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'My faith was grown there': Portland woman recalls her family's ties with the old Clay Street church

Meriel Bernhard was married in the church in 1967, back when it was still owned by the same German congregation that had it built in the early 1900s.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Just a few days into 2023, smoke and fire filled the sky in downtown Portland as a historic church that had stood at the corner of Southwest 10th and Clay for more than a century went up in flames.

Three days after the building was gutted by fire, demolition crews brought the church's charred shell crashing to the ground.

The church building had been vacant for years. Its last tenant was the Portland Korean Church, whose congregation sold the building in 2015. Unused, the church became a frequent site for squatters, resulting in several fires at the building. The last fire brought about the church's demise.

In the week after the demolition, a woman whose family attended the Portland Korean Church for three generations spoke about its presence as a cultural cornerstone for Korean immigrants and their families. For them, it was so much more than just a church.

KGW got in touch with the Oregon Historical Society to find out more about the history of the building at Southwest 10th and Clay. Though some things have been lost to time, the historians delivered.

It all started in the 1870s with an Evangelical reverend who wanted to start German missionary work in Portland. In 1877, that reverend gave his first sermon in the basement of the English Presbyterian church at 3rd and Washington streets, doing so in German. From there, the German-speaking congregation grew.

In late 1879, the German congregants dedicated their own church building, allowing them to leave the Presbyterian church basement. But the congregation soon outgrew the original small wooden structure.

Finally, in 1905, the congregation constructed a sizable new building — the First German Evangelical Church. That's the building that stood on Portland's Clay Street for 118 years.

After the story of this history aired for the first time, Pat Dooris asked for viewers thoughts and memories of the structure. One voicemail in particular caught The Story team's attention:

"Hey there Pat, this is Mike in Northeast Portland. Calling because I just saw the story on the church and the background with the German history. I've got a close family friend, Meriel Bernhard, she's from the Helen Bernhard Bakery family — lifelong Oregonian and long, long-time Portland resident ... when we saw the church burned down, she was telling us all these, my wife and I, telling us all these stories about her time at the church ... just thought maybe you should get in touch with her if you're gonna continue to do any stories. I bet she'd love to talk to you all if you're gonna do any more kind of oral history stories on that stuff."

At Mike's suggestion, The Story called up Meriel Bernhard to hear her perspective on a piece of Portland history that so recently went up in flames.

Meriel's memories

"Once a week, Grandpa would take his produce and sell it to a member of the church that had a grocery store, and the other members bought his stuff also," remembered 83-year-old Meriel Bernhard.

For Bernhard's family, the church building on Southwest 10th and Clay was as much about business as it was about faith and worship. It wasn't just her grandfather riding into town — her uncles got roped into the work too.

"He remembers at 15 that he would drive himself. With the horse and the buggy and bring the produce also," said Bernhard. "It was a family affair, yes."

Bernhard's grandparents emigrated from Germany and first landed in Iowa. Then they settled in the Stafford area of present-day Clackamas County. Her father was the youngest of eight children.

Credit: Oregon Historical Society
Photo of the Clay Street church in April 1965.

While the church offered up good business, it was also where several of the first-generation Americans and their children found love and tied the knot. Meriel and her late husband David Bernhard were married inside the church on Oct. 28, 1967.

"My wedding dress was made by a German lady," she recalled with a laugh. "The veil was bought in Nuremberg and so was my rings."

That's where Meriel Bernhard's own young family began their journey at the building on 10th and Clay — drawn by the sounds, the sermons and the fellowship.

"They had a good choir and they had the good preacher, and we just decided we wanted to go there because we lived in Portland," she said. "And so a couple of uncles were still going there, so I was greeted by my Uncle Carl and, you know, welcomed and I felt at home."

The church had a pipe organ player who played beautifully, Meriel said, so the church would ring with the sound.

"I was just so happy to be there — and the stained glass windows," she recalled. "I always love stained glass. And the beauty of those were the main point of the church."

Credit: KGW

According to the superintendent of the Pacific Conference of the Evangelical Church, the stained glass windows were made by the Portland-based Povey Brothers, famed as the "Tiffany of the Northwest."

The Bernhards soon got involved in church operations, becoming far more than merely Sunday service regulars. Meriel taught Sunday school and began playing the pipe organ that she loved. David Bernhard became treasurer of the congregation.

"We have three children, but the first one was born there and was dedicated there," Meriel said. "We sang in the choir, my husband and I ... it was a very beautiful choir."

Life was good for the Bernhards at 10th and Clay. But by the 1980s, the church congregation was shrinking.

"We were a downtown church and people had to come to the church there," Meriel Bernhard explained. "And as the people got older and their children left to other cities and other states, the congregation dwindled down."

Eventually the church leaders, including treasurer David Bernhard, made the tough decision to sell the building.

"It was very, very sad for us to leave the memories and ... and all that we wished it would have grown, but it didn't," Meriel said.

The building was sold to the congregation of the Portland Korean Church, who worshipped there and enjoyed the building for decades.

"It made my heart feel good that another church was using it as a place of worship," Meriel said.

But the church building continue to age, and even the Portland Korean Church reached a point where it needed to sell in 2015. That was the end of worship at the old church, and the beginning of disuse. It remained like that until the fire that claimed it early this year.

"The memories in my mind just went lickety-split as I saw the fire destroying the top of the church,"  Meriel Bernhard said, recalling when she saw the fire on the news, then the demolition. "And then, oh, it just broke my heart. And I saw these claws going into the stained glass, and I just saw this thing ... oh, I cried. It was a very emotional time for me."

Not all of the prized stained glass is gone for good. When the Bernhards' congregation left downtown in the 1980s, they took one of the precious panes with them. That one surviving piece of Povey Brothers stained glass now serves the Tualatin Valley Community Church in Aloha.

Even though the church building on 10th and Clay is no more, former congregants like Meriel Bernhard know that its spiritual legacy lives on.

"I can just say my faith was grown there, and now I'm old," she said. "My faith is still strong because of the ministry of that church."

The Bernhard name

David Bernhard, Meriel's late husband, was indeed the scion of a Northeast Portland family of some repute. His grandmother was the eponymous Helen Bernhard who started the Helen Bernhard Bakery on Northeast Broadway in 1924. She can be seen in some of Meriel and David's wedding photos.

The business passed from Helen to her son Ben, then to his son, David Bernhard, who did some of the baking himself. He sold the bakery in 1988. Though it passed out of family ownership, the name stuck.

When KGW visited the Helen Bernhard Bakery earlier this year, it was still bustling — now in its 99th year of business.

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