By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — Teresa Kouba was born Oct. 17, 1918, three weeks before the signing of the armistice that ended World War I. For more than 30 years she has been a volunteer, for Hallmark’s Kaleidoscope, St. Aloysius Parish, Truman Medical Center, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and Catholic Charities’ Morning Glory Café. Teresa, 93 ½, has a long lifetime of memories, mostly happy, which she smilingly shared.
“I have been so blessed,” she said. “My main blessing is I love people, and the second, (her smile broadened): I love to talk. I lived 52 years in a 10-room house in St. Aloysius parish, many of those years with my mother, sister and brother. Then in a few short years, my family went to just one, and I couldn’t take care of the house by myself.”
Teresa briefly lived with a niece in Lee’s Summit, attending Our Lady of the Presentation Church. She then found “a nice apartment” within walking distance of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and settled in. When the building’s owners decided to convert the apartments to condominiums, Teresa had no interest in a condo and moved again, a few buildings away. She was still within walking distance of the Cathedral, where she attended Mass. She had also added the Cathedral to her volunteer schedule.
“But I’m jumping ahead! Let’s start at the beginning,” Teresa said. “I was born at Cook County Hospital, in Chicago. For four years I lived with my father and mother, my older sister Rose and my big brother Paul. A foster sister, Frances, or Frankie, lived with us. Her name was really Theresa Rose, but there was already a Rose and a Teresa so it got a little confusing. Then Paul started calling her Frankie, his middle name was Francis, and that was easier. We renamed her Frances.”
Her smile dimmed. “When I was four, my father died. I didn’t know what he died of back then, but I believe it was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease. I hardly knew him because he’d been sick in bed for a long time. After he died, well, mother did what most mothers had to do when the father died; we children were sent to live with relatives for a short time, until she found a new place for us to live, in Kansas City.”
Her mother found a house in St. Michael’s Parish, and Teresa started kindergarten at St. Michael’s School. “After St. Michael’s I went to Redemptorist High School, back when it was all girls,” she said. Her head lifted a bit higher and her smile again lit up the room. “I was in the first class to graduate from the College of St. Teresa with a four-year degree. There were six of us in the graduating class of 1942.” According to the Avila University registrar’s office, Teresa graduated June 4, 1942 with a Bachelor of Arts in English. The 6-member class of 1942 was the first to be awarded four year degrees; prior classes all earned two year associate degrees.
Teresa found a job at General Mills in Northeast Kansas City, and worked there for 31 years, retiring in 1974 at the age of 55.
During those years, the little family had moved into the house in St. Aloysius Parish. Rose had joined the Sister Servants of Mary community in 1934, taking the name Sister Mary Johanna. She lived at the motherhouse in Omaha, Neb.
Teresa’s mother died in 1953. Although she spent more than 30 years in Kansas City, she remained “a true Chicagoan,” and her children took the train to bring her back to the city of her birth for burial. Arrangements had already been made – Teresa’s great grandfather, Nicholas Hanson, had purchased a 12-grave family plot in Calvary Cemetery many years before. It was merely a matter of contacting the cemetery to arrange to open the grave – or so Teresa and her siblings thought.
The small cortege, the hearse and the family car, reached the gates of the cemetery and found themselves in the middle of a cemetery workers’ strike. Strikers blocked the cortege with rather crude remarks, and would not allow the cars entry. The drivers and the mourners were forced to get out of the cars and, carrying the casket, walk to the gravesite. The memory stays with Teresa.
Paul developed Lou Gehrig’s disease and died in 1961. He was buried in Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Kansas City.
Teresa was busy, working full time at General Mills. After she retired, she was not content to sit home. A small ad in the Kansas City Star, which she saw by chance, launched her into a second career.
A family in Brookside needed help babysitting a child with special needs. Four-year old Lisa, a twin, had brain damage caused by a lack of oxygen at birth. Teresa started taking care of Lisa once a week, a respite care situation, but it soon was six days a week. She stayed with the family 10 years. She still visits Lisa occasionally.
Teresa began her third career almost 30 years ago: volunteering at Kaleidoscope, the children’s art and discovery center sponsored by Hallmark Cards. For 28 years, Teresa has been “the lady at the puzzle machine,” helping children create their own puzzles.
“I love children,” she said. “I don’t expect them to thank me for helping them make puzzles, even though their moms tell them to. Their smiles, well they are a thousand Thank you’s all rolled up.”
She had served as an extraordinary Eucharistic minister and reader at St. Aloysius Parish, and began volunteering at the Cathedral when she moved into the parish.
Around the time she moved into the Quality Hill neighborhood a few blocks from the Cathedral, Teresa started volunteering at Truman Medical Center. On Tuesdays, she and other volunteers assemble layettes for new moms and their babies. Each layette contains baby hats and receiving blankets made by church groups, purchased “body suits,” (similar to “onesies”), a gown, a burper cloth, mittens to keep their sharp little nails from scratching their faces, and socks.
Teresa keeps a log of how many layettes she assembles each Tuesday. “Let’s see, on April 10, I assembled 70. There are five boys’ and five girls’ layettes in each lot, so that’s seven lots. April 17, I put together 50 layettes.” She tries to coordinate colors of hats, socks, mittens and receiving blankets, especially for holidays. Red, white and blue for July 4, red and green around Christmas. Teresa enjoys the smiles on the mom’s faces when they receive the layette set for their baby. “Many of the moms wouldn’t have anything if we didn’t see to it that they received something for baby, and it makes them happy. It makes being on my feet all day worth it!”
She answers the phones at the Cathedral offices on Thursdays; a bright smile welcomes visitors. Teresa also works in the Cathedral gift shop three Sundays a month.
About a year ago, she added the Morning Glory Cafe to her schedule. The Morning Glory Cafe, located in Donnelly Hall across from the Cathedral, serves a hot breakfast and conversation to the homeless and working poor in the neighborhood. The cafe, a joint initiative of Catholic Charities and Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, opened last year. Thirty eight people were served the first day, now every weekday morning, more than 100 people come for a hot breakfast, coffee and juice, and a chance to talk to their friends.
Karen Miller, Morning Glory Cafe volunteer coordinator, said Teresa arrives each Tuesday morning at 6:30. She used to walk, then a cafe team leader, Tam Oleszczak, insisted on picking Teresa up at her apartment and driving her to Donnelly Hall. As soon as she arrives, she fills margarine cups, then sits at the sign-in table, greeting and signing in guests. After the café closes at 9 a.m., Tam drives Teresa to Truman Medical Center.
“Teresa’s incredible,” Karen said. “Our guests all know her, talk to her, and they all love her. She’s a walking smile.”
Monday is Kaleidoscope, Tuesdays, Morning Glory Cafe and Truman Medical Center, Thursday is the Cathedral. Wednesdays, she gets her hair done. She found a stylist she liked and stayed with her, following her to wherever she works. Teresa’s gleaming white hair is immaculately coifed, and according to Karen Miller, there’s never a hair out of place. Weekends are reserved for grocery shopping with her niece, the Cathedral gift shop three Sundays a month, and of course Mass.
Teresa also makes time each day to read. “I’m really attached to the Bible,” she said. “It fascinates me. I still remember my bible history classes in second, third and fourth grade at St. Michael’s. It was a blue book. I have a St. Joseph’s Bible from my sister, and I read it every day. My favorites are the Psalms.”
Teresa loves many things about Kansas City, but holds a special place in her heart for the World War I Memorial in Penn Valley Park, erected when she was a small child. She attended the Memorial’s rededication several years ago, and said it was very moving.
That heart of hers has only faltered once. Teresa woke up one morning and something felt wrong. She called her doctor, and was told to get to Research Medical Center right away. Tests showed she had had a heart attack and needed immediate surgery. “I said OK.” Teresa laughed. “A week after my surgery I was ready to go home. The doctors didn’t want to release me yet, but I wanted to go home. They finally had to let me go. My doctor still just shakes his head.” When was this? She was 85 years old.
“I have been so blessed,” she said. She has a few regrets. Her mother’s burial, for one. Then in 1984, she and Sister Mary Johanna made a Marian Pilgrimage to celebrate the nun’s golden jubilee. The siblings traveled through France, Germany and Switzerland, enjoying the sights and the scenery. En route to Portugal and Fatima, Sister Mary Johanna fell ill, and died at St. Mary’s Hospital in Lisbon. Again, Teresa accompanied a casket to its final resting place, this time to the Servite community cemetery in Omaha.
She has a few gripes. Cell phones and text messaging mainly. “Technology makes people antisocial,” she said. “When I’m on a bus and somebody’s phone rings, they always talk so loud, everyone else gets to be a part of their conversation, like it or not! I wish bus drivers could give out ear plugs. But then I couldn’t complain,” she said with a grin.
“I have been so blessed. God has always taken care of me. Every morning I sit up, put my feet on the floor and say, ‘Thank you, God, for one more day. Today I’ll laugh and smile at some simple beauty. I’ll try to help mend the world around me with grace, love and joy. When the day is done, I’ll contentedly go to sleep in the arms of the Blessed Lord.’ Then the next morning, ‘Thank you, God, for one more day…’”
As she says the words, Teresa’s smile becomes contagious.