When I arrived at my residence in Portland after being appointed archbishop here, I soon noticed a framed sketch of a railroad car hanging on one of the walls. As a youngster I was somewhat of a railroad buff and I became curious about which one of my predecessors apparently shared that interest. It turned out that the sketch was an important reminder of how our Catholic Church went about sharing the faith one century ago. But this was no ordinary rail car. It was a railroad chapel car, one of three used in the early 20th century to bring the good news to Catholics who hadn’t seen a priest for many years.
Since then I have come to learn about 13 such churches-on-rails that served our scattered population from 1890 to the 1940s and thereby brought the gospel and the sacraments to folks who lived near the tracks. Three of them were sponsored by the Episcopalian Church, seven by the American Baptist Publication Society and three by the Catholic Extension Society. The sketch on the wall of my home was that of chapel car St. Paul, the only one of the three Catholic cars that never reached Oregon. The other two were named after St. Anthony and St. Peter.
On the Fourth of July weekend I traveled (not by railroad chapel car!) to Mill City where I was privileged to greet parishioners at the celebration of the 100th anniversary of St. Catherine Church. Two years earlier I had visited the same community for the blessing of the beautifully renovated church, a project undertaken in anticipation of this centennial year. Back when the church was established, Mill City was the center of Linn County’s timber industry. I learned that it was back in 1910 that a Catholic Chapel Car, the St. Anthony, visited Mill City, bringing a priest to offer the town’s first Mass. As in many other communities here in the Northwest, after the chapel car’s visit, Catholics in the community decided they wanted preaching and the celebration of the sacraments to be more than an occasional thing and decided to build a church, eventually dedicated on July 4 the following year by Archbishop Alexander Christie.
The St. Anthony was America’s first Catholic railroad chapel car. It was a Pullman-style car, retrofitted with pews, an altar, confessional and an office and sleeping room for a chaplain. It traveled all over the country and was so successful as a tool of evangelization that eventually it was joined by two more rolling chapels, the St. Peter, which first traveled the west in 1912, and the St. Paul, which toured the south beginning in 1915.
The Episcopalians and Baptists were ahead of Catholics in turning to chapel cars as a means of sharing the faith. But Catholics got in the business when the founder of the Catholic Extension Society, Father Francis Clement Kelley, saw a railroad car converted into a Baptist chapel-on-wheels at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Those chapel cars serve as a reminder to all of us about the enthusiasm Christian people had about sharing their faith more than a century ago. We share that enthusiasm and we too want to be innovative and creative in spreading our faith here in western Oregon and beyond in the years ahead.
“Sharing our Faith, Shaping our Future,” is the theme we’ve chosen for the Archdiocesan Capital Campaign, which is now underway. Railroad chapel cars certainly did the job for Catholics 100 years ago. Nowadays most of us live reasonably close to a Catholic church and almost all of our priests, like myself, are able to get around to visit parishioners on their own or in parish cars. But the challenge of supporting this same evangelizing mission today remains formidable and requires creativity and generosity as much as ever. We certainly won’t serve our future well if we don’t serve equally well those who shared their faith in the past, our retired priests. Without priests there isn’t much of a future for a sacramental church like ours and so the support of priestly formation is likewise important. Without priests, there is no Eucharist. Without the Eucharist, there is no church.
In addition, our evangelizing mission requires collaboration and confidence on the part of many individuals working in parish catechetical programs, ministry formation programs, campus ministry, prison ministry and many other services and programs that make it possible for our church to touch hearts and minds not so easily reached these days for all kinds of reasons, but not because they don’t live close enough to the tracks!
You may have noticed that I am traveling around the archdiocese this month with members of my staff to share information about the Capital Campaign before us. Many of us have already made our pledges. Letters have been sent out to all our Catholic households about this exciting challenge before us. The next 16 months will be an active time as we undertake an interesting ride across western Oregon, not in a railroad chapel car, but in partnership with one another as disciples in mission, called upon by the Lord to be his instruments for sharing our faith and shaping our future.
To be honest, I still am fascinated by trains. Those chapel cars of old may not be able to serve today’s needs, but we can. Please join me in praying for the success of the Campaign and the well-being of our growing Catholic family here in western Oregon.
Most Rev. John Vlazny
Archbishop of Portland