The power of a name. A Golden Jubilee.
To formally create their new religious community, the Sisters of St. Mary had to seek permission from the Roman Curia. In 1926, the Sisters received their “decretum laudis” (Decree of Praise) from the Congregation for Religious in Rome.
The decree added two words to their name. Records show that those two words were only used in church documents until they were adopted by the Sisters’ Council on Feb. 11, 1950.
But those two words have resonated across decades.
The Community had become the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon.
Big dreams in the midst of the Great Depression
On Sunday, May 26, 1929, The Oregonian newspaper reported that the Sisters and St. Mary’s Institute would soon have a new home, built on 35 acres at a cost of $350,000.
The article, which appeared on page two, includes what is believed to be the earliest sketch of the building, which was designed by Portland architects Barrett & Logan.
It describes the proposed structure as “entirely fireproof…of reinforced concrete faced with brick and trimmed with terra cotta.”
The article notes: “At the present time, the sisters have charge of two academies, two homes for orphan boys, two high schools and six parochial schools.”
Five months later – in October 1929 – the stock market crashed.
The world would soon be plunged into the Great Depression.
But the Sisters held firmly to their vision.
Groundbreaking took place on March 19, 1930: the Feast of St. Joseph.
School enrollment had dropped because of the Great Depression. To save money, the Sisters moved the furnishings from the old Motherhouse to the new building themselves, accompanied by laborers who worked on the Sisters’ property and high school-age boys from St. Mary’s Home.
On September 22, 1930, that now historic building became home to the Sisters and their school. In the new building, St. Mary’s Institute had a new name: St. Mary of the Valley.
The new Motherhouse was four stories high. It included the central wing with the dome and the west wing, where students studied and lived.
As the struggles of the Great Depression continued, the Sisters received approval from Rome to build a chapel and dining area on the south end of the central wing – if Archbishop Edward Howard also approved the project. He did but required that the Sisters wait one year.
After establishing a building fund, the Sisters received their first donation: $25 from Father Joseph Heesacker. By 1934, the fund had grown to $6,000.
Father Charles Seroski, the convent chaplain, provided $5,000 during his life and another $10,000 after his death. After Archbishop Howard gave the Sisters permission to take out a $14,000 loan to complete the project, groundbreaking took place. It was also held on the Feast of St. Joseph: March 19, 1936.
Mother Seraphim Theisen later wrote that the chapel “is Romanesque architecture, fifty by one hundred and one feet; and seats four hundred and fifty on the main floor.” She added, “Stained glass windows from the old chapel were rebuilt and used wherever possible; several new ones were added.”
The planned east wing wouldn’t be built for more than a decade.
A dedication, a pageant and a Golden Jubilee
The dedication of the chapel on Oct. 25, 1936, marked the beginning of the Sisters’ 50th Jubilee. The full name was: “The Golden Jubilee of Profession of the First Ten Sisters.” (It’s unclear why the title referenced 10 Sisters. Five Sisters took their vows in 1887. Four Sisters made their religious profession in 1888.) The Catholic Sentinel printed a commemorative book to honor the occasion.
Like the original Motherhouse, the chapel was dedicated to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. For the foundresses of the Community, it was, as Archbishop Edward Howard noted, the culmination of their hopes, dreams and desires.
To mark what The Oregonian called the climax of the Golden Jubilee, the Sisters hosted the “Queen of the Valley Historical Festival and Pageant prepared by Sister M. Eugenia of the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon.” The pageant was held in the Benson Polytechnic School auditorium in northeast Portland on Sunday, May 2, 1937.
The headline of The Oregonian article proclaimed: “Jubilee Pageant Draws Cast of 1100 Children.” With participating students from 23 grade and high schools where the Sisters taught, the pageant included a 64-piece student orchestra and a large cast wearing colorful costumes. The Oregonian said the pageant included “a colorful processional and seven episodes depicting the ever-onward trend of Christianity and the march of Oregon progress” and the ways in which the cultures of different countries had enriched the life and culture of the state.
One week later – on Sunday, May 9 – Archbishop Howard celebrated a Pontifical Mass in the chapel.
As the Sisters publicly renewed their vows, the archbishop noted that “the true greatness of a congregation does not lie in its beautiful convent or the many schools it conducts, but in the spirit that has prompted that work.”