VANCOUVER – Colleen Torrens can trace her family’s membership at St. John the Evangelist Parish back to its beginnings 150 years ago. Her grandparents were married in its first church in 1898.
“My great-grandfather William Curtin, along with his brother Michael Curtin, were homesteaders [in Clark County] — farmers from Ireland,” Torrens said.
From the first French and Irish settlers to a growing Hispanic and Asian community today, St. John’s has served a diverse population since its founding. The parish in northeast Vancouver marked its 150th anniversary at a November 4 Mass celebrated by Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, followed by a parish dinner.
In the past four years, St. John’s has grown from about 800 families to nearly 1,500 today, according to the pastor, Father Tom Belleque. “The parish is very attractive to a lot of folks,” he said. “It’s a welcoming community.”
The growth rate is challenging parish leaders to figure out how to actively involve so many new parishioners, he said.
“How do we welcome the gifts and talents new people bring, but still retain the spirit of the parish that brought us this far?” Father Belleque said.
‘Friendliest church on the planet’
During its 150 years, the St. John’s community has worshipped in four different church buildings. It was a mission of St. Thomas Parish in Camas until 1941, and then Sacred Heart Parish in Battle Ground. In 1974, St. John’s became a parish under the leadership of Father Sean Fox.
The church was able to expand when the Belisle family donated five acres to the parish, allowing construction of more classrooms, a rectory and a much-needed parking lot, Father Fox said.
Torrens said her father, Michael (baptized in the parish’s second church in 1918), told her stories about what the parish was like in the 1920s: “Everyone always sat in the same pews, and everyone was obligated to put 10 cents in the collection basket every Mass,” she said.
On Saturday afternoons, her father told her, he cut across the fields to start the woodstove in the Carriage House, the social hall, for Saturday night dances and potlucks.
That tradition as a social center continues today with the parish’s adult activities ministry. It hosts monthly social events, coffee and doughnuts after Mass and outreach events to a nearby correctional center and nursing home, according to parishioner Ken Lambrecht, the ministry’s president for the past 46 years.
“Getting people to know one another is a part of our Christian duty,” he said.
St. John’s has had a welcome committee since the 1980s, Lambrecht said, and part of its mission is providing greeters at all Masses. Greeter Mike Calderon said he walks in with parishioners who have disabilities. “I also try to smile at everyone, since it may be the only smile they get that day,” he said.
New parishioners report they joined St. John’s “because somebody talked to us [and] people took an interest in us,” Father Belleque said.
“Everyone who comes to St. John’s says this may be the friendliest church on the planet,” Calderon added.
The first St. John the Evangelist Church in Vancouver was built in 1868. Three more church buildings followed in the parish’s first 150 years. Photo: Courtesy St. John the Evangelist Parish
Helping the community
St. John the Evangelist Parish also takes pride in its outreach efforts.
“It’s one of the most generous, serving the needs of the less fortunate,” Father Belleque said.
Calderon, a parishioner since 1971, was one of those who noticed the needs of a growing number of Spanish speakers moving to the area in the late 1970s. He and his wife Ruth traveled to local dairies in their blue van to pick up Spanish-speaking families and bring them to the parish’s monthly Spanish Mass.
“I give credit to our Blessed Mother of Guadalupe who gave me the urge to gather her children,” Calderon said. “I was just living the Gospel. This is what we are asked to do.”
Parishioners also pitched in to help this community of newcomers by donating food, heating oil and furniture (the type of assistance now provided by the parish’s Society of St. Vincent de Paul conference).
Eventually, the parish began offering Spanish Mass every week. Calderon said he encourages all parishioners to attend the 11:30 a.m. Sunday Mass to meet their Spanish-speaking fellow parishioners.
“Discrimination divides us,” he said. “We do our best to overcome it through prayer and what we do.”
The current St. John the Evangelist Church in Vancouver was dedicated in 2005. Photo: Courtesy St. John the Evangelist Parish
A milestone and the future
The parish began its anniversary celebrations with a Memorial Day Mass at the parish cemetery, the site of the first mission church, according to Deborah Bourque, St. John’s stewardship coordinator.
That was followed by a parish picnic in June, the first in many years, Bourque said. Parishioners shared recipes for a cookbook and the parish directory was updated with an overview of the parish’s history. Pews and other artifacts from the early church buildings were on display at the November 4 anniversary Mass.
As the population around St. John’s grows, bringing more parishioners, parish leaders are considering several construction projects to meet the increased need: adding classrooms for faith formation, creating a new facility for St. Vincent de Paul, and renovating the parish hall and kitchen.
Although the area around St. John’s is becoming more urban, “everyone is still so warm and welcoming,” Torrens said. “You can’t take the country out of us. That’s just our way.”
St. John the Evangelist Parish history
1868 – St. John the Evangelist Church is dedicated by Bishop A.M.A. Blanchet, first bishop of the Diocese of Nesqually. Father J. Duffy and Father Halde are the first recorded priests to serve there.
1871 – The first St. John school is situated just east of the present-day parish cemetery.
1885 – St. James Cathedral (now the Proto-Cathedral of St. James the Greater in Vancouver) donates its old pews and Stations of the Cross to the parish.
1908–1909 – The second church is built; it is dedicated September 26, 1909, by Seattle Bishop Edward O’Dea.
1949–1950 – Volunteers erect the third church under the leadership of Father Joseph Vogel. It is dedicated December 3, 1950, by Archbishop Thomas A. Connolly.
1964–1972 – The rectory, fireside room and more classrooms are added.
1974 – After years as a mission of St. Thomas Parish in Camas and Sacred Heart Parish in Battle Ground, St. John the Evangelist becomes a parish. Father Sean Fox is the first resident pastor.
1981 – Monthly Spanish Masses begin; the parish becomes home to Catholic Hispanic ministry in southwest Washington.
2003 – Construction of a new church begins after several years of discussion about meeting the needs of a growing community.
2005 – The current church is dedicated by Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio Elizondo.
2018 – Pastor Tom Belleque serves a parish of 1,500 families.
Source: Deborah Bourque, St. John the Evangelist Parish stewardship coordinator