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Despite dangers in Portland neighborhood, church must remain, says pastor


PORTLAND, Ore. (CNS) — On warm nights, Father Paulinus Mangesho sleeps in a back room, lest stray bullets pierce the rectory walls. Immaculate Heart Church, one of the most historic houses of worship in Portland, stands tall and graceful on what has become the city’s most dangerous block. The sidewalks are an open-air market for crack cocaine, prostitution and settling scores. Gunfire has left pock marks on Immaculate Heart’s soaring steeple.

The church is across from Dawson Park, home to diurnal picnickers and nocturnal ne’er-do-wells. Since the pandemic, those in the drug trade have spilled boldly across the street, setting up lawn chairs alongside Immaculate Heart.

“All this is affecting my parish,” said Father Mangesho, a 64-year-old Tanzanian missionary who came to Oregon in 2014.

Father Mangesho insists that Immaculate Heart must remain at this troubled spot as a blessing to the neighborhood.

“If someday we are not here, the Catholic Church will have failed and the devil will have won the war,” the priest told the Catholic Sentinel, Portland’s archdiocesan newspaper.

Sandy Hansen has lived near Dawson Park for a decade. She’s fed up.

“The park is ridiculous,” Hansen said. “You get hailed to buy drugs. Then in front of your house you see more drugs. People doing drugs are leaning up against the church.”

Mass attendance at Immaculate Heart began to shrink in the 1980s and now is down to a single Mass in English and another in Vietnamese. The street often is clogged with cars, the drug dealers doing business through rolled-down windows. Parishioners sometimes are forced to drive around the block to access the church. Sellers approach them as potential customers.

“People are sometimes reluctant to pass through that to go to Mass,” said Francis McBride, a parishioner since 1965 and chairman of the church administrative council.

Starting in 2020, the block saw frequent shootings, including one fight with semi-automatic weapons. Among the dead was a car-share driver picking up a passenger.

Two people sit beside Immaculate Heart Church in Portland, Ore., June 14, 2022. The sidewalk has become a marketplace for illegal drugs. (CNS photo/Ed Langlois, Catholic Sentinel)

“It’s harder now, more complex and larger,” Msgr. Charles Lienert, pastor in the 1980s, said, adding that a single parish can’t do much about the problems on its own, but can form alliances.

But there are complications with potential partners. The neighborhood has gone through heavy gentrification. New residents tend not to be churchgoers, so institutions like Immaculate Heart that once helped unify locals have been weakened by lack of membership.

Father Mangesho is disappointed that police come only if someone is shot and don’t help solve problems before they lead to violence. At one point during the racial justice tensions of 2020, police told parish staff that Dawson Park was a “hands off” zone, lest interventions spark riots. At the same time, many officers resigned.

In addition, some neighborhood leaders cast police as oppressors and discourage them from coming to the area. Father Mangesho recalled that one officer left after neighbors came to chase her away.

Ali Hardy, longtime staffer at Immaculate Heart, grew up in the neighborhood. She speaks with the groups who set up alongside the church, telling them she disagrees with their behavior. But she treats them with Christian kindness, giving them water when temperatures climb, for example.

“We need to be more out there,” she said. “It is an awkward unfortunate space right now. It is very, very complicated, and God is in charge of the very, very complicated. This is an opportunity for prayer for the neighborhood, for our brothers and sisters who have been trapped in the enemy’s snares, whether it be about the drug addiction, the drug sales or the poverty. It’s an opportunity to evangelize. And that’s what we’re called to do, right?”

Despite the problems, the neighborhood is home to residents who display goodwill and even joy.

Elizabeth Stansberry, a nighttime security guard, lives just across the street. She adores the parish, especially the food pantry crew.

“With all the crime going on, this is such a bright spot,” Stansberry said, adding that if people had basic needs met more thoroughly, drug use and crime would wane. “This neighborhood is amazing. It’s not a lost cause.”