By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — This is what “flying under the radar” means.
Jean Ott walked into the offices at St. Thomas More Parish and handed Dave Butel a check for $400.
Butel, director of the parish’s super-charged Social Justice Ministry Team, is always happy to take checks.
But his conversation with Ott went something like this.
Butel: “Thanks, but what is this?”
Ott: “It’s from our St. Jude Mission Club.”
He didn’t even realize that St. Thomas More had a St. Jude Mission Club. Neither did any of his parish staff colleagues. So he was stunned to learn of a group of about a dozen parish women had been meeting monthly and raising money for the poor — since 1957, even before there was a St. Thomas More Parish.
Mary Elizabeth Heiman, who has been the club’s president for longer than it would be polite to ask, told the story of the St. Jude Mission Club at the parish’s fourth annual Souper Bowl dinner Feb. 3. At that dinner, the club received the Social Justice Ministry Team’s Bill Waris Service Award, named for the late teacher, coach, parish pillar, politician and Jackson County Executive.
The club was founded 55 years ago at Christ the King Parish by Esther Harlan.
“Esther had been suffering from a debilitating illness and she promised St. Jude that if she were healed, she would take him as her patron saint,” Heiman said.
Harlan went to the parish library to check out some books, and was handed a letter from a young priest in India, begging for any Catholic reading material anyone could send.
“Esther decided she would make it her mission to help the young priest,” Heiman said.
Harlan rounded up a few of her friends, and they formed the club, meeting once a month with different members hosting to collect dues and play canasta over lunch.
Then they would send the money to Father Manthara in India, without anybody else in the parish knowing what they were doing, and on top of whatever other parish and charitable activities the ladies were involved with.
“After several years, the club began gathering new members from the newly-formed St. Thomas More Parish,” Heiman said. As south Kansas City grew, the parish was spun off from Christ the King in 1964.
“Before long, strong bonds of friendship formed,” she said. “Along with dues, the group raised additional funds by holding raffles, craft shows, and garage sales.”
All the money went to Father Manthara in India, in complete faith that he would spend it wisely.
And he did, Heiman said.
The money from Kansas City “helped him educate seminarians, build homes for the elderly, dig wells for water in regions where there was none, and establish an orphanage,” Heiman said.
And how much. At least $1,000 a year. Every year. For 55 years.
Father Marantha is now 55 years older and in declining health, unable to administer the funds the St. Jude Mission Club sends him.
So did they pack it up and shut it down? Hardly.
“The ladies still meet monthly for lunch and a game of cards,” Heiman said. “The club is still moving forward and has selected Father Don (St. Thomas More pastor Father Don Farnan) as the new recipient of the regular dues and fund-raising monies. We have no doubt he will distribute the funds with his regular wisdom and compassion, helping those in need.”
And there are plenty of needs, and plenty of work that the people of St. Thomas More Parish are doing, Butel said at the dinner, also designed to draw attention to the plight of the poor.
Proceeds from this year’s dinner benefitted Uplift, a project that delivers hot meals and essential goods such as blankets, soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste to Kansas City’s homeless.
Uplift doesn’t expect the homeless to come to them, said Larry Otto, a St. Thomas More parishioner and Uplift volunteer. They load up trucks and go to the homeless. And Uplift knows the bridges, the brush, the campgrounds where they can be found.
Every night, Uplift feeds as many as 250 people, often the only meal they’ve had at least that day.
Uplift does this with an annual budget of $75,000 — used to buy supplies and keep the trucks running — and about 500 volunteers a month.
“No one gets paid to do anything,” Otto said.
But he told a story of how a little money can go a long way.
Uplift makes gallons of lemonade or hot chocolate, depending on the season, and distributes them in whatever drink containers people would donate. And they often weren’t cleaned.
“St. Thomas More solved that problem for us. They gave us $1,000, and we purchased these,” he said, holding up a disposable plastic bottle.
“We now have a warehouse full of them. Just a simple plastic bottle. But it’s clean, sanitary, and beautiful,” Otto said. “The homeless thank you.”
Then Otto told stories of the homeless he meets on the streets of Kansas City.
There is Paula, who has a college degree in accounting, but lost her family and her middle-class life to alcoholism.
“Paula has been on the streets for 20 years,” Otto said.
“Two years ago, she was a very attractive woman. Then she got a propane heater and said she wasn’t going to leave her tent all winter. She got some sort of skin disease, and now her face looks like an angry red rash,” he said.
“She told me that the way she looks is good. To be a woman on the streets, it’s not a good thing to be attractive,” Otto said.
He told of a guy with a street name of “Whiskey.”
“Whiskey is 40 years old. Young. But you’d guess he was 80. He’s been homeless for 25 years,” Otto said.
“He decided to sober up. He made all the pledges in the world. But two weeks ago, another guy moved into the camp with a bottle, and there was Whiskey, passed out in his tent,” Otto said. “We left him some food.”
Chris camped out near Interstate 435 and Front Street, Otto said. He was a double amputee who used a wheelchair.
“Chris died two years ago from frostbite,” Otto said. “A couple of weeks later, we went to his campsite and found his wooden legs and what was left of his wheelchair. That was his legacy for 25 years.”
Otto said that he and all Uplift volunteers serve the homeless for a simple reason.
“We don’t judge them. That’s our only rule,” he said. “They are all God’s children, and they deserve our compassion.”