other Sisters had moved to Beaverton.
The building opened while the interior was still unfinished. Some rooms had wooden floors but a corridor was bare earth. The surrounding land was covered with pines, firs, bushes and vines.
The days were long. The Sisters fed, bathed and clothed 60 children and tended to the buildings and grounds.
The Sisters and children harvested crops – including onions – to sell at the local farmers market. The older children joined the Sisters in gathering berries and nuts in the woods. It was years before they had butter, sugar or eggs.
By 1892, Mother Seraphim Theisen – now the second Superior General – realized that the Sisters needed a Motherhouse.
It was built on what is now the northwest corner of Tualatin Valley Highway and Murray Blvd. at a cost of $2,600.
On January 18, 1894, Archbishop Gross dedicated the Motherhouse to Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
It had been just 10 years since the Sisters arrived in Oregon. That decade was just a preview of the changes to come as a new century began.