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Father Hank Albrecht of La Grande longs for the days of the traditional full-service station — so much so that he is bringing one back.
The recently retired head pastor of Our Lady of the Valley Catholic Church will soon be, as Texaco’s old advertising jingle once proclaimed — “... The Man Who Wears The Star.
Albrecht is restoring an old gas station at 1508 Adams Ave. into a 1959 vintage Texaco edition. “The Station,’’ as Albrecht calls it, promises to be haven for nostalgia lovers. Features will include:
• old-style pumps that sell Fire Chief (regular) and Sky Chief (supreme) gasoline.
• attendants wearing 1950s and 1960s-vintage Texaco uniforms. The attendants will automatically check customers’ oil, the air pressure of each tire, clean each window with blue paper towels and look under the hood for engine problems.
• a Coca-Cola ice chest with small glass bottles that require an opener.
The Station will be more than a place where people who need a fill up can step back in time. It will also be a site where they can receive spiritual guidance.
“I want to make it an extension of my ministry,’’ said Albrecht, who served as head pastor of Our Lady of the Valley for about 20 years.
The popular, ever-friendly priest with the trademark smile and gentle sense of humor is not hanging up his vestments. He plans to continue celebrating Mass to help new head pastor Father Christopher Agoha and associate pastor Augustine Okwuzu.
So regularly will Albrecht be celebrating Mass that he warns his station will open later on Sundays.
“First Mass, then gas,’’ Albrecht said.
The station, which will open in about two months, will not have any trappings of the Catholic Church, but it will be a place where Albrecht will always take the time to hear confessions.
Albrecht is creating The Station to help draw more people to downtown La Grande.
“I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t want to be part of revitalizing the downtown area,’’ Albrecht said.
Father Hank Albrecht recently retired as head pastor of Our Lady of the Valley Catholic Church. - Observer photos/CHRIS BAXTER
He hopes The Station will be a site that attracts people who want to fuel up on conversation.
“I want it to be a gathering place,’’ Albrecht said. “A place where people can be around others, see friendly faces and help each other out.’’
He is encouraging other La Grande businesses to follow his lead and become gathering sites, areas people will feel welcome even if they are not planning on buying something.
Albrecht’s dream of revitalizing the downtown is why he started his Friday night cruise-in a year ago at his station. People are invited to drive in old cars and display them each Friday evening from May through August. People exchange car stories while enjoying free hot dogs and Cokes.
The cruise-ins are proving to be a hit, drawing 20 to 30 people each Friday.
Albrecht hopes that his station, like the cruise-ins, proves popular. But he knows that it will not turn a profit. The reason is that he will not have a convenience store to complement his gas pumps. Albrecht said people do not make money operating gas stations because the profit margin is so small. Business owners have to run mini-mart convenience stores with their gas stations to make money.
“It is the only business where you have to run another business to keep it open. You have to run a convenience store to pump gas for nothing,’’ Albrecht said.
Much like the stations of the 1950s and ’60s, The Station will offer only a small assortment of convenience store items including candy, peanuts, cigarettes and sodas. They will be sold with safety in mind.
“We want to keep drivers awake,’’ Albrecht said.
In keeping with this emphasis, Albrecht will give a free Coke to each driver who gets a full tank of gas.
Albrecht hopes to open his station within two months. He will operate it most of the year except in the winter when he will go to Hawaii where he has a home on the island of Oahu. In La Grande Albrecht will continue to live at the rectory of Our Lady of the Valley Catholic Church.
The Station will initially will be open each day from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Someday Albrecht hopes to have it operating 24 hours a day. This would be fitting symbolically since while head pastor of Our Lady of the Valley Albrecht was essentially on call at all hours — visiting the sick, conducting weddings and funerals and much more.
Albrecht’s road to becoming a priest was unconventional. His story starts in Dufur where he grew up and his parents ran a Shell gas station. Hank Albrecht helped at his parents’ station beginning at age 6.
“I pumped gas but I wasn’t tall enough to clean windows,’’ he said.
Albrecht remained in the business for about a decade until deciding to enroll at Mount Angel Seminary in Western Oregon when he was around 40. He entered the seminary in 1981 and was ordained a priest May 14, 1986. He served as pastor of St. Peter’s Catholic Church in The Dalles for two years before coming to La Grande. For many of his years as a priest Albrecht was a member of the National Guard, which he was with for 38 years.
Albrecht said that he has been given much by the people of the Grande Ronde Valley over the past two decades.
“I feel I have received more from people than I am able to give back,’’ Albrecht said. “I came to minister but I was the one ministered to.’’
Albrecht often says, “My best friend is the last person I met.’’ These are words he embraces, helping explain his popularity at Our Lady of the Valley and throughout the community.
Charlene Storoe, director of religious education at Our Lady of the Valley, said Albrecht is remarkably approachable.
“He can talk to anyone,’’ Storoe said.
She added that regardless of the situation, even a sad one such as a funeral, Albrecht has an ability to make people feel better about what it is happening.
“He gives hope,’’ Storoe said.
Phil Mendiguren, a member of Our Lady of the Valley’s parish and a Union County Circuit Court judge, said that Albrecht’s life experiences have helped him connect and relate with people. Mendiguren noted, for example, that Albrecht first served in the military as a soldier, not as a chaplain like many priests have. Things like this have made it possible for him to connect with others.
Ironically, Albrecht may be reaching more people with spiritual guidance now that he is retired. The reason is that he has more time for others now that he no longer has to attend endless meetings concerning parish business.
“My meetings (now) will be with you,’’ Albrecht said at his public retirement dinner. “I will always be a priest. I will always be there for you.”