By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
Friday, June 17, 1938 was a pleasantly warm day for the small group of Catholics living in and around Blue Springs who gathered in “Stanley Hall” for their first Mass as St. John LaLande Parish.
KANSAS CITY — That was 75 years ago.
Aug. 24, 2013, was another pleasantly warm day for the hundreds of current and former parishioners, priests and religious who gathered to celebrate the anniversary. Bishop Robert W. Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph was the principal celebrant, with Father Ronald Elliott, pastor, Father Kevin Ikpah of St. Mary’s Medical Center of Blue Springs, and Father Joseph Powers, rector of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, concelebrating. Father Powers served as associate pastor from 1979-82.
Liturgical music was provided by the full parish choir, the Handbell Choir, the organist and several musicians.
Father Elliott posted in that weekend’s bulletin, “We all know that ‘no one is an island,’ that we are amongst others and that we need others. Though we are celebrating our 75th year as a parish, we do not stand alone nor can we exist alone. Were it not for our Bishop and the Universal Church, our Catholic Church, we would not and could not be here.”
Bishop Finn began his homily with congratulations and, “Thanks be to God for the vibrant life of St. John LaLande Parish. Your pastor, Father Ron Elliott, has done a wonderful job to affirm and spiritually support you. I am pleased that a number of your former priests are here today. Among you are also past parishioners who have contributed in so many ways to the miracles of God’s grace that have been granted here over the last three quarters of a century. I thank you for all of the holy work, the hard work, the loving work, by which you have given yourself to God and to the life of St. John LaLande Parish. There is much to celebrate, much for which to be thankful.”
The parish was canonically established by Bishop Thomas Lillis in early May, 1938, and Father James Walton, then-pastor of Holy Cross Parish, was appointed first pastor.
Daniel and Steve Donovan, the only Catholic family living in Blue Springs at the time, purchased Stanley Hall on May 23, and later donated it to the Diocese of Kansas City. Parishioners remodeled Stanley Hall, a brick building at 1133 Main Street, which would serve as the church for about a year.
The parish was originally established to serve Catholic weekend visitors to Lakes Tapawingo and Lotawana, but the 15 men, 20 women and 10 children who attended that first Mass were pleased to be a parish. The first parish meeting was held at the Lake Lotawana home of Edwin Borserine, and the church might have been built near the lake, except for a vow made by Steve Donovan. Hearing of an attack on the Catholic Church by a local Ku Klux Klansman, he swore that he would “see to it” that there would be a Catholic Church on Main Street, and he kept that promise. Even so, anti-Catholic sentiment remained strong enough to force Father Walton to live at Lake Tapawingo.
Bishop Finn reminded the congregation in his homily that, “for those early parishioners, Catholic faith was a choice with risks, and they persevered with God’s help.”
The name chosen for the new parish, St. John LaLande, seemed tailor made. Jean de La Lande was a young lay missionary from Dieppe, France, who accompanied a Jesuit priest, Father Isaac Jogues, to bring the Gospel message to the Mohawk Indians in what became Montgomery County, New York. Both were captured and killed by the Mohawks, and are now celebrated as part of the group known as the North American Martyrs.
St. John La Lande parishioner Jim Heiman, author of a 2003 parish website history, wrote, “Jean de La Lande, the obscure young French woodsman from Dieppe, France, was a fitting image for the name of a church … of a religion persecuted by the fears of staunchly anti-foreign and anti-Catholic terrorists. And perhaps he appealed to the weekend country excursionists who may have felt that they, too, were woodsmen—at least on the weekends.”
The parish grew rapidly. In 1948, the parish built a church a few blocks away from Stanley Hall, still on Main Street, that could seat 300. The 1950 parish census showed 50 permanent families. In 1959, a two-room school opened with about 70 students in five grades, all taught by two Sisters of St. Francis of Nevada (now of Independence).
In 1961, the parish site moved to 805 NW R.D. Mize Road, and the school added 6th and 7th grades. According to the 1992 diocesan history, This Far By Faith, the marble altar, the tabernacle and the Stations of the Cross were all moved from the Main Street Church to the new church. The eighth grade was added in 1962. A year later, parish membership had grown to more than 900 persons.
The first graduation was held in June 1963, honoring seven girls and five boys. The school grew with the parish. In Sept. 1976, 240 students, two Sisters, eight lay teachers and one aide began the new school year at St. John LaLande.
In 1976, ground was broken for the present church. This Far by Faith describes the building, “The building, 96’ x 96’ … would seat 660 persons. The bell tower at the front of the church was erected in memory of Msgr. John Biter, a priest of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, who left a bequest to the parish in his will. The interior … was built in a square but the altar … placed in a corner and the pews arranged in a semi-circle.” The parish census showed 900 families that year.
The first Mass was celebrated in the church on Dec. 11, 1976, and it was dedicated in Feb. 1977. The former church was remodeled into a gym.
A limestone statue of St. John LaLande, was commissioned for the church grounds. Carved by Fritz Carpenter of the Stefan Mittler Monument Company in Madison, Wis., and costing $2,500, the 7-foot tall statue was paid for by the Altar Society, the Holy Name Society and the P.T.A.
A parish center, complete with kitchen, was ready for use by 1979. The school cafeteria was moved to the parish center that summer.
Just two years before celebrating its 50th anniversary, the parish broke ground for a 9,700 square foot expansion to the church. The expansion created a large vestibule, office, a meeting room, parish hall, kitchen and nursery. The cry room was redesigned, 126 new parking spaces and handicap access added. The addition was dedicated in June 1987. The following year, St. John LaLande Parish celebrated its Golden Jubilee.
The parish continued to grow and expand. Now 75 years old, it has matured into a vibrant, faith-affirming parish. One thousand two hundred thirty eight families are registered in the parish. Two hundred forty eight children are enrolled in St. John LaLande School in pre-K through 8th grade. About 58 little ones are enrolled in the early childhood program and 134 students are signed up for the parish Religious Education Program.
More than 600 parishioners, former parishioners, priests and religious gathered for the Liturgy of the Mass in celebration of the anniversary.
The Bishop told them that he was “honored to be here with you as bishop. I am convinced that your commitment is not for only 75 years. Your dedication is not only to make things holy and blessed for yourselves and your families today. You are, rather, setting a foundation and fostering a vision for generations to come. You and I know that we have received much because of the generosity and faith of those people, who over the last 75 years did so much to build this parish.”
Following the Mass, the church emptied as everyone gathered in the back parking area for the Social. Blue Springs Mayor Ron Carson presented Father Elliott with a proclamation about St. John La Lande Parish and announcing that Aug. 24, 2013 was St. John La Lande Catholic Parish Day.
Father Elliott joined Bishop Finn in saying Grace and then a BBQ dinner was served. The lines of people stretched into an auxiliary parking lot where bands made up of parishioners provided musical entertainment.
There were games set up for children, bubbles floated through the air, clowns wandered through the crowd, and young men took turns in a dunking tub. The atmosphere was one of fun and friendship.
Rather than focusing on the past, the parish looks to the future. Heads nodded in agreement as the bishop said, “We are looking – in faith – far ahead. We want to make our contribution so that the Catholics who come after us – who will gather at St. John LaLande Parish 25, 50, and 75 years from now for a similar celebration, will also wish to say ‘thank you’ – for our work.”