PORTLAND, Oregon — 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.
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.
Msgr. Charles Lienert lived at Immaculate Heart as a new priest in the late 1960s and returned as pastor in the 1980s. He recalls Dawson Park as a family destination that also was home to harmless older alcoholics.
But by the 1980s prostitutes began to linger on the church steps and gangs claimed local territory. Danger escalated. Lienert witnessed a fatal shooting in 1988 and knows matters have only gotten worse.
“It’s harder now, more complex and larger,” Lienert 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.
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.
“The Portland Police Bureau is facing a critical staffing shortage with just 329 patrol officers to work 24/7 in three precincts,” said Terri Strauss, the bureau’s public information director. “We are doing what we can to respond to 911 calls, but the proactive policing is much more difficult.”
In addition, some neighborhood leaders cast police as oppressors and discourage them from coming to the area. Mangesho recalled that one officer left after neighbors came to chase her away.
“Thanks to the neglect we’ve seen around Dawson Park, three people have been murdered and all but our elderly neighbors have moved out in the past 18 months,” said Andrew Champion, who lives just down the street from Immaculate Heart. “We are hanging by a thread over here and absolutely nothing is being done about it.”
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.
“They are still our brothers and sisters in Christ,” Hardy said, recalling one drug user who dug into his pocket to donate $5 to the church.
“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.
Bill Russel has lived near the church for 75 years, with the exception of a stint as a Marine in Vietnam. He knows the district has problems, but he loves it anyway and seems to be everyone’s friend and spiritual mentor.
“It’s all under the control of God,” said Russel, a shiny crucifix hanging around his neck. He does his best to be a good influence for young Black men and leaves the rest in God’s hands. In case there is a need for blessing or healing, Russell carries a spray bottle full of holy water from Immaculate Heart.
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.”
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Langlois is managing editor of the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland.