CHINOOK — It’s been an icon in the area for more than 100 years, and a new restoration project aims to ensure it stays that way for many more.
On June 1, a crew with Dr. Roof began work on the renovation of St. Mary’s McGowan Church, located between the Chinook tunnel and the Astoria-Megler Bridge, a few feet from the Columbia River. Dr. Roof owner Glenn Trusty said his crew expects to be working on the renovations for about six to eight weeks.
The renovations are the most substantial the church has undergone, according to Bill Garvin, parishioner and church builder P.J. McGowan’s great-grandson.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a renovation this thorough, this extensive,” said Garvin. “There’s been piecemeal work done, I would say, every 10 or 15 years — painting, just repairs — as needed. But nothing as comprehensive as this.”
The last time the church experienced a major renovation was almost 60 years ago, in 1962. With that in mind, Trusty was expecting his crew to encounter more problems with the building than they have, which has been a pleasant surprise.
“The ‘bones’ of the structure are pretty good, with all things in consideration to its age … Things were built good back then, things were built a little differently,” Trusty said.
Like many residents of the area, Charlie Peliza and his wife are Long Beach Peninsula transplants. They began visiting the area about 10 years ago, and eventually decided to move to the peninsula for good. Whenever they visited the area and drove by the church, he always thought there was a symbolicness to it.
“It made you feel like you were coming home, when you finally came across the bridge,” Peliza said.
Now, Peliza serves on the McGowan Restoration Committee and acts as the liaison between the contractor, Dr. Roof, and the church. Peliza’s family background is construction, and was pleased to find out later on that the church was actually part of the St. Mary Parish.
“It’s been really fun, and it’s a great place to come worship in the summertime when it’s open. It’s just nice to be part of it,” Peliza said.
A rich history
The town of McGowan was established in 1853, a year after P.J. McGowan took a Donation Land Claim and started a commercial salmon saltery that was located on pilings on the river. Prior to that, the area had also been home to a Chinook Indian village and a Roman Catholic mission established by Father Joseph Louis Lionnet.
The church was erected in 1904, about 99 years after Meriwether Lewis and William Clark spent 10 days in what was dubbed Station Camp in November 1805 before crossing the river to occupy Fort Clatsop for the winter. The land for the church and the cost for its construction was donated by P.J. McGowan, and today it marks the site of the community of McGowan. The church is wrapped within the Middle Village-Station Camp Unit of Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, its future use enshrined in an agreement with the National Park Service.
“It’s such a great old church in terms of not only a visual icon on the river, but the family connection to how it was built and when it was built,” said Garvin. “It’s so significant, because it’s got a great piece of the layers of history on the entire site.”
Since 1904, the only notably different feature of the church from when it was built is the color of the building. It was originally painted white, but it weathered out very quickly and transformed into a blueish gray, which it has been kept as ever since.
The interior of the church has also remained true to its original form, with no heating or other utilities. Mass is held at the church during the summer, on Sundays from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and conditions are usually pleasant enough for parishioners inside the building.
“No heating, no electricity, no water. It’s a very primitive church, and we obviously had the opportunity to maybe do something about that, but we said, ‘No, let’s leave it the way it is,’” said Garvin. “That’s kind of the charm of it, it’s really a step back in a different era.”
Looking to the future
Over the next two months, the crew with Dr. Roof will remove and replace the siding on the three main sides of the church and the tower, replace window trims, restore the original front entry doors, repair the deck and give the church a new paint job that is as precisely matched to the current blueish gray color as can be.
For Trusty and the Dr. Roof crew spearheading the renovations, the intent of their work is to stay on top of the church’s needed maintenance, while also preserving the church’s historical character.
“We don’t want you to be able to tell that anything was done, other than that it looks fresh and new, like it got a good bath,” Trusty said.
Along with the support of the St. Mary Parish, Garvin said the outpouring of support from the community has made the project feel like a real team effort. Through public awareness campaigns both online and through word-of-mouth, the church received enough donations over the past several years to begin the restoration, including a donation of materials from Oman and Son Builders Supply to restore the church’s east wall.
The hope is that the current renovation will stave off any need for other large-scale restoration projects for many years.
“Judging by the last 115 years, it has withstood the elements very well, and we’re confident this will allow it to do it again,” Garvin said.
Trusty, also a member of the McGowan family after marrying his wife, Hillary, said ensuring the preservation of the church is something that the whole community can get behind.
“[We’re] hoping that people will continue to donate, to keep this iconic property in its state and condition it will soon be in [after the renovations are completed] for years to come, so everybody gets to enjoy it,” said Trusty. “This is probably one of the most exciting, just rewarding projects that we’ve ever worked on, frankly. It’s a piece of history.”