Remembering Monsignor Arthur Dernbach
Monsignor Arthur Dernbach ’44, a Portland archdiocesan priest for 65 years and revered teacher and principal at Central Catholic High School, died March 17, 2018. He was 91 years old.
Arthur Dernbach was born December 19, 1926 in Portland, Oregon to John and Mary Dernbach. He was the youngest of fifteen children. The family belonged to St. Stephen Parish in southeast Portland and Arthur attended school there. Art’s nephew, Mike Dernbach ’67, said a neighbor once shared that it was always amazing to visit the Dernbach home in the morning and see the 15 lunches lined up on the kitchen counter ready for the 15 siblings to start their day.
In 1940, Arthur headed off to the new high school for boys in the area, Central Catholic High School. He was very involved during his years at 24th and Stark. His hard work, enthusiasm, determination, vision, and concern for the community led to his being awarded the the school’s highest honor at graduation, the Holy Spirit Award.
He was an accomplished athlete on the football and basketball teams. He was a tall man, coming in at over six feet. During Art’s senior year, the Scepter writes of the football team winning the Portland Catholic football crown for another year. “Four thousand fans gathered in Multnomah Stadium to see the Rams wring out a 6 to 0 win over Columbia Prep.” Father Dernbach was a center on the team. He was a tremendous asset on the basketball team as well and was the second highest scoring player on the court his senior year.
Art was also a member of the Scepter staff, Monogram Club, and was on student council. His senior year, he was student body president, which entitled him to a monthly column in The Rampart. His wit appears in his “Prexy Posts” where he informs the student body of “news from the government of that little city located on top of the graveyard.”
Between 1940–1944, when Art was a student, it cost $50 per year to attend Central Catholic. Art helped pay for tuition by working on weekends cutting grass and stuffing pages into the Sunday Oregonian. During the summer, he worked as a substitute firefighter and a longshoreman while men were off fighting in World War II.
The war marked Father Dernbach’s time at Central Catholic. It became front page news in The Rampart in December 1941 when the student body president at the time enlisted in the Coast Guard. There were bond drives and war chest drives and letters from classmates who left school to join the war effort.
“For Christ and Country, Fourtyfour, forward!” reads the yearbook. The Scepter staff of 1944 writes a melancholic farewell to their classmates: “We know not what the future holds in store for us. Nor can we know, since we pursue life’s course in a world so vastly different than we have ever experienced it before.”
After graduating from high school, Monsignor Dernbach joined the Navy and sailed to Japan at the tail end of the war. He told the Catholic Sentinel in 2010 that the Navy “settled” him. While in the service, he regularly prayed the rosary and read passages from the New Testament. He says he would pause over the words of Jesus, “I will make you fishers of men.” He says it was then that his life path became clear.
Father Dernbach was one of the first Central Catholic students to enter the priesthood. He started his seminary studies at Mount Angel in 1946. After college, Archbishop Edward Howard sent him to Rome for advanced seminary studies at the North American College. He was ordained in Rome in 1953.
Father Dernbach returned to Portland with an assignment at his alma mater, Central Catholic. He taught in the science department from 1954–1967 and he was best known as the junior chemistry teacher. John Harrington ’66 remembers Father Dernbach addressing the class on the first day with: “Welcome gentlemen, to junior chemistry. There are over 100 elements in the periodic table and by the end of this year you will know them all.”
Dernbach would also eventually serve as the vice principal in charge of guidance at Central Catholic. He always made time for students and gave a warm smile to all he met. Father Dernbach received his Master of Education from the University of Portland and was the principal at St. Mary’s in Medford for seven years. In 1974, he became the Archdiocese Director of Education, overseeing Catholic schools as well as parish catechetics.
In 1978, he once again returned to Central Catholic, only this time as principal. Although he served in this role for only four years, he led the school through a critical point in its history. Monsignor Dernbach was at the helm when the school went co-ed in 1980. He told the Central Catholic Magazine that the decision to admit girls was beneficial to the school’s bottom line and led to a more positive atmosphere.
Throughout his ministry to schools, he helped at parishes on the weekends and served as a chaplain. He said, “If you’re a priest and a teacher, it’s a good life, but a busy life.” In 1983, Monsignor Dernbach became the pastor at St. Thomas More where he served for 14 years. That was followed by an assignment at St. Boniface in Sublimity for four years.
In 2008, the Pope named nine priests in the archdiocese Monsignor, and Archbishop John Vlazny had the privilege of bestowing the title on Father Dernbach. At the time, Archbishop Vlazny wrote in the Catholic Sentinel: “He was an outstanding pastor and he served with distinction as a Catholic high school instructor and principal. He has always been exemplary in his ministry and relationships. This recognition is long overdue.”
Bound together by their mutual love of Central Catholic and their brotherhood as priests, Monsignor Dernbach and Monsignor Murphy ’58 shared a special bond for many years. Father Murphy saw Monsignor Dernbach as a mentor and friend. Their paths in life shared a striking resemblance, from their years as Central Catholic students, teachers, and administrators, to their work as parish priests, to both being recognized as monsignors during the same year.
John Harrington remarked on how significant it was for the 90-year-old Monsignor to be at the Mass celebrating Father Murphy’s milestone of 50 years a priest. Monsignor Dernbach sat in his wheelchair in the front row and during Communion many alums and friends stopped to greet him with a handshake or a hug. Monsignor Dernbach beamed at everyone he met, he knew he was back at his beloved Central Catholic. Two great pillars of our community with their congregation, one final time together.
Monsignor Dernbach was a hardworking teacher and administrator, a devoted parish priest, and lived a life in service to others. He had a great sense of humor and spirited laugh. He enjoyed fishing for salmon out of Astoria, golfing, and playing a round of poker with priest friends and Central Catholic classmates on his days off.
We thank you, Monsignor Dernbach. May your reward in heaven be great.
‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.’ - Matthew 25:21