Renovation planned for Downtown Chapel to heighten visibility

From the Catholic Sentinel, September 2 2008

It’s hard to tell at first glance, cruising past Sixth and Burnside, that the plain building on the corner is a spiritual and social service powerhouse.

Homeless and low-income people in Portland’s Old Town have long known that the St. Vincent de Paul Parish Downtown Chapel is a place of deep hospitality. And Catholics from all over the metropolitan area come to this bustling corner to serve and have a soul-cleansing encounter with poverty.

Thanks to a planned renovation, the general public may start getting the idea, too, especially the thousands who will be riding by on the new Sixth Avenue transit mall.

Designs are being developed and reviewed at the parish for a new exterior canopy. Larger, lit signage and a cross will leave no doubt about the mission. A bronze bell will ring out the call to worship and an art gallery facing the transit mall will show the chapel’s work in the community.

Inside, new lighting and a baptismal font will foster prayer, which is the central activity at this church in the heart of the city. Carpet, which tends to hold the scents that are part of homelessness, will go. The exposed concrete floor will be polished to give a stone appearance and to simplify cleaning. Many parts of the 14,000-square-foot building already are packed daily and see a lot of foot traffic.

Father Jon Buffington, a chaplain at Portland Providence Medical Center, is writing an icon for the chapel that depicts Christ as healer.

“Healing is such an important part of what we do — touching addiction and brokenness,” says Holy Cross Father Bob Loughery, pastor here for seven years.

The chapel is not a mission where people must hear preaching before getting help.

“The idea for us is to live out the faith,” says Father Loughery, himself trained as an architect. The building, he explains, must also put the gospel on display a bit more.

The neighborhood has not changed as much as the priest thought it might in his years here. Despite some signs of gentrification, it is still the site of the Greyhound bus station, cut-rate residential hotels and many social service agencies. The faltering economy has stalled any changes, the Father Loughery surmises.

Richard Brown, the architect working on the proposal, predicts the neighborhood will long remain a mix of high- and low-income residents. But it’s major characteristic is that of a crossroads, where autos, buses and streetcars carry tens of thousands of people past each day.

The building across the street has had numerous incarnations. For a few years, men dressed as women would stand in line around the block as the tavern was known for its drag queen beauty contests.

Some Downtown Chapel parishioners come in BMWs while others arrive pushing shopping carts.

Here, worshipers pray for homeless people who die with no family. Anyone can drop in for a warm cup of coffee or a snack. The church even gives homeless people a chance to write poetry, play music or have a professional portrait taken.

“One hardly knows what the building is,” says Brown. “We are working with the parish to get a little more identity for the outside.”

Brown has worked on New Seasons markets, Mercy Medical Center in Roseburg, a synagogue and a Buddhist monastery, among other projects.

A few years ago, Father Loughery added some dash to the second floor, which serves as a parish hall and quiet art room for homeless people during the week. Workers applied warm colors to the walls and cheery paint designs to the exposed concrete floor.

The current plans take into account energy conservation, for example using energy efficient lighting. Father Loughery dreams that one day the chapel will be topped with solar panels.

The Jesuits served at the chapel for years. Then Holy Cross Father Dick Berg arrived as pastor in the late 1980s and forged ties with the University of Portland which have remained strong. Students, including those planning to be nurses, volunteer here.

The Portland Development Commission is on track to back the facade renovation, though the city will not pay for anything overtly religious. The parish is planning an $800,000 campaign to fund this work and to establish a capital fund for future building improvements. Already, more than $100,000 has been donated or pledged for the campaign, which also includes the cost of modernizing the elevator.

Built as a hotel about a century ago, the building became the parish’s home in the 1970s when the old chapel was demolished to make way for the U.S. Bancorp Tower. Legend has it that the hotel could get rowdy in its day, when dock workers, seamen and other laborers would rent rooms. There was apparently a murder in the building and there have been hints of a ghost — the chapel’s elevator at one time opened when no one had pushed a button.