Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Waterloo Of Boomer Catholics

A Portland parish went native. A priest tried to clean it up. The grey ponytails fought back

This is pretty amazing. A couple of Portland readers have sent me this story about what happened when the Catholic archbishop of Portland sent a priest in to reform a wackadoodle progressive parish that had gone native. The Oregonian’s report on it is hysterically biased, making the priest look like a monster; the reporter never once appears to have considered that Catholicism is a religion that has clear norms, and this parish’s previous leadership had seriously violated them, for a long time. Anyway, from the story about St. Francis parish, identified by the newspaper as having “long been known as a bastion of progressive Catholic faith.”

The Roman Catholic Church is rooted in tradition and hierarchy. Jerry Harp, chair of St. Francis’ pastoral council, is struggling to understand how he relates to this structure of authority. It was this hierarchy that was roiling his parish.

Harp considers himself a devout Catholic. He starts every morning with mediation and prayer and prays the Hail Mary at least once a day. He tries to attend Mass every Sunday. When he was in his 20s, he said he wanted to follow every rule he could. Now he questions how those rules bring him closer to God.

“Some would say ‘Well you have to relate to the authority structure by following them to the letter,'” Harp said. “Well how do you know that? It’s perfectly legitimate for other people to have other answers.”

Long-time parishioners knew the answer. They didn’t like being told how to worship.

This was their church.

At least one Hail Mary each day! My gosh, this crypto-Protestant (“it’s perfectly legitimate for other people to have other answers”) is a lay Curé of Ars for our own time!


Chapman retired in 2017. Monsignor Charles Lienert came out of retirement to take over as administrator, but only for a year. When his assignment was over, George Kuforiji was assigned to St. Francis by the archdiocese and took over July 2018.

Parishioners said the changes he made were almost immediate.

For years, St. Francis used inclusive language in its scripture readings. With references to God, for instance, they avoided using “he,” “lord” or “king” and instead used simply “God” or “creator.”

Kuforiji switched readings to traditional scripture, no longer allowing the new wording.

St. Francis outlined their values in a community commitment that parishioners would read after the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed. Kuforiji replaced the pamphlet and cut out the community commitment.

Parishioners brought their own copies and still said the words.

The parish’s handwoven altar cloth was a gift from a village in Guatemala the parish had helped. Parishioners showed up to Mass one Sunday last summer to find that Kuforiji replaced it with a plain white cloth.

Monsignor McHitler didn’t stop there — and neither did the brave parishioners of St. Francis. Then:

June 30 was a Sunday, and Mass was scheduled for 9:30 a.m. But before hymns could be sung, prayers could be said or the bread and wine consecrated, parishioners protested.

Days earlier, they’d found cherished items in a trailer headed for the dump. Now, 16 mostly gray-haired parishioners stood on the church steps facing Southeast 12th Avenue. Most were dressed all in white and held the large black and white photographs that had been stripped from the walls of the church.


During the prayers of the faithful, a time for community prayer, parishioners prayed for what happened to the vestments, yelling from the pews.

Kuforiji stood at the pulpit with his arms outstretched, silent.

In the pews, one woman stood with her face buried in her hands. Another said the protesters should respect the church they were standing in. She walked off. A few others followed her out.

At the end of Mass, Karen Mathew, former music director at St. Francis, took the pulpit to lead the congregation in song. The song began, and Kuforiji walked away.

On one side of the aisle, parishioners shook maracas, hit tambourines and clapped their hands. They sang loud. On the other, parishioners were quiet.

After the song, Melinda Pittman, a parishioner who has been at St. Francis for 30 years, took the pulpit. She said she had walked out to talk with Kuforiji when the song began.

“I said that for the last year we have been wanting real dialogue,” Pittman said. “I said we are being abused. We are being abused in the Catholic church by this priest and by this archbishop.”

They interrupted and ended the holy sacrifice of the Mass. If this action doesn’t demonstrate why the Archbishop had to reclaim this renegade parish for the Catholic Church, nothing does.

Read the whole thing. Note that neither Archbishop Sample nor Father Kuforji agreed to be interviewed for the piece. It is impossible to protest that your side is not covered when you won’t talk to the reporter. Still, it seems from what’s there that the reporter had his mind made up at the beginning; that the archbishop and the priest did not want to talk to him is a defensible decision.

This past weekend, I was talking with a Catholic priest about obstacles to the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church reuniting. I didn’t know about his story then, but it’s a perfect example of why it’s not going to happen anytime soon. The fact that a Catholic archbishop would have to reform a parish that had gone so very, very far off the liturgical rails is the kind of thing that makes Orthodox Christians, who are extremely serious about liturgy, alarmed.

Here’s a short video of the elderly radicals disrupting mass and protesting. Poor Father Kuforji.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JT3TD2nUclI&w=525&h=300]

UPDATE: Let me add a more sympathetic coda. As a thought experiment, put yourself in the shoes of these people who have been living out this bizarre leftist semi-Catholicism for decades. As distorted as it is, this is what they’ve known. And now it’s been taken away from them. I’m not going to go full relativist here; they needed to have this taken away from them, because it’s not Catholicism, and the people of that parish deserve to have the Catholic faith. That said, I was just listening in the car to an interview with Sister Helen Prejean, the progressive nun best known for her work on the death penalty. She’s 80 now, and has a new memoir out. She is very, very much on the Catholic left, and if I were still Catholic, I would see her as a force of disorder and decline. That said, even when I was a Catholic, I’ve always had a heart for Sister Helen, who is from south Louisiana, and in whose voice I hear my neighbors. I think (have always thought) that she’s badly misguided on many things, but … well, I have a soft spot for her. I think her generation brought some really bad things to the Catholic Church, but it doesn’t take too much imagination to get an idea of where they came from with at least some of this.

It would be nice, though, if the people protesting at St. Francis would give a moment’s thought to all the orthodox, traditional people, now long dead, at that parish who saw what was happening to their parish, and who were not listened to, whose views did not matter, because all the progressives were busy singing a new church into being. It’s hard being on the other side, isn’t it?

UPDATE: Reader PW writes:

Rod, your title made me laugh! You have absolutely no idea how spot-on you are!

I once lived 3 blocks from this church about a decade ago. Admittedly I only attended Mass once. The parish was viscerally not a good fit for me. The picture drawn by the secular paper is somewhat accurate: a tiny parish filled entirely with aging flower children nearing the end of their life’s journey. The “liturgy” was almost unrecognizable and the heresy flowed like water. They were, however, friendly and welcoming folk.

Something not mentioned in the piece: for a long while, the parish was essentially run by a lay woman who would essentially contract out for priests as desired. It was a frankly bizarre arrangement even within the confines of the Portland Archdiocese. It’s fascinating that the parish was allowed to sail on for so long in that fashion. I think the piece doesn’t do justice to how totally outside the norm literally every aspect of the parish was, from governance to liturgy.

Another thing that I think should be mentioned: the good people of St. Francis have a true, honest, clear devotion to the poor. Truly they have a charism of sorts. The parish has run a dining hall for the poor for as long as I can remember. When I lived there, the parish grounds included a “park” that was basically an abandoned lot next to the church. They permitted homeless people to squat there. I believe the park has been replaced with low income housing, I presume with input from the parishioners. The amount of effort in helping the homeless put forth by these people cannot be overstated.

Rod’s post on this pretty much goes through my own range of emotions on the matter at hand.

On the one hand, this group of whacky liberals has been allowed to run, essentially, a rogue pirate ship under the banner of Catholicism for eons. It was unfathomable to many that it went on for so long. I don’t know how much of that was the sympathies of liberal forces within the diocese, or just a distaste for causing a scene like what you read about here.

It was just inevitable that something would change. If nothing else, the parish was going to just die out when the last of its geriatric congregation passed on. (Maybe that was the thought process of the previous couple of bishops?)

It’s also deeply ironic to see the parishioners react with such vitriol to a simple return to liturgical norms. I can think of countless local examples of the opposite: some ordinary parish is taken over by Fr. Limpwrist, and before you know it the church has been disemboweled until it resembles a Unitarian worship space. Oh how the wheel turns!

On the other hand, these people created a weird spiritual home for themselves. They put a lot of effort into it. I am a little sad for them. They’re just lost sheep, too stubborn to be shepherded.



Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now