Unsung Heros: In Praise of Blanchet House Moms

Terry and Jim O'Hanlon 1952Terry and Jim O'Hanlon 1952

Terry and Jim O’Hanlon Sr. with son Jimmy in 1952.

An oral history of the behind-the-scenes work of incredible women who helped to build the Blanchet House of Hospitality and serve those in need.

Blanchet House of Hospitality opened its doors in 1952, founded by nine alumni from the University of Portland. They served hot meals mostly to men who found themselves unemployed and hungry on Skid Row in Old Town. The founders followed a template of charity created by Dorothy Day, the mother of the Catholic Worker Movement and the first mother of Blanchet House (BH). She created the concept of Houses of Hospitality, as places that provide food, clothing, and shelter to those who need it. Without question.

Much has been written about the founders but little of the women in their lives, behind the scenes at home, raising big Catholic families, making food, and modeling acts of mercy for their children. Mother’s Day is a time to honor and thank the women who made us who we are. It’s an opportunity to shine a light on the many mothers past and present who gave their labor and love so that others can be lifted up.

There’s nothing better than getting the story straight from the mouths of those who lived it! Women who were there in the early days, the children of those who have passed, and mothers who model the mission today offer insight into what makes a long-lasting charity.

Dorothy Day sharing a meal with volunteers at the Catholic Worker Farm in Tivoli, New York 1968.

Dorothy Day sharing a meal with volunteers at the Catholic Worker Farm in Tivoli, New York 1968.

Sally Anne Christianson (d. 2006), mother of 11, wife of founder Danny Christianson. A memory shared by son Jim Christianson: “The mission was a bootstrap operation as they were getting it up and going. They brought in a lot of the food from home. The dads relied on the moms to make sandwiches, soup, cookies, and baked goods. In our house, mom would make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the people down at Blanchet. The moms were making food while at the same time they had 2-4 kids at home.”

Terry O’Hanlon, 92, mother of seven, wife of BH founder Jim O’Hanlon: “I was actually very interested Dorothy Day’s work. It was a great movement that people were willing to sincerely get involved with those that needed help. I was very pleased when Jim said they were going to do this. I never thought as an individual that I would be able to do anything but as a House of Hospitality, we could.

The kids went down to Blanchet every week with their dads. I thought it was important for them to see that there are people who don’t have anything and that they should help them. Our kids got pretty indoctrinated into helping others.”

I really enjoyed going down to the house in the old days and just being there and welcoming people in. I had white hair really young and had a motherly look. One time I was there saying good morning as the guests came in the door. One guy picked me right up in the air and put me right down! That really scared Al Riley but I was fine.

Another time I was there and someone pulled up his pants and showed me a knife just above his ankle. He just showed it to me. I just liked to say ‘hello’ to people. I think somehow they liked it too. I didn’t think I was doing anything special.”

Ed O’Hanlon, son of Teri and Jim O’Hanlon, a previous BH board member: “I remember mom making pies one time for the Blanchet. She wasn’t a very good pie maker. (laughs) She stayed up way late into the night baking because she didn’t get the recipe right.”

Terry O’Hanlon: “I made 10 pumpkin pies one Thanksgiving. I used the pumpkins from Halloween and cut them all up and made all of these pies. I had to cook them until 2 am because I didn’t know you couldn’t freeze custard!”

Elizabeth “Betty” Feltz (d. 2018), mother of nine, wife of founder Gene Feltz. A memory shared by son Steve Feltz: “While dad was taking care of Blanchet, mom was busy at home raising a family of nine children, while teaching us the value of volunteering and giving generously of our time and treasures to those in need. Mom made sure we knew what Blanchet’s mission was all about, and why it was so important to dad and our family. She was a huge supporter of Blanchet in her own, quiet way. It was mostly through her support of dad while he spent every Saturday morning at Blanchet.”

Emily Harrington serving meals at Blanchet House, 2018.

Today

Emily Harrington, a mother of 2, married to Joey Harrington, grandson of founder Bernie Harrington. Emily is the first woman to hold the title of board president at BH. She founded the Harrington Health Clinic housed at BH with the University of Portland Nursing School: “My mama, Patty Hatten, has always been a representation of a woman who uses the gifts she was given in a generous and nonjudgmental way. I always think of the spirit of inclusion. The Catholic mothers I know always had a spot at the table, an eager ear, and moments of wisdom. They created a sense of belonging and a sense of community.

We are always talking about inclusion, equity, and generosity of spirit whether that is in acts of service or time with others with our kids. Relentless compassion and tenderness for those who are in the depths of loneliness or isolation. Filling up other people’s buckets. Simple messages like that for the kids. The gifts they have been given and how to share them with others. Be attuned to the needs of the less fortunate.”

Valerie Harrington, mother-in-law of Emily Harrington and mother of Joey Harrington. 

“We always wanted to model community service for our kids. There shouldn’t be strings attached to being a compassionate human being. To say hello and to ask how your day has been. See them perk up; someone cared to ask. Blanchet House is a place that the unhoused come to be nourished emotionally and spiritually.” -reported by Brenda Ray Scott

Mary Ann Walker, mother of four. She is the sister of Bill Reilly a current BH board member and the son-in-law of founder Tom Moore. In 2020, Mary Ann organized Lincoln HS families to make and donate more than 5,000 sack lunches for BH to serve to its homeless guests: “Blanchet House has been in my life since St. Thomas More elementary school. We always did service there as kids. This is one of many places that is serving the houseless with compassion. I love their message of acceptance for all. I feel compelled to do the bare minimum that I can do. Every day I think about what else I can do. A little bit of comfort.”

Alisa Sinnott Family photo

Alisa Sinnott family photo.

Alisa Sinnott, mother of four, current BH board member, and former Director of Christian Service at Central Catholic High School: “Archbishop Blanchet is buried in St, Paul, OR where I grew up. Catholic service has always been a part of my life. It was always who we were. It always came back to the church and serving others.

When I later became the director at Central Catholic I was always bringing students to Blanchet. The mission is so very important.

My dad was an alcoholic so I’ve seen what it can do in a family. It’s something we need to help people with. We shouldn’t put them down. I hope that people understand that alcoholism is a disease and mental illness is a disease. My dad was a beautiful man and it consumed him. I see him in some of the faces of those Blanchet House is serving. I think about the family they have. We’re not in this alone. We don’t come into this alone and we don’t leave alone. We need to help them. No judging, just helping. You can’t go wrong.”

–stories collected by Julie Showers

 You can honor a mom in your life by donating in her name to Blanchet House. Your gift will help feed and heal those suffering in our community and your honored mother’s name will be added to the Wall of Mothers at www.BlanchetHouse.org/OurMothers. You can also call 503-241-4340 to learn more.

 

 

 

 

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