When Valerie Chapman talks about the day she discovered St. Francis of Assisi Church in Southeast Portland, it sounds like falling in love at first sight — or perhaps the thunderbolt we imagine when a vocation is revealed.
It was the late 1980s and Chapman’s children attended St. John the Baptist School in Milwaukie, where the family lived. She was simply going along with a friend who liked St. Francis.
“I cried through part of the Mass,” Chapman, now 59, says. “It felt like home.”
St. Francis would become her work home over the next 30 years. The divorced mother of six began as the part-time faith development coordinator Aug. 1, 1989, and was named a pastoral associate in 1993. She became pastoral administrator in 1995. Working with a priest moderator, she has led the parish ever since in every regard except for officiating at sacraments.
Father Robert Krueger, priest moderator at St. Francis since 2004, believes Chapman is the longest tenured parish leader in the archdiocese.
“For everybody in the parish, when you think of St. Francis you think of Valerie,” says Rob Justus, who serves on the administrative council. “And when you think of Valerie, you think of her amazing commitment to the Gospel, especially the preferential option for people who are poor.”
St. Francis will have a new leader in July. Chapman’s last Mass as pastoral administrator will be June 25.
Hers was a surprise vocation. She lacked seminary training or the network of pastor friends that young priests can count on. “There are so many pieces to a parish,” she says. “Pastoring is a huge job. I feel graced about the people I’ve worked with, who keep the parish going.”
While Chapman didn’t have management or seminary training, she did have experience as a mother. Her oldest was 17 and her youngest 5 when she began at St. Francis. “My best training was running a household on my own,” she says. “You learn how to do things on a shoe string.”
For leadership, she still returns to the necessity of being an example at home. “You model what you can,” she says. “And you ask for forgiveness when you screw up. I cringe looking back at my mistakes.”
Chapman’s bachelor’s degree in the social sciences helped her understand humankind’s seemingly random and illogical ways.
She had been studying Scripture at Marylhurst, but transferred those credits to Portland State University, where she earned a master’s degree in education during her part-time years at St. Francis. The degree was in case her church career didn’t work out.
She tells younger women who want a career in the church that they shouldn’t go straight to studying Scripture but also concentrate on learning practical management and people skills. Leadership, she says, is a dialog, not a lecture. “We don’t come in to tell people. We’re here to walk with people,” she says. “Jesus should be our model. He walked with people — and no one’s too good to sweep the floor. Sometimes the best ideas come from maintenance.”
Holy Names Sister Clare Roy and Philomena McGill, pastoral associates when Chapman began, were her mentors. McGill offered a vision of the church in today’s world and insights into women serving the people. Sister Clare was vigilant about humble details.
“She taught me how to get candle wax out of altar cloths,” Chapman remembers.
Chapman says working at St. Francis changed her immeasurably — for example, she’s now a vegan and she doesn’t drive (she commutes by bike and on the Orange Line).
“St. Francis is a wonderful community, devoted to social justice,” she says. “Community has a way of shaping you.”
Karl Hammann, chairman of the administrative council, says that shaping was reciprocal. “Valerie puts Catholic social teaching into everything she touches,” he says. “She’ll have business people helping but everything gets redone in the Catholic social justice model. Looking back, it was really delightful.”
St. Francis Dining Hall, where 300 people eat an evening meal every week, is at the heart of the parish’s mission. Chapman believes the dining hall and parish function as well as they do because they’re based on the principles of community and relationship.
That relational work, she warns, takes time.
Father Krueger, who came to St. Francis when he retired from pastoring St. Andrew Parish in Northeast Portland, says Chapman’s effectiveness arises in part from her compassion and understanding of people in need. “She’s remarkable in her ability to diffuse a violent situation and to really understand the people we serve at the dining hall,” he says. “She’s able to walk up to them and say, ‘You seem troubled.’ Then she listens and they calm down.”
Over the years, Chapman earned a doctorate in ministry, something that will allow her to teach pastoral ministry at the University of Portland.
It will be a return to an old role for her. “I’ve always loved teaching — helping people achieve those aha moments where an understanding opens up to them,” she says.
Unsurprisingly, her model is relationship teaching. Don’t expect her to start lecturing — although she might preach a bit here and there.
Back at St. Francis, parishioners are grateful for what they’ve become.
“We hope for a priest who has a real love for what we do — working with people who are poor because of severe damage in their lives,” says Father Krueger. “They’re not always easy to work with.”
“The charisms to service have really been embedded into the culture of the parish,” says Justus. “What I love about St. Francis is there are homeless people in the pews. We’re all part of the same community.”
Sunday, June 25: Chapman’s last Sunday as pastoral administrator
Friday, June 30: a goodbye and thank you to the community, 6 p.m. in the parish hall.