By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — The Mass dedicating the new Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church was said at a makeshift altar May 12, 1912. For a century now, the church has stood at the corner of Linwood and Broadway.
Much of the history of the church parallels the history of the parish neighborhood.
In the decade following the Civil War, Kansas City began a period of rapid growth, expanding south and east of the Missouri River bluffs where the original Town of Kansas was first platted. Many individuals, families and businesses saw good prospects for the future in the muddy, rambunctious cowtown and moved to Kansas City. By 1875, the city was stretching toward a limestone ridge at 31st Street.
In 1876, Redemptorist priests and brothers from New Orleans paid $5,000 for 10 acres south of that ridge, about a mile from the small town of Westport, for $5,000. A year later they built an “elegant, impressive” 3-story monastery along the old road to Westport, at 33rd and Wyandotte streets.
In 1865, Pope Pius IX had entrusted the Redemptorist Fathers with the Byzantine icon of the Blessed Mother reasssuring her frightened little son. When the little group of Redemptorists came to Kansas City they brought with them a painting of that icon, and dedicated the chapel on the monastery’s third floor to Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
While the monastery was being built and the priests were settling in, the areas surrounding them were growing and developing. Immigrant families – Irish, German, Slav and Italian – moved from the old river bottoms neighborhoods and settled in the suburb south of the city limits. It wasn’t long before they asked the Redemptorist fathers for permission to join them for Mass in the chapel. About 18 neighboring Catholics began attending Mass with the priests and brothers, but in a matter of months the number grew to more than 40.
Our Lady of Perpetual Help was officially recognized by Kansas City’s Bishop Hogan as a parish in 1892. Two years later, the community had outgrown the chapel and built a brick, 400-seat church on Hunter Avenue, now Linwood Blvd. The first Mass was celebrated at the new church on April 2, 1895. By the turn of the century, the church, commonly known as the Redemptorist Fathers Church, was bursting at the seams.
Part of the reason for the rapid growth of the neighborhood was the City Beautiful Movement of the 1890s, championed by Kansas City Star publisher William Rockhill Nelson and other civic leaders.
In the late 19th century, Kansas City had few paved streets and fewer sidewalks. Mud and horse manure made it difficult to walk anywhere in the downtown and bottoms areas, and buggies and carriages frequently bogged down.
Nelson, a former public works contractor, used his newspaper as a platform, campaigning for paved roads and streets throughout the city. He pushed for improved sidewalks and sewers, decent public buildings, better streetlights and more police and fire protection.
The City Beautiful campaign had a big impact on the area south of the city. Immigrant shanties in the old Penn Street ravine were torn down, making way for new brick apartment buildings and businesses. South Broadway was recast as a premier boulevard, lined with 3-story mansions, apartments and businesses.
A tract west of Broadway nicknamed the “Kerry Patch” became home to many Irish families. People of German, Slavic, Italian and Hispanic heritages moved into their own enclaves in the neighborhood. A mix of professional and working class families provided economic stability for Redemptorist parish.
As the years went by the expansion continued. Kansas City officially annexed Westport in 1899 and development began in the Country Club district, just south of Westport, around 1910. The city’s population in 1899 was 163,000, climbing to 250,000 less than 10 years later.
By 1905, as more Catholics moved into the area, Redemptorist parish had outgrown its church. Plans were drawn for a French Gothic church to be built on the corner of Broadway and Linwood Blvd.
Two years later, on Nov. 17, 1907, a Sunday, ground was broken for the new church. A story has been often told that during the groundbreaking, the men who handled the shovels were arrested “for breaking the Sabbath.” Legend or not, the story is indicative of the anti-Catholic harassment prevalent at the time.
Consequently, the parish community decided to make the laying of the cornerstone one of the grandest celebrations every held in Kansas City. Nearly 15,000 people attended the ceremony. They lined Broadway, Linwood and other neighborhood streets, watching a detail of mounted police lead a procession of Catholic societies and organizations, followed by priests, brothers, religious sisters and Bishop Thomas Lillis, coadjutor bishop of Kansas City. Bands played the music of the people, Irish, German, Italian, Slavic and Hispanic as the cornerstone was laid by Bishop Lillis.
The church took almost four years and 100 tons of native limestone to build. Quarryman Pat Sullivan, owner of a quarry near Westport, in what is now Roanoke Park, became a familiar site, steering horses and limestone-laden wagons to the east side of Broadway to unload. The site was hidden under an enormous circus tent, erected by the Kansas City Construction Co., under the supervision of contractor William Reintjes. His son, William, served as his apprentice and helped carry the stones to the site, an apparently inspirational experience for the young man, who became a Redemptorist priest.
Under the circus tent, crews dug deep holes and built wooden forms inside the holes. They mixed concrete by hand and poured it into the forms, creating a foundation of large deep blocks of solid concrete on which the heavy limestone church rests.
When the building was finished parishioners rejoiced in its simplicity and natural light.
So did a reporter from The Kansas City Journal, who wrote, “It is a great church. From the outside one marvels the solid beauty of the long walls and buttresses of gray stone. The inner church … was as simply beautiful as a bride on her wedding day.” He had attended the dedication Mass, reporting on it the next day.
Over the ensuing 15 years the church became more richly furnished. By Christmas morning, 1912, the main altar, crafted in Italy of white Carrara marble, 37 feet high, 20 feet wide and weighing 60,000 pounds, was installed. Four side altars, also of Italian marble, followed. In 1915, a marble communion railing, designed to allow five priests to distribute communion at the same time, was installed.
The blue tinted Marian windows were the first stained glass installed in the church in 1915. From 1923 – 1928, 20 more windows were installed in the nave and two above the transept altars in the clerestory.
The marble-framed mosaic Stations of the Cross were installed in 1927 and parishioners finally realized their dream of a magnificent church.
In 1977, a stained glass window honoring St. John Neumann, an American Redemptorist priest canonized that year, was designed by parishioner John T. Murphy. The window was added above the church’s Broadway entrance.
When Redemptorist is mentioned in conversation, it is impossible to picture just one thing. The campus as a whole becomes the entity. The Grotto, constructed by immigrant stonemasons in 1941, honors St. Bernadette Soubirous and the Marian apparitions she saw at Lourdes, France, in 1858. Ten fir trees planted behind the Grotto are in memory of 10 young parishioners killed in World War II. A school that was built in 1904 over the years was used as both a grade school and a high school for girls. Over 64 years, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet taught more than 6,000 grade and high school students and graduated 2,500 from the high school. A convent for the Sisters was built. Families and school children attending Masses, novenas and other services, as well as May Crownings, graduations and weddings filled the church.
Then came the upheavals of the 1950s and 60s.
The Southwest Trafficway opened in 1950, cutting through the western side of the parish. Young families took advantage of the postwar growth of inexpensive housing in the suburbs to the south and west, leaving Midtown. The community’s finest homes fell victims to the wrecking ball, replaced by car dealerships, office buildings and shops.
The Irish neighborhood, the Kerry Patch, disappeared as Penn Valley Community College was constructed.
Neighborhood demographics changed. By 1970, the population of the area was 50 percent Hispanic, 25 percent white and 25 percent African-American. Redemptorist High School closed in 1968, and a community center opened in the building in 1969. In the early 1970s, a retirement home for women opened in the old convent.
During a major renovation in 1981, carpet was installed for the first time. In 1987, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church was added to the Kansas City Register of Historic Places.
In the 1990s, the Gaelic Mass was begun, celebrated each year shortly before St. Patrick’s Day in honor of the scores of Irish families who had supported the church, the neighborhood and their faith for more than a century. The 90s also saw the retirement home close and Redemptorist Social Services open in the old convent, to serve the neighborhood poor and elderly.
The millennium renovation, 1999-2000, was a major undertaking, consuming more than 500 gallons of paint, 1500 gallons of plaster and three months of labor to repair, restore, update, clean, repaint, plaster, stencil, shine and, finally, air condition the 88-year-old church. The parish raised nearly $1 million dollars for the work, and more than half that amount came from outside donors.
In 2005, Our Lady of Angels School, which had been using the old high school building for a number of years, was offered the old Guardian Angels school building, an offer school administrators accepted. Shortly thereafter, the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth who had recently agreed to sponsor a Cristo Rey high school in Kansas City took over the building. Cristo Rey High School opened in 2006. Their first graduating class of 59 students celebrated their graduation exercises June 4, 2010 at the church.
Elegant, enduring, vibrant and vital, Our Lady of Perpetual Help (Redemptorist) Church has stood for a century in the heart of Kansas City and in the hearts of its parishioners, neighbors and friends.