PORTLAND, Oregon — In anticipation of possible vandalism by anarchist and/or Antifa groups over Columbus Day weekend, members of Holy Redeemer Parish in North Portland plan to pray in eucharistic adoration and keep watch on church grounds the nights of Oct. 8-11.
The FBI reached out to several local Catholic churches vandalized this summer so staff and parishioners could be on alert.
“We don’t want to engage in any kind of confrontation, but we believe that by being present we can be a deterrence,” said Holy Cross Father Pat Neary, pastor of Holy Redeemer. “If anyone comes aggressively onto campus, we will contact the police.”
Columbus Day, observed Oct. 11 this year, is a federal holiday, but some localities, including Oregon as of this year, recognize the day as Indigenous Peoples Day.
In 2020, protesters organized what they called “Indigenous Peoples Day of Rage” and engaged in acts of destruction in downtown Portland the night before last year’s holiday, Oct. 12. The police declared it a riot.
Another “Day of Rage” is being promoted on social media this year, and the FBI is concerned that churches recently vandalized could be targeted. Four Portland Catholic parishes were vandalized this summer, though the motives in some instances are unclear.
The vandalism at Holy Redeemer, however, has been classified as a bias crime, also known as a hate crime, by the FBI. In the early hours of July 12, the church’s doors were spray-painted with an obscene critique of colonialism and an anarchist symbol.
FBI agents told Neary that anarchist and Antifa groups traditionally have targeted banks and other institutions but that they’ve started to vandalize churches as well. Agents believe the new focus may be tied to the discovery earlier this year of more than 1,000 unmarked graves at former residential schools for Indigenous children in Canada. Most of the schools were operated by the Catholic Church.
“As offensive as the vandalism was, I believe the individuals thought they were serving the good, making an important statement,” Neary told the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland. “At the deepest level I don’t think they were motivated by evil, though the manifestation of their views were misguided and not appropriate.”
October is designated Respect Life Month by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and organizers of the “Weekend of Prayer and Vigilance” at Holy Redeemer felt it was a fitting time to pray for victims of injustice as well as those who inflict injustice on others.
From 8 p.m. until 1 a.m. Oct. 8-10, the church will be open for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
“Jesus told us — pray for those who persecute you, pray for your enemies,” said Neary. “Sometimes I think we forget to do that, to confront injustice through love.”
With prayer will come practical action. The plan is for groups of four volunteers to take two-hour shifts from 10 p.m. to 6 p.m. over the four nights scheduled for the watch. The parish is finalizing protocols, but Neary reiterated the goal is to deter, not engage.
FBI agents said if there are people on a property and good lighting, groups are less likely to inflict destruction.
There will be sandwiches and breakfast bars for night-watch volunteers, and groups will make rounds on church and school grounds at designated intervals.
This planned night watch won’t be the first preemptive act intended to thwart wrongdoing at the North Portland church. The most dramatic situation was nearly 100 years ago and involved the Ku Klux Klan.
At the turn of the 20th century, the KKK had experienced a major revival across the United States, and by the early 1920s nationwide membership had reached more than 2 million.
Oregon — where residents were predominately native-born white Protestants — soon became home to the largest contingent of the organization west of the Mississippi River. Along with Black individuals, Catholics were among their targets.
One night in 1926, a ruse was in the works to damage the newly built Holy Redeemer Church. “Klansmen, who were in cahoots with the fire department, planned to send out fire trucks to the parish,” presumably as a distraction, Father Neary said. “The plan was for the fire trucks then to depart and the Klansmen to come in on their heels.”
But there was a Catholic ally in the department who tipped off a parishioner. When the KKK arrived, 21 feisty, rifle-wielding parishioners were ready.
No shots were fired, but the warning was sufficient. The Klansmen bolted.
“I’m not advocating this approach,” said Neary with a laugh. “But now is not the first time the parish has responded to threats.”
Regarding this October’s upcoming night watch, the priest said that volunteers have been signing up from both inside and outside the parish community and the weekend of vigilance and prayer is bringing people together.
“In an interesting way, God brings grace out of everything,” Neary said.
Scott is special projects reporter at the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland.