By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
WESTON – Emerita Farnan began teaching First Communion classes to first and second graders 54 years ago. At first it was just a way of helping out, but she grew to love it, and the children she has taught. But that day, she wasn’t teaching. Emerita sat on the stone wall in back of her house after corralling her 8-year old Brittany Spaniel, Lucky, who had somehow escaped his dog run. A reporter for The Catholic Key was about to arrive and she was a little nervous about her soon-to-happen interview. But, as the reporter’s car pulled up the drive toward her home, Emerita’s graciousness took over.
Farnan, who will celebrate her 88th birthday next month, is a northwest Missouri native. She was born on her family’s farm in Guilford, about 3 miles south of Conception Abbey. Her mother cared for the house and children, while her father farmed the land. In fact, Farnan said a family story told that at the time of her birth, her father was off in the fields planting corn. A couple of her older brothers ran as fast as they could through the fields hollering, “Pa, Pa, you better come home on the double!” And of course he did.
Farnan’s mother died of double pneumonia when the little girl was 4, leaving her husband to care for eight children. Farnan remembered each of the children being given chores around the house and the farm. She climbed a stool to reach the kitchen table and stir and knead bread dough. She learned to love baking.
While she was still a small child, her father lost the farm, and the family moved to rented farm land closer to Immaculate Conception Seminary College. Conception Abbey became the family’s parish and when it came time for Emerita to start school, her father enrolled her at the brand new two-story Immaculate Conception school, across the street from the Abbey and north of the Abbey cemetery. Precious Blood Sisters, from O’Fallon, Mo., taught at the school and accompanied the children as they walked to and from Mass at the Abbey church. Farnan said when the school children walked to Mass, they had to pass through the cemetery. “It was a peaceful place, really,” she said.
According to the 1991 diocesan history, This Far By Faith, Conception Abbey attained the title of “Minor Basilica,” in 1940, conferred by Pope Pius XII, “in recognition of its artistic merit, the quality of the liturgy celebrated within its walls,” and the number of pilgrims that visited each year. In 1963, Bishop Charles Helmsing of the still new Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph consolidated Immaculate Conception Parish (the Abbey parish) with Holy Family in Conception Junction and St. Benedict Parish in Clyde to form St. Columba Parish. The sisters withdrew from Immaculate Conception School in 1969, and it closed.
But that was long after Farnan attended the school. After she graduated from high school, she said her father informed his children that as a result of the Depression and then World War II, he could only afford to send one of the eight to college. “I volunteered,” Farnan recalled. “The boys had jobs, and my sisters all had boyfriends and didn’t want to go to college. So I did.”
She attended Maryville State College for one year and a summer, and then was given the opportunity to teach at a country school. “Back then you didn’t need degrees and all that to teach in a little country school,” she said. “I taught there for a year, getting to the school early every morning to light the stove for heat. After that I went to Conception Junction to teach in a school there and, I met Joe Farnan. We were married in August.”
Joe was offered a job in a lumber business in Weston and the young couple moved there in 1947. They planned to move on in a few years, so they rented for a short time, and then bought their first house. They painted and papered and dug the basement themselves, using buckets, she laughingly remembered.
Emerita substitute taught for a couple of years and, in the summer, attended St. Mary College in Leavenworth, taking classes toward an education degree. Then the babies started arriving.
Interspersing classes with raising children, six in all, she finally completed her degree in 1971, graduating from Missouri Western College in St. Joseph. Emerita then returned to teaching first grade full-time.
Their children were growing and going out into the world. Phillip is now a teacher at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park, Kan. Richard, an architect, recently retired from teaching 5th year architecture students at the University of Kansas. Barbara, their only daughter, is a special needs teacher. Patrick is a principal in the Fort Osage School District. Donald is a CPA in New Jersey, and David, the youngest, is a librarian in Colorado. The Farnans own some vacation property in Castle Rock, Colo., and Emerita goes there each spring to open it up and air it out for summer tenants.
When her children were small, Emerita “helped out” the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth by cooking for them during the summers for several years. So, in 1956, it seemed natural that she “help out” again, teaching the First Communion classes for second graders at Holy Trinity Parish. She has watched and celebrated 54 First Communion Days with her students. “My faith has always been important to me,” she said. “I love the Eucharist and I love little kids, so what could be better?”
She doesn’t teach the lessons just from the book. Everyday life comes in to teaching about First Communion, she said. “I tell the children the very first day, Turn on your computers in your brains and keep everything I tell you in your head until I ask you a question and tell you to let it come out. It’s amazing how much they absorb.”
Over the years she also began teaching the altar servers, and rewarding them for their service twice a year. Just recently she hosted a bowling party for the servers, and “oh did we have fun!”
Joe and Emerita bought their century old home about 30 years ago. “There’s an acre and a half here, so Joe built a woodworking shop next to the garage, with shelves for my stuff, and I have my rose bushes and a garden out in back.”
After Mass one Sunday, Emerita and Joe happened to stop at a Christian Foundation for Children and Aging table displaying folders of children in Guatemala who needed sponsors. “There was this little boy, 18 months old, and I said, “Oh Joe, we ought to.” He wasn’t sure. Then I saw the boy’s name: Emerito. Like my name with an O. It seemed like God was telling me something. We signed up for Emerito and he is now 18 years old. I receive letters from him a couple times a year, and photographs. He loves to draw, so I send him colored pencils and things like that, along with the money. I wish I could meet him.”
Joe developed Parkinson’s disease, but kept going as long as he could; ramps and handicap bars were installed inside the house and by the back door. Joe died seven years ago. The outside ramp is still there, as are the bars near inside doors. Her daughter built a wooden box that acts as step in the entry between a sitting room and the kitchen.
Emerita began visiting the sick in area nursing homes about 15 years ago. She drives about 60 miles every First Friday, visiting three nursing homes and involving residents in a short prayer service. “Not all of them are Catholic,” she said, “but they seem to enjoy it. We have a Bible reading, and I read some poetry. I love poetry, especially religious poetry. Then we say the Our Father together and give each other the sign of peace. Then we have some conversation.” Her voice dropped a little lower. “I’m older than some of the people I visit at the rest homes, but they don’t know that!”
Emerita serves as a reader and Extraordinary minister of the Eucharistic on Sundays, and is a member of the parish Women’s Guild. “They love poetry also, so I read the opening prayer at the meetings,” she said with a smile.
Not too long ago she added laundering purificators and altar cloths and other washing for Holy Trinity Parish to her to do lists. She also heads the funeral committee.
“My kids ask me “Mom when are you going to stop?” But you know, I feel there would be a big hole in my heart if I quit doing what I love.”
Emerita has hobbies that keep her busy when she’s not visiting the sick, teaching First Communion classes or servers, laundering altar cloths and purificators or arranging funeral luncheons. “I have Lucky and my cat. I have 45 hybrid Tea Rose bushes, and it’s time to cut the dead wood off the top and get them ready to flower. I like the hybrids best because their blooms are the size of saucers! There are plants inside the house which will go outside when the weather stays warm. I have a garden out back. When the kids were younger and Joe was alive, I used to put in 50 pounds of potatoes, corn, peas, tomatoes and green beans. We’d have home grown canned vegetables all year long. Nowadays, I only put in green beans and tomatoes. I’ll can and give away most of them; I can’t eat ’em all.” She plants by the almanac, planning to put in her green bean and tomato seeds next week. “I also have an apple tree and it gives me lots of apples. I make apple pies and turnovers, slice and freeze them so if one of my kids comes to visit or I want a slice of pie, I can get it out of the freezer and heat it up.”
She has called Weston home for getting on 64 years. Weston is a caring town, Emerita said. “It’s small, but we can have as many as 1,000 visitors in a weekend. It’s an old town, and it has an aging population. But our church community is excellent. People jump in to help out where they can. I have been treated well here, by young and old. Some of my best friends are younger than me.”
She has a “wonderful, close family.” She has suffered some losses over the years, her mother and father and some of her brothers and sisters, Joe, two grandchildren and a great grandchild. Talking about the pain of their deaths brought tears to her eyes. “But,” she brightened, “I have a son Patrick, who stops by every morning at 6:30 to check on me and bring me the paper before driving to his job in Fort Osage. I have a daughter and sons who call a lot, a granddaughter in Germany who is very close to me, and lots of friends. I’m going to Castle Rock in May to open up the house there and David will pick me up at the airport and drive up there with me.” She has many wonderful memories. And she still loves to bake, if the scent of cinnamon and sugar that wafted through her kitchen was any indication.