6/28/2017 10:06:00 AM WATCH: It's no Jurassic Park
Priest retirement complex full - and full of energy, residents say
Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel Fr. Rock Sassano, 86, extinguishes a candle after Mass at St. John Vianney priest retirement residence in Beaverton. The active priest moved in after surgery five months ago and says he has enjoyed his life there.
Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel Fr. Rick Sirianni helps Fr. Vincent Cunniff vest for Mass. Younger priests often help their older confreres with matters like shopping and doctor visits. If any resident does not show up for dinner when expected, someone checks on him.
BEAVERTON — Hands gnarled from 64 years of priestly work, Father Vincent Cunniff cradles a missalette and reads: “One thing I ask of the Lord, this I seek: To dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.”
Father Cunniff, a 96-year-old veteran of World War II, has dwelled for 21 years at St. John Vianney, a residence for retired priests from the Archdiocese of Portland. Almost always joyful, Father Cunniff’s mood parallels a new vibrancy at the Beaverton residence, which is a collection of 14 individual one-story apartments.
“St. John Vianney has been improved in just a matter of months but about six guys who have some of the life juices left in them,” says Father Edmond Bliven, 91.
“For a long time, people were afraid of this place,” explains Father Bliven, confessing he never would have come but for a neck injury. “All I can says is, they saved my life.”
The 14 apartments are full, after being half empty for a couple of years. Wags once dubbed the compound Jurassic Park, after the science fiction films about reserves for dinosaurs. The name never quite fit, but certainly not now.
“I just love this place,” says Father Rick Sirianni, a longtime pastor and military chaplain. “It has just the right balance of community life and the chance for private living.”
Father Sirianni, 66, stepped forward as superior, carrying on the work of Father Scott Vandehey and Msgr. Art Dernbach. Father Sirianni can be found cutting the meat of older men, or helping them get into vestments for Mass.
In general, healthier priests help their older or sicker brothers with matters like grocery shopping or trips to the doctor. If a man does not show up for dinner as expected, someone checks on him.
“Kindness is not something we have to work at,” says Father Rock Sassano, 86.
A famously active priest, Father Sassano has embraced the aging process, having weathered a cancer operation. “I have enjoyed it here very much,” he says five months after moving in. “I don’t have headaches and I don’t give them.”
St. John Vianney is not a nursing home. It’s a residence for priests who can mostly care for themselves. When more professional aid is needed, Maryville is just across a field on the campus of the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon.
The sisters have a long tradition of welcoming elder clergymen. Archbishop Edward Howard lived under their care until he died at age 105. Archbishop John Vlanzy, who retired in 2013, has a home on the campus and visits his fellow retirees regularly.
The men make their own breakfast and lunch, but convene for an evening meal. They gather for Mass in a small chapel every day but Saturday. One of the residents, Father Francis Chun, organizes a weekly movie night.
Visitors come regularly, including from the St. Cecilia Parish men’s group and the Serra Club.
On the walls of the dining room are photos of Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI, plus an icon of the residence’s namesake — the great French pastor who loved his flock and serve intensely.
The property is in suburban Beaverton, but is lined with a forested barrier inhabited by deer, coyotes and rabbits.
“I dreaded coming out here,” says Father James Mayo, who moved in 18 months ago after a term as pastor of St. Michael Parish in Portland. “But I must say, I haven’t had a bad day here.”
Father Mayo, 70, says he can have as much privacy and as much company as he likes. The property is set up for that, with self-sufficient private apartments and common areas for watching television and eating.
These men have known each other for decades and decades. Father Sassano, for example taught biology to a young James Mayo at Mount Angel Seminary in the late 1960s
“I can get very emotional about this,” Father Mayo says. “I am very fond of these guys.”
Inevitably, food sparks complaints at retirement residences. Not so here. “I have been pleasantly surprised by the quality and quantity and variety of food,” says Father Mayo, who knows a thing or two about cooking.
The priests at St. John Vianney may be retired, but many are busy.
“It’s been enlightening and exhilarating,” says Msgr. Don Buxman, a longtime pastor and vicar for clergy who retired in 2013. He’s been traveling to parishes to check in on priests, finding what they need and discerning trends.
Other residents say Mass on the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon campus or at parishes around the region.
The gregarious Msgr. Buxman loves lingering over a meal, a luxury pastors don’t have. At 73, he treasures hearing from the 80- and 90-somethings. Table talk often turns to the history of the archdiocese.
“There is no way I would move away from here,” Msgr. Buxman says. “This is wonderful. I feel really cared for in retirement.”
The facility opened in 1993, the brainchild of then-Archbishop William Levada.
Father Todd Molinari, current vicar for clergy, has observed the new energy at St. John Vianney and says a retirement committee formed in 2013 has been trying to improve retirement for all priests. About 50 men total are now on retired status.
“It’s a place where guys still have vim and vigor,” Father Molinari says.
MaryFrances Casciato, property management coordinator for the archdiocese, oversees the needs at St. John Vianney. Casciato loves the job — and the priests. “They are so great and so fun,” she says. “We really want to help them to have as full a life as possible.”
Priests do pay to live at St. John Vianney — about $1,200 per month. Pets are allowed.
Father Sirianni offers a message for priests on their way to retirement who may be considering St. John Vianney:
“Don’t have any fears that you are stepping back into a seminary environment,” he says. “That is a concern for a lot of people, that there will be a little too much supervision and accountability. That’s just not true. People live their lives the way they want to live them, and the community piece is a happy addition to what’s here. We all agree it’s not in any way confining.”