By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY – September 8 was a day of celebration for the staff, clients and volunteers of Seton Center. Ground was broken on land across the street from the Center, at 22nd Street and Kansas Ave., signaling the beginning of a construction project to build an addition to the facility and a new parking lot. The addition will add about 4,500 square feet to the existing building. A clear, cool morning, following weeks of humid heat, made it even better.
Several years ago, Seton Center began a $4.7 million capital campaign, Campaign of Hope, to raise the funds needed for the new addition and parking area. To date, $3.2 million has been raised.
As visitors, staff, volunteers and dignitaries gathered at the groundbreaking site, the Central Academy of Excellence Junior ROTC Color Guard presented the colors. Joining Sister of Charity of Leavenworth Loretto Marie Colwell, Seton Center’s executive director, and Sister Bonnie Hoffman, Daughter of Charity and Chair of the Seton Center Board of Trustees, under the trees at the edge of the site were a group of “designated diggers.” Before the first shovel was handed out, Kansas City-St. Joseph Bishop Robert W. Finn blessed the site, and asked God to keep the construction workers and Seton Center staff, volunteers and clients safe. He also noted that Sept. 8 was the feast of the birth of Mary, the mother of Our Lord, and asked her to watch over the people and the project. Several St. Elizabeth Ann Seton medals were also blessed by the bishop.
Kansas City mayor Sly James commented that Seton Center was investing in the neighborhood. “Although a building will be built of bricks and mortar,” he said, “it really is an investment in the people” of the Washington-Wheatley neighborhood. “It is right to bless this building site. Thank you, Seton Center, for having chosen to invest in the human resources of this neighborhood.”
Sister Bonnie then called forth the “designated diggers:” Sister Loretto Marie; Robert Dunn, Vice President of Community Affairs for J.E. Dunn Construction; William H. Dunn, Chairman Emeritus , J.E. Dunn, and Honorary Chair of the Campaign of Hope; Bishop Finn; Katie Gierster, a longtime volunteer; Marlon Hammons, president of the Washington Wheatley Neighborhood Association; Valerie Horton, president-elect, Ladies of Charity of Metropolitan Kansas City; Mayor James; Mike Jantsch, president of Jantsch Architects, Inc.; Sister Ellen Kron, Vice President, Daughters of Charity Health Ministries; Jerry Meiners, Seton Center Community Support Board member and Sister Bonnie. Each “digger” was handed a hard-hat and a beribboned shovel before taking their place near a line cleared of grass near the lot’s edge. At the signal, the “diggers” lowered their shovels, dug up a spadesful of dirt and then tossed it into a shallow crevice at their feet.
The JROTC Color Guard, which had been standing at attention throughout the ceremony, concluded it with a display of firearms, then marched off the site, carrying the flag.
For the duration of the construction, Seton Center has moved its services to a former grocery store across the street, until now used for the center’s storage. After quickly putting up temporary walls, painting and decorating the new “rooms,” center staff and volunteers were back in business. People in need can still get help from the Food Pantry, shop the Thrift Store and see the dentists in the dental clinic. Bishop Finn toured and blessed the agency’s temporary facility.
Seton Center has a long history of helping those in need in the city’s poorest urban areas.
An apostolate of the Daughters of Charity and the Ladies of Charity of Metropolitan Kansas City, Seton Neighborhood Services was founded Oct. 1, 1969, in two rooms of St. Vincent’s Parish rectory. The Daughters of Charity had recently given up St. Anthony’s Baby Home, and decided to begin a new apostolate in the urban core.
Sisters Mathilde Comstock and Rosella Molitor, with the blessing of Bishop Charles Helmsing, were the first Daughters of Charity to run the apostolate. Named in honor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, foundress of the first American religious order, the Sisters of Charity, the agency served poor families and the elderly in the central city. Within its first four years, Seton Neighborhood Services became sought throughout the area.
When St. Vincent’s, Holy Name and Annunciation parishes merged in 1975, St. Vincent’s parish buildings were put on the real estate market. Dominican Father Jerry McMullan, pastor of Holy Name, invited Seton Neighborhood Services to take over a vacant building at 23rd and Benton Blvd., next door to the church. Renamed Seton Center, the agency now had room for an in-house food pantry, a thrift store, offices and eventually, a dental clinic, an alternative high school and other services.
In 1976, Dominican Sister Marie Sullivan took charge of Seton Center. During her term of leadership, Seton Center raised more than $178,000 to purchase and renovate the Holy Name School building just north of the center. It was ready for use in 1981. Seton Center now had room for additional classrooms, the dental clinic, emergency assistance services, and offices of the Washington Wheatley Neighborhood Association in addition to the food pantry, thrift store and staff offices.
Seton Center, originally founded to address the food, clothing and housing needs of the neighborhood poor and elderly, has evolved into a comprehensive community center serving several of Kansas City’s poorest zip codes. It offers family support, a food pantry, rent, utility and mortgage assistance, a thrift store, wellness programming and prescription assistance, dental services, pro bono legal services several times a month, a high school, and socialization services for older adults.
On the heels of the economic downturn Seton Center provided 34,463 services to its clients in 2011; almost doubling the services provided the year before.
The increased square footage and new parking lot will increase the efficiency of Seton Center’s services and storage. Construction is expected to actually begin this fall and be completed in six to seven months.