by Jack Bibb, 2003
Although gold miners worked the streams of Plumas and Sierra Counties from the early days of the Gold Rush, the town of Portola didn’t have its beginning until 1905, when the Western Pacific Railroad bought the Boca and Loyalton Railroad. The little settlement began as a headquarters for work on the rail line. According to one source, Portola officially entered the Plumas County Board of Supervisors minutes on August 14, 1909. By 1910, the little town had a population of 400 people, but the nearest Catholic churches were in Truckee and Reno.
Catholics in the Feather River country had been served by a succession of “circuit rider” priests beginning as early as 1852, when “a certain Father Acker visited the town of Downieville, on the North Fork of the Yuba River.” Father Shanahan, who was the pioneer missionary of Nevada City, made his first trip into the mining camps of Sierra County in the spring of 1853, probably coming as far north as La Porte. In 1856, Father Cornelius Delahunty was made resident pastor in Downieville, and the mining camps in the southern section of Plumas County fell under his jurisdiction. “Father Delahunty traveled faithfully up the rugged trails into this wild secluded region from La Porte to Jolmsville until he was called away to Virginia City in October, 1861. From 1862 to 1869, a Father Lynch traveled from Downieville to the declining placer diggings in the southern end of Plumas County. In 1869, Father Lynch’s place was taken by Father William Moloney who became the first Catholic missionary to visit the Genesee and Indian Valleys.
The trail Father Moloney followed led up from Downieville to Sierra City, from which it continued northwards to Johnsville, a popular mining town on Deer Creek; above Johnsville it connected with the Beckwourth stage road leading into Quincy, the County seat of Plumas County … from here he proceeded on his way to Greenville … he cut over into Indian Valley, and stopped a the towns of Taylorsville and Genesee … whence he continued … to Johnstonville and Susanville, where he held services and performed baptisms. He started back to Downieville, over one hundred miles below, at the end of the trail in Sierra County. He is said to have made the same long trip during (1870) … and every year thereafter until 1874, when the missions in Genesee and Indian Valleys were taken over by the pastor of Truckee. The chain of towns beginning with Chester at the northern border (of the county), and including in turn Greenville, Crescent Mills, Taylorsville, Genesee, Quincy, Mohawk, Johnsville, Graeagle, Portola, and Chilcoot, received regular ministrations by the priests of Reno and Truckee until 1929, when Father Patrick McTague became pastor of Plumas County, establishing his residence at Portola.
Other Catholic churches built in the area around Portola included a church remodeled from an old school house in Loyalton in 1908; a church, now long-disappeared, located on what is now County Road A-23 near the Plumas County-Sierra County line; and a church in Beckwourth, built by Catholics in 1873. There is a record of a Father Kiely who journeyed to Loyalton from Reno to hold mass in 1888.
In his very informative Sierra Valley, Jewel of the Sierras, James J. Sinnott includes the following, which he gained from the
“Historical Souvenir and Directory of the Church of the Assumption at Truckee, California, and the Missions attached
Thereto, including Lake Tahoe, Sierra Valley, Portola, Quincy, and Indian Valley.” This document came into Mr. Sinnott’s possession from Mrs. Betty Dellera of Chilcoot. The document states that
Up until the year 1912, the parish of Truckee embraced all that part of California lying east of the Sierras and north of the Southern Pacific Railroad, including all of the counties of Modoc, Lassen, and Plumas, and part of the counties of Sierra, Nevada, and Placer.
Sinnott gained another account from Mrs. Mary Mattox of Loyalton and Father Bernard Bums of Holy Family Parish:
In 1929 the Rt. Rev. Robert J. Armstrong, Bishop of the Sacramento Diocese, established the Parish of the Holy Family of Portola. Included in the Parish were the mission churches of Loyalton, Quincy, Greenville, Graeagle, Johnsville, and Walker Mine … Prior to the establishment of the above Parish, Father Horgan of Truckee traveled to Loyalton to hold Mass. Of interest in the history of Catholic Churches of the vicinity of Sierra Valley is the fact that the bell in the Catholic Church of Portola is from a church at Johnsville, which was built in 1899, which latter church was served in the 1920’s by Father John 1. McGarry who traveled there from his home church in Downieville, extending his trip to Johnsville after visits to Howland Flat, Gibsonville, etc., in northern Sierra County, making the trips on horseback.
The year 1929, then, marks the permanent establishment of a Catholic church in Portola.
The Succession of Priests
Father Patrick McTague graduated from All Hallows College in Dublin, Ireland and was ordained June 20, 1926. He came to Portola in 1929. He was instrumental in building the original church building on the comer of Taylor and Pine Streets, facing the railroad yards to the north. Father John McGoldrick succeeded him in 1937. Father McTague later served in McCloud, Redding, Yreka, Sacramento, and North Sacramento. He died in 1981.
Father McGoldrick had been appointed Assistant Pastor of Holy Rosary Church in Woodland in 1931 before coming to Portola in 1937. During the early part of Father McGoldrick’s term in Portola, which lasted until 1946, McGoldrick was assisted by Father Michael Myles.
The two men lived in Portola and served the communities of Portola, Loyalton, Quincy, and Greenville. Later, Father Myles moved to Quincy, serving that community and Greenville. Father Schaeffer succeeded Father McGoldrick. It was during Father McGoldrick’s term that the rectory was built next to the church. A copy of the original contract dated March 27, 1936 and signed by contractor 1. W. Spriggs and Father McGoldrick exists in the records of Holy Family Parish. In the Portola Reporter for April 4, 1936, an article headlined “Father McGoldrick to Have New Residence,” the writer states that “6 local area lumber companies have agreed to donate lumber for the project.” Father McGoldrick was a friend with Jack Hamilton, World War I veteran and then yardmaster for the Western Pacific Railroad in Portola. Hamilton was a Mason. Because of his friendship with Father McGoldrick, Hamilton recruited a group of Masons to help with the building of the rectory. Later, Hamilton’s son, Jack, Jr., converted to Catholicism. In his oral interview, Gerald Gervais, who moved to Portola in 1946, recalled seeing a man on Commercial Street early one morning, which, according to Gervais, was dressed in working clothes and needed a shave. Gervais, who had moved to town very recently, was startled when he went to mass the next Sunday and saw that the man, then in the robes of a priest, was Father McGoldrick.
Father Schaeffer, a native of Ohio, was Holy Family Parish Priest from 1946 to 1954. He was an avid fisherman, Parish member Bob Rowden recalls that Father Schaeffer once drove his Jeep into Wades Lake above Johnsville and couldn’t get the Jeep back up the trail down which he had come. , Rowden says it took parish member Hugo Menesini two weekends to winch the Jeep out of the canyon. Jerry Gervais recalls how he helped Father Schaeffer shovel off the roof of the Social Hall in 1952, the “year of the big snow,” and how Father Schaeffer kept offering him “a little nip to keep off the cold.” Jerry states he had a hard time explaining his condition to wife Agnes when he returned home. Father Thomas O’Brien succeeded Father Schaeffer.
Father O’Brien served Holy Family Parish from 1954 until 1961. He presided over the building of Holy Rosary Church in Loyalton in 1954, which to this day carries the title “mission church.” Holy Rosary Church was dedicated in 1955. Father (later Monsignor) Patrick Corkell succeeded Father O’Brien. In later years, Father O’Brien served in Redding and Anderson.
Father Corkell served Holy Family Parish from 1961 to 1967. Many of his parishioners fondly referred to him as “the high priest” because of his stature. He was well over 6 feet five inches in height. In 1965, the church was enlarged; local contractor John Bronson “split” the church along the east-west axis and moved the north half closer to Taylor Street, then filled in the middle. Parishioner Delia Bonta remembers well the date of the completion of that work because her wedding rehearsal was held in the church just before the tile was laid on the floor, and her wedding was the next day. A few years later, builders Eddie Pitzer and Don Ross built a more spacious entrance and toilet facilities and roofed over the porch and steps. After leaving Portola, Father Corkell served in Burney. In 1960, before his assignment to Portola, he served as Chaplain at the Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California. Before his death in 1995, he was made Monsignor. Father Bernard Burns succeeded Father Corkell.
Father Burn’s term at Holy Family was from 1967 to 1998. Because the length of years he spent as Portola’s parish priest, his life is treated in a separate section of this article. Father Glenn Dare succeeded him in 1998.
Father Dare was the pastor of Holy Family Parish in November 2003.
Updated November 12, 2012 by Barbara Jaquez …
Father Walsh from Ireland succeeded Father Dare in 2004. Father Walsh was a very spiritual leader, who was known for his jovial ways and gentleness. He often returned from retirement in Ireland to visit his friends and former parishioners.
Father Joel, from the Philippines, succeeded Father Walsh.
Father Rainier, from the Philippines, succeeded Father Joel. Father Rainer possesses a child like spirit and taught his parishioners a genuine love for Christ is set by example. He was often found serving others, even serving food at the Parish dinners.
Father Arlon Vergara, OSA, an Augustinian, and also from the Philippines succeeded Father Rainier in 2012.
Father Bernard Burns
The following is excerpted from a speech made by the author at Father Burn’s retirement party in June of 1998.
Father Burns was born August 8,1929, in County Cavan, Ireland, in the Parish of Killeshandra. He was the eldest of the four boys and one girl born to John and Jane Burns, a farming family. When it was time for him to go to school, his parents sent him to the National School, the equivalent of an American elementary school. The school was in Arvagh, 2 miles away, and young Benny walked to and from school every day. He wore boots in winter, but always looked forward to the spring when he could go barefoot to school. He attended National School from grades one through eight. A promising scholar, Benny felt a pull toward the priesthood even before his eighth grade year. However, most farm boys in County Cavan couldn’t hope to go beyond the eighth grade, and most of them didn’t want to, anyway, preferring to return to the farm or go into the trades.
Education beyond the National School was expensive, and most Irish families could not afford to send their sons to be schooled as priests, and schooling in other professions was out of the question. John and Jane Burns were determined, however, and their answer to the question of how to pay for their children’s educations was “If God wants it, we’ll be able.” Eventually, all five Burns children went on to some form of higher education in Ireland.
It cost 10 pounds per year to send 14-year-old Benny Burns to the Moyne School, or, as it more formally know, St. Mary’s Apostolic School, in North Longford, Ireland. Today, Moyne can count more than 600 of its alumni who are priests, almost all of them natives of the dozen rural parishes within a 20-mile radius of the school. The Moyne school is a direct descendent of the “hedge schools” of Ireland which had their beginning under the repressive regime of Oliver Cromwell of England (1653-58). Cromwell forbade education in Gaelic and any Catholic teachings. The “hedge schools” were classes held in secret to circumvent Cromwell’s rule.
Benny studied Latin and Greek, Christian doctrine, English Composition, and mathematics, earning high marks in all courses, And, at the end of his four years at Moyne; he was accepted as a Seminary student at All Hallows College in Dublin. All Hallows was a boarding school whose day began with 6:30am prayers and was filled with classes and study. In their first two years, the young Seminarians were in the Philosophy Department, where they studied mathematics, history, and English. In their last two years, the ‘ House,” they were in the Theology Department, studying Dogmatic Theology, Moral Theology, and Scripture.
But All Hallows proved to be not all work for Benny. He excelled in sports, playing soccer, hurling, tennis, and handball. His favorite was soccer, or as the Irish call it, “football.” There were 200 boys in All Hallows at that time, and there were at least two soccer games every aftenoon played among the eight teams organized on the campus.
All Hallows prepared its young men not for Ireland but for the world. They left the seminary for places like South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand – even such far away lands as California in the United States of America. And it was to California, in the Diocese of Sacramento, that 20-year-old Benny Bums, or, rather, newly ordained Father Bernard Bums, was sent after his ordination on June 21,1953.
He was assigned to Chico, as Assistant Pastor of St. John’s church, and served there until being sent to St. Mary’s Church in Arcata, in 1958, again as assistant pastor. He described his time in Arcata as his “first experience in small-town California.”
After three years in Arcata, he was called back by the Diocese Sacramento in 1961 to be Assistant Pastor at the beginning of Presentation Parish in Carmichael. In 1963, he was given another job, this time as a Teacher of Religion at Bishop Armstrong High School in Sacramento. After a year, he was sent to St. Basil’s Parish in Vallejo as Assistant Pastor, where he worked generally with the youth of the parish for three years, 1965-1967.
In 1967 he Burns was called to Family Parish in Portola, a place he knew nothing about. He served Holy Family from that date until his retirement in 1998. After retiring, he moved to his native county of Cavan in Ireland, from which he enjoyed a yearly trip back to the United States to visit friends and parishioners in Portola and Loyalton.
The 1990’s Building Project
(The following is extracted from the Minutes of the Building Committee of Holy Family Church, 1992-2000. The author was secretary of that committee.)
During Father Burn’s 31 years as Pastor, Holy Family grew in spirit and in membership. In April of 1992, in response to hi~ call for a parish meeting to discuss repairs to the sanctuary, specifically a leaky roof, a group of men and women came together. Under. Father Burn’s leadership, the discussion ranged far beyond fixing a leaky roof. Discussion of building a new church on some property owned on the north side of Portola ultimately led, over the succeeding months, to a plan for building a new social hall, enlarging the existing sanctuary, and building a large paved parking lot. The death of a neighbor who owned the property directly west of the church (on the southwest corner of Taylor and Pine Streets) had prompted Father Bums to buy the lot for the church. That lot became the site for the social center, which today is called Father Bums Social Center. A parcel of land was bought from the railroad on the north side of Taylor Avenue to serve as the paved parking lot.
Parish members participated over the next five years in a pledged giving program to help raise money for the project. With the pledged money, the Parish was able to borrow from the Diocese the money for the building project. In April of 1994, the construction bid was awarded to Jeff Litz Construction Company of Portola, and work on the new social center began shortly thereafter. The completed hall was a two-story building with a large meeting hall and offices upstairs, and classrooms and a meeting hall downstairs. At its completion, the hall was dedicated during a visit from Most Reverend William K. Weigand, Bishop of Sacramento. Work then began on the expansion of the Sanctuary, and masses were held in the new social center until the sanctuary work was completed in May 2000.
Parish members serving on the Building Committee:
Father Bernard Burns
Father Glen Dare
Clyde “Buzzy” Baur
Jack Bridge was hired as Project Coordinator to be liason between the Building Committee and Jeff Litz, the Contractor.