A fitting new beginnning

Father Steve Newton outside the Downtown Chapel Roman Catholic Parish. Photo by Israel Bayer

Fr. Steve Newton joins the Downtown Chapel with a past
reflected in the community he now serves

By Joanne Zuhl
Staff Writer

Oct. 25, 1975. It is probably the most important date in Father Steve Newton’s life.

More important than the day he was ordained – April Fools Day, 1989, a fitting twist he’s rather proud of. It is more important than July 29, the date he arrived to become pastor at the Downtown Chapel Roman Catholic Parish of the Archdiocese of Portland. The former pastor, Fr. Bob Loughery was headed to a new assignment at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend.

Oct. 25, 1975, was the day Newton took his last drink, the final draw after a decade of alcoholism that took him far away from the church, his family and his life — and ultimately brought him back again. It is an experience he credits with keeping him from becoming a “nice-guy priest.” Which is probably best for a parish in the challenging and dynamic neighborhood Old Town, where the Downtown Chapel opens its doors daily to a community living with homelessness, addiction and little or no health care.

“The experience of going through the rest of the progression, and the experience of going through recovery outside the priesthood, I think is a wonderful deepening experience — to hit bottom,” Newton says.

Bottom was far away from where he grew up, in what he calls the Catholic ghetto of Chicago — a place where the Catholic Church was the depth and breadth of the community. The church was faith, sports and school. It was the world, Newton says. As a result, Newton says he realized he wanted to become a priest at an early age and for his freshman year entered the high school seminary of the congregation. During the end of his novitiate year, in preparation to take his first, temporary vows, he struggled with his health and the stress of the strict environment. He developed ulcers and was hospitalized, but eventually returned to the school. Then, at the age of 18 in 1966, he had his first beer: his first and his 15th in one night, he says. All the pressure from the novitiate became diluted with alcohol.

“I felt I had made a new friend. Life had meaning. I was 18. All the tension of the year was gone. And that was that.”

Then he discovered liquor at an open bar. “My first sip of scotch and I thought, yuck. And the guy sitting next to me said, ‘You’ve got to develop a taste for it.’ I thought, OK, I’ll work on that. I worked very hard on that,” Newton says, with a measure of dry humor.

This continued throughout college, even as he worked double-time to complete his degree in short order and move on with his life as a priest. In the meantime, he took teaching jobs and pursued his masters at Loyola University. Once back at the seminary, however, he was a wreck; he would wake up in the afternoon, and drink until he passed out at 5 a.m.

“I could not predict with accuracy what were to happen after I were to take the first drink,” Newton says. “Will power, of course, was out the window. I developed the interest, and then certainly abuse, and then to a point of addiction where I simply had no choice in the matter. There’s a saying, the man takes a drink, the drink takes a drink, the drink takes the man. And that very well was how it was for me.”

He was essentially asked to leave the seminary because of his behavior — even though alcohol was never mentioned.

“They never talked about the alcohol. Never came up. But I knew. I could either stop drinking or I could leave. I didn’t want to stop drinking. It was like a divorce. It was like losing everything.”

He took a job at the St. Joseph County Jail in Indiana as a counselor, which became one of many he lost as a result of his drinking. He took on teaching positions, only to lose the jobs with ever-increasing speed. He turned to his family for assistance until that well was tapped. At one point, he was sleeping at the school he worked in, drinking all night, and then vomiting.

“At this point, I knew I couldn’t go home. I took my car and drove somewhere into Chicago and parked it,” Newton says. “There was a period of seven to 10 days and I have no memory of it at all. I went from hotel to flophouse. And I was in terrible shape. I’d lost everything. I didn’t know what to do, but I was praying for death, turning to a God I had ignored for so long and giving my orders that I would die and it wouldn’t hurt. I just wanted to be taken.”

Instead, in the lobby of the flophouse, he called a helpline for alcoholics. A team of people responded and took him to a 12-step house that was, ironically, a former funeral home. That was Oct. 25, 1975.

“A day at a time, I learned about the disease. I was born with it. I’m going to die with it. There’s nothing I can do about that. But there are certain things I need to do.”

The sign outside of the Downtown Chapel reflects the philosophy of the Chapel’s work in providing meals, food boxes and other resources for people in need in the Old Town/Chinatown neighborhood. Photo by Israel Bayer

This is Father Steve’s second mission in Portland. He first arrived in 1977 to take a position with St. Vincent DePaul’s alcohol treatment center, where people could stay five days for detox or a maximum of two weeks for recovery. Newton knew this wasn’t adequate.

Back in Illinois, Newton had worked to established the first detox center in the state, a new kind of institution as the state decriminalized alcoholism. He had spent his new-found sobriety learning about the disease, the need for late-stage treatment, and the urgency to end the stigma surrounding people who are addicted and also poor. At St. Vincent DePaul, he turned the residence into a treatment center for late-stage alcoholics, the largest in the state at the time and a service virtually unheard of in the late 1970s.

“With any other disease, the people at the latest stage would get the most treatment. And that was not true with this disease,” Newton says. He stayed with St. Vincent for nine years, establishing himself as a specialist in the field. In 1986, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Portland. In the course of his recovery, Newton says he matured in his faith. He returned to the seminary and ultimately took his vows.

In the early 1990s, after he had been ordained, he was invited by the Archbishop of Panama to visit and consult the community there on how to address alcoholism in their country. While in Panama, he met the District Superior for Africa, who called on his help as well. The next year, he traveled to Africa to help establish treatment centers in Zambia and Kenya. The three centers he helped create in Africa, along with the DePaul Treatment Centers, continue to treat late-stage alcoholism to this day.

Along the way, Newton has served as the founding director of South Bend’s Center for the Homeless, rector of a residence hall at Notre Dame, executive director of Life Treatment Centers in South Bend and president of the Institute for Central and East African Rehabilitation.

Newton arrived at the Downtown Chapel Roman Catholic Parish like a lot of people do — sick and exhausted. He recovered to be sworn in as pastor two days later on Saturday.

“I knew that when I arrived here, sick, but still somewhat conscious, that this was really going to be a transformative experience for me,” Newton says. “I just sensed that. I didn’t know what that meant. I knew it was going to really deepen things considerably.”

The Downtown Chapel serves 100-150 community members daily in its Hospitality Center, providing basic needs, emergency services, transition assistance, and hospitality. Its daily food pantry provides nearly 100 food bags each week to its neighbors living in low-income housing. The Chapel serves more than 200 warm meals every Friday night during its Brother Andre Cafe. All of these programs require more than 100 volunteers each week, and they rely on donations of food, adult clothing, hygiene items, blankets, sleeping bags, hats, and gloves from the larger community.

There is also a bit of urgency to emphasize the Chapel’s work as not just congregational, but universal within the Church. There is a cost to running meals, classes, hygiene services and hospitality for hundreds of customers every day. It costs $9,100 a week to run the Downtown Chapel. They take in about $2,000 a week through Sunday donations.

“That’s a gap that needs to be filled,” Newton says. “It’s been filled by depleting some resources that we had, and if we continued to do that, we would have four more years and then we’d be out of business. We’d be bankrupt. So I’ve got to turn that around.”

Newton says he wants to reaffirm the Downtown Chapel as a part of the Catholic church in Portland as a whole — and to offer the experience of the Downtown Chapel, with it’s unique environment, as a service to all members of the church, not just it’s own congregation. Newton is exploring working in partnership with other churches, having sister churches to expand the opportunities for Catholics to participate in the work done in Old Town.

This is far from the Catholic Ghetto of his youth.

“We are not the Old Town Church. We are the Catholic Church in Old Town,” Newton says. “And it sounds subtle but I think it’s an important distinction. The Catholic Church is universal, it’s not congregational, it’s not parochial. We are one.”

posted by Joanne Zuhl

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