by Chi-Nhan Vo
On February 11, 2016, the Mount Angel Seminary College I class underwent their second-semester of pastoral immersion at St. Andre Bessette Parish in downtown Portland, Oregon. Through the Red Door Retreat day program that St. Andre Bessette offers, the seminarians served free meals and conversed with guests, in addition to performing other duties, and reflected upon their experiences in group prayer.
The seminarians arrived at St. Andre Bessette at 7:00 in the morning and were welcomed by Ms. Becky O’Neil McBrayer, Director of Community Programs, and a number of other regular volunteers, who quickly set the group about at their tasks.
The majority of seminarians worked to serve food, sharing coffee, a hot meal, and fellowship with all who came through the parish doors. Others worked behind the scenes in the kitchen, in the food pantry, the clothes closet, and in the arts room. “When we finished we were able just to speak to the homeless people,” said Alex Valtierra, Jr., seminarian of the Diocese of Sacramento. “It showed how they are hungry- hungry for communion with other people. To be treated the same.”
After finishing the service at around noon, Fr. John Patrick Riley, C.S.C., Pastor of St. Andre Bessette, led the seminarians in celebrating Mass in the chapel below the dining hall. “What was really interesting and powerful for me was that this wasn't just any normal soup kitchen for the homeless, this was a parish,” said Andre Sicard, seminarian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. “As you walk in, the tabernacle, the altar, the church is right there . . . next to the place where the mission of the church is happening with the guests. It really made a vivid image of what Pope Francis calls for, ‘a Church for the poor, of the poor.’”
Mass was followed by a short walking tour of the area surrounding St. Andre Bessette. Seminarians were introduced to the MacDonald Center, the Sisters of the Road Cafe, and the Blanchet House, all of which provide similar support services for those in need.
Finally, the group returned to St. Andre Bessette for group reflection. As a whole, the group expressed their pleasure in being able to serve and, through that, to be served, but also disappointment in not being able to do more to aid the poor. However, seminarian Thien Hoang of the Archdiocese of Portland commented, “Sometimes we aspire to do something big and great to help others, but a lot of the times, doing the simple thing, such as helping the poor directly through institutions such as St. Andre Bessette, can make the biggest difference.”
St. Andre Bessette parish has operated out of its current location at SW 5th St. and Burnside St. in Portland since 1971. It was founded in 1919 as the Downtown Chapel by Mr. P.J. Hanley in order to provide relief services to those veterans returning from World War I.
Since then, the Chapel has strived through depressions and wars to, in the words of its mission statement, “welcome all people – rich and poor, housed and homeless, healthy and ill- to share in the love of Christ through [its] Hospitality.” The parish runs many community programs in order to support Portland’s large homeless population, many of whom are unemployed and suffering from mental illness.