By John Heuertz
Special to the Catholic Key
KANSAS CITY — Every Catholic priest is ordained to follow Christ’s example as priest, prophet and king. But Fr. John McCormack also followed another example of Jesus — that of teacher.
“I’ve had the best of both worlds,” he says.
Fr. McCormack celebrates 50 years as a priest this year. He was born in June of 1932 to parents who were part of Kansas City’s long stream of Irish immigrants who worked their way up, literally, from the West Bottoms to the West Side to the crest of Signal Hill and beyond.
Visitation parish and its founding pastor, Msgr. Thomas B. McDonald, figure in his earliest memories.
“I remember standing under his Christmas tree in the rectory,” Fr. McCormack says. “I couldn’t have been more than two years old. I can’t remember yesterday, but it’s funny how you remember such early things.”
When John was four his family moved into a big brick house in the heavily Irish neighborhood of Coleman Heights near 31st and Southwest Trafficway. He was an only child, but didn’t lack for companionship.
“There must have been 50 or 60 kids there,” he said. “We all went to Redemptorist and we all played together in the caves down the hill and stuff. That neighborhood was a happy place.”
Then as now, the Redemptorist Fathers evangelized by promoting devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help and by making their parish a welcoming place for families. John was part of an extended family, and the McCormack house became known as a place where priests were welcomed.
He served Mass almost every day in grade school at Redemptorist, and good priests were part of his upbringing. One of them, Msgr. Robert F. Hayes, was even his father’s regular fishing buddy, and the two of them often took John fishing.
But John didn’t think of the priesthood at this time. Instead, in high school the Christian Brothers inspired him to become a teacher. His dream was deferred because he’s an only child and the Christian Brothers didn’t take only children. But there was a hidden plus to his rigorous education at De La Salle Military Academy.
“We wore military uniforms at De La Salle in those days, and the Music Hall liked the uniforms,” he said. “So they would always call on us when they needed ushers. Then we could get in and watch the show for free.”
His lifelong passion for grand opera was born in the Music Hall, and he came within six hours of his English, Spanish, Latin and teaching degree at Rockhurst College when it became clear he would be drafted for the Korean War.
“So I joined the Air Force and served at Kimpo AFB near Seoul, almost on the DMZ. They called us the Mig-killer base because they always scrambled from our base whenever anything happened in the DMZ. All the aces were from our base.”
He taught English at Kimpo when not busy with his Air Force duties. He also joined with an Air Force chaplain, Fr. Fleming from Boston, to help local sisters care for Korean War orphans in Seoul.
John’s Redemptorist devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help had never left him, and a devout Catholic named Grace Haubtman encouraged him to consider the priesthood after he was reassigned to Beale AFB in California.
He entered Conception Seminary right after leaving the Air Force in 1956, and Bishop John Cody ordained him on March 18, 1961 with Frs. Richard Young and Robert Waggoner — and a fellow veteran named George K. Fitzsimmons.
“How I was called to the priesthood is still one of the greatest mysteries to me, besides the mystery of Jesus Christ,” Fr. McCormack says. “I still don’t know why the Lord chose me. But I think every priest would tell you that.”
Mrs. Haubtman had passed away in California and left Fr. McCormack her diamond wedding rings. Shortly before his death in 1961, Msgr. Hayes had his chalice replated and the diamonds made into a Celtic cross on its base, and then gave his chalice to Fr. McCormack.
“He was ordained in 1915, so my chalice is nearly 100 years old,” Fr. McCormack said. “It’ll go into the Diocesan archives when I die.”
Msgr. Michael McAuliffe, director of the diocesan education office, discovered the new priest had a teaching degree. He sent Fr. McCormack to teach Latin and English Literature at the former St. Joseph’s Academy in Chillicothe.
It was a close-knit, extended family atmosphere. “The Chillicothe years were the happiest years of my life in the priesthood,” he said. “It was a small school and everyone knew everyone else.”
“I never dreamed I’d be able to teach as a parish priest. This was all kind of planned for me because I never dreamed I would get to be in education like that, but somehow it all worked out. It was God’s plan too.”
In a few years Fr. McCormack was offered his choice of graduate schools in education to help the diocese fill its ongoing need for school administrators with teaching experience. He chose Fordham University in New York City, which has kept its reputation for having an excellent education school.
“Besides,” he says, “I wanted to go to the Metropolitan Opera.”
In New York he heard some of the Met’s greatest singers of that generation in their prime, including Renata Tebaldi, Richard Tucker, Jan Peerce and Franco Corelli — “maybe the greatest of them all,” he says — and in 1968 got a Master’s degree in secondary school administration after 18 months at Fordham.
After returning from Fordham he became the principal at St. Pius X high school for four years. At the time it was widely known in education circles as a pioneer in flexible, “modular” scheduling. It was even the subject of a documentary movie.
“But in the late 1960s the students were rebelling against everything, against every authority figure,” he said. “Students were being given more freedom, which dovetailed into the whole revolting bit in the whole nation with the Vietnam War.”
Fr. McCormack served the diocese for 36 years as a secondary school teacher and principal, and for 38 years as a priest.
From 1975 to 1984 he pastored Holy Trinity parish in Weston, St. Patrick’s parish in St. Joseph and Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Raytown.
He’s also had repeat assignments at parishes, including two at St. Charles Borromeo in Gladstone, three at St. Therese in Parkville and four at Our Lady of Lourdes.
Retired since August of 1999, Fr. McCormack has been the Chaplain since March of 2000 at his home, the Jeanne Jugan center in Raytown. After a lifetime of faithful service, he can now offer the Sacrifice, absolve sins in Christ’s name, and help people prepare to meet Him in person without the administrative burdens familiar to every parish priest.
“I always stayed close to the Church and the Sacraments,” he says. “It was ingrained in me by my family and by the Redemptorists.”
He notes that in his childhood he could get to know a dozen or more priests in one house, but that now “Youth today don’t get to have that. Mostly we have one-priest parishes now.”
“I would say I love the priesthood,” he said. “But I was privileged to have them both — the priesthood and the teaching.”