Our new Ed House at Old St. Francis School is scheduled to open July 1. The 17 lodging rooms are named in honor of inspiring teachers from the school's past, including one for Fr. Luke Sheehan, already the namesake of our Father Luke's Foundation Room.
His story includes an arduous journey around the world to the "wild and wooly west," a mission to establish the first (and still the only) Capuchin Franciscan parish in Oregon and an incredibly brave stand against the Ku Klux Klan.
Luke Sheehan was born March 27, 1873, in Cork City, Ireland. As a young man, he entered the Capuchin Franciscans, an order of priests and brothers inspired by St. Francis of Assisi. By 1910 and at the age of 37, having served in posts throughout Europe and the Middle East, Father Luke was sent around the globe to Bend. His mission was to establish a Capuchin parish, the first in Oregon.
It's difficult to imagine the arduous journey, but Father Luke described it beautifully, as only an Irishman could:
I was sent to find a new experience in the Wild and Wooly West. My introduction to this country was in the romantic days just passing into the annals of history. I arrived in Shaniko (Oregon) on a bleak, blustery December night. After the hospitalities of the night in a frontier town, I took my seat on the rocky, bumping stage. The stagedriver cracked his long lash, and away we started, over rocks and ruts, over dreary plains, over steep hills, and through endless canyons. . . . Seventeen long monotonous hours were spent covering a distance of 45 miles. Away again early next morning to repeat the experience of the previous day, and then we found ourselves in Bend. Here, fortunately, an old Irishman gave me a warm handshake, and under the influence of his genial cheer I forgot the sorrows of the journey. (excerpted from The Irish Capuchins in America)
Once in Bend, Father Luke got to work, making contacts and often heading out on foot to visit far-flung Baker Diocese parishioners. Along with Hugh O'Kane and Maurice Cashman (fellow Irishmen and prominent townspeople), he spearheaded efforts to establish St. Charles Hospital (Bend's first) in 1917. Three years later, the beautiful St. Francis Church rose high into the sky from atop a small hill in downtown Bend.
Once the hospital and the church were constructed, the final component of the parish was a school. However, development was met with a disturbing opponent: the Ku Klux Klan, whose main goal in Oregon was the suppression of Catholic influence. Whereas African Americans had previously been the target of the KKK's wrath, in the 1920s, anyone who was not a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant was at risk.
The Klan burned crosses on top of Pilot Butte, marched in robes around the St. Francis Church and committed acts of vandalism and desecration at the church and hospital. In hopes of bringing an end to the reign of terror, Father Luke attended a Klan meeting at the Liberty Theater in Bend. Acting as security for their beloved priest, parish leaders such as Cashman and O'Kane, as well as a few strapping Irish sheepherders, took front-row seats.
The KKK allowed Father Luke just eight minutes to speak from the stage. Amazingly, in that short time, the Irish priest brought about a tenuous calm, which led to the start of a period of healing. In the months following, persecution of Bend's Catholics diminished and the KKK's presence dissipated. It was also said that the 1922 arrival of Father Dominic O'Connor, Father Luke's nephew and a storied Irish Republican hero, intimidated Oregon's KKK.
Now, the remaining hurdle in the St. Francis School's development was money. Hugh O'Kane, one of Sheehan's longtime friends and namesake of O'Kanes Pub), left a substantial sum to the parish upon his passing in 1930. Cashman and Father Luke continued their efforts, which became even more difficult with the effects of the Great Depression. Lowell Jensen, one of St. Francis's original parishioners, remembered, "Father Luke had foresight: He insisted on building a big church. [So] he got the Knights of Columbus to help build the school."
Under Father Luke's guidance and many years of fundraising, St. Francis School opened in 1936. "Every so often [Father Luke] would remark how good it was to go down there and hear the patter of little feet in the building," remembered his fellow Capuchin, Father Bill Coughlan. Another of his colleagues, Sister Ann Bertha, one of the school's original teachers, said, "Father Luke was a great guy, very friendly and he loved us. He was so grateful to have us. And the kids - like at Christmas time - he just beamed because we'd have things for him, you know, little skits and so forth. He'd come over often [to the convent] just to be there [and] the little kids would go up to him, just snuggle up to him. They just loved him."
Sadly, Father Luke passed away less than a year after the start of the school session. His funeral was among the largest in the city's history - the Bend Bulletin wrote, "Every available bit of space in the huge church, erected years ago through the efforts of Father Sheehan, was occupied as parishioners, churchmen and close friends of other faiths came to pay their respects to the priest who played such an important part in the religious and civic life of Bend. Occupying a pew in the crowded church were six members of the Protestant clergy of Bend." Father Luke is buried beneath a Celtic cross at Bend's Pilot Butte Cemetery.