The History of Oaks Pioneer Church (Chapel)
In 1851, Lot Whitcomb donated land and a partially completed two-family house to the Episcopal Diocese to serve as St Johns Episcopal Church on the outskirts of the budding pioneer town of Milwaukie. Though Whitcomb had perhaps envisioned that the church would still be in service 145 years later, he probably did not foresee that it would be moved three times, including once by barge up the Willamette River. The church’s first move in 1862 was both a logical and modest move closer to Main Street in downtown Milwaukie. At this early stage, St. Johns Episcopal was a simple white structure in the Neoclassical style of many New England churches of the period. With Shiplap siding, narrow corner boards and casings, double- hung multi-paned windows and no steeple, the church had only a small belfry set on the roof above the entry to identify it as a house of worship.
In 1869, the chancel of the church was extended by three bays, and in 1883, a major remodeling job was begun. The simple square windows were transformed to their present gothic style, a steeple and stained glass windows were added, new interior diagonal sheeting and trim were applied to the original, an enclosed entry vestibule was added, and the church had much of its present charm and appearance and was serving the community in its full capacity as both a church and a place of community activity.
In 1928, the congregation was in such need of additional space that a basement with kitchen and meeting room were added below the church and vestry.
In the 1950s the church was moved to 2036 SE Jefferson, in Milwaukie, where a new church had been built next to it. At this time, the old building was used solely for Sunday school, the vestibule and entry to the church were removed and infilled, the floor was covered with linoleum, and a brick veneer structure with a shed room was constructed to link the church to adjacent buildings.
By 1960 the old church had fallen into disuse and was scheduled for demolition, but thanks to the efforts of Portland, Milwaukie and Sellwood civic leaders, $4,300.00 was raised at the last minute to hire LaBeck and Son to move the old church to its present location in Sellwood. In 1961 the church was shipped by barge to the ferry slip on the end of Spokane Street, where it was moved to the corner of Southeast Grand Avenue and Spokane and placed on a low brick foundation.
From this point on, St. Johns Episcopal Church would be known as Oaks Pioneer Chapel and was once again elevated to a pivotal role in the life of its surrounding community.
After the move, Sellwood and surrounding residents began to contribute time, money and appropriate “antiques” to transform the chapel back to its original appearance. The entry was restored with one of the original doors and another custom made to match it. Period furnishings were provided from various community sources: ceiling chandeliers custom-made from wall lamps in the Dublin House Restaurant; an altar table constructed by neighbor Hugh Blething; six pews purchased from an antique store, as well as seven obtained from a Quaker church in Newberg. In 1969 the Veterans of Foreign Wars dedicated a memorial flagpole to the chapel.
Since the 1960s Oaks Pioneer Chapel has undergone a number of restorative transformations, including its vestry addition, in the 1980s a carpet to replace the linoleum flooring that had been added in the 1950s, a rose garden and brick walkways to beautify its surroundings. Presently the chapel serves as a location for approximately 300 weddings per year, providing considerable operating income for the neighborhood association. Funeral services are also often held in the chapel as it continues to adorn the bluff above old Oaks Park and serve the community as a source of income and reminder to everyone of the historical nature of the Sellwood neighborhood and its Southeast neighbors.
(Article written by Heidi Cropsy for The Bee, January 1996. Reprinted by permission of The Bee.)