By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — Bishop Thomas Lillis, second bishop of the Diocese of Kansas City, established a number of parishes during his episcopacy. Despite ill health, in mid-1938 he was considering establishing another parish. On July 13, he wrote Father John J. Whalen, pastor of St. Mary Parish, Lee’s Summit (now Our Lady of the Presentation), “For some time I have been contemplating the establishment of a chapel or little church on the new #40 Highway Cutoff, near Blue Ridge … a convenient spot for people in that district to attend Mass.” The “little church” he had in mind became Nativity of Mary.
Father Whalen celebrated the new parish’s first Mass at Pitcher Elementary School Sept. 11, 1938 with about 30 families. The date was near Sept. 8, the feast of the birth of Mary, so Nativity of Mary was chosen as the name of their new parish.
The 75th anniversary of that first Mass was celebrated on the Feast of the Nativity of Mary, with Bishop Robert Finn as principal celebrant, and Father Bob Stone, pastor of Nativity of Mary, and Father Phil Luebbert, Administrator of St. Ann Parish in Plattsburg and an alumnus of Nativity of Mary School, concelebrating.
Deacon Justin McMenamy, an ordained Permanent Deacon assigned to Nativity Parish since 1980, and Deacon Ralph Wehner, Master of Ceremonies for the bishop, assisted with the liturgy. The Nativity Parish Choir, including musicians, provided the music for the celebration of the Mass, and parish Knights of Columbus served as an honor guard.
In his homily, Bishop Finn harkened back to the past, calling to mind the beginnings of what he described as “the great spiritual adventure of Nativity of Mary Parish.”
The first months were busy — two women began contacting neighbors and people in the area to invite them to the new parish and, at the same time, established an Altar Society.
Towards the end of October, the parish received a complaint from Pitcher School, saying some damage had been done to the building. To avoid any conflict or resentment, the parish decided to purchase a home to serve as church and rectory until a proper church could be built. But the parish had no money. Father Whalen came to the rescue, using his own money to buy a home at 36th and Blue Ridge Blvd. The dining room was fixed up to use as a “church,” and the basement served as his living quarters.
Parish membership grew quickly. It wasn’t long before church services were moved to the basement of the house with seating to accommodate the growing parish.
In Dec. 1938, Bishop Lillis died after an illness of some months. Edwin V. O’Hara was appointed Bishop of Kansas City the following spring.
Martin Mosbauer and his fiance Vera, approached Father Whalen in late spring 1939 seeking permission to marry at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Seventy years later, Martin recalled that the pastor had refused to allow the wedding to be at the Cathedral. “He said, ‘No.’ Vera and I would be the first couple married at Nativity Church,” Martin said. “We didn’t really want to get married in a basement, so Father Whalen fixed up the dining room for us to get married there.” They were married June 24, 1939, in the dining room of Nativity Church/rectory.
The world outside that corner of Independence was in an uproar. Spain’s Civil War was over, and Francisco Franco and his Nationalist party had won. Germany, under Hitler, invaded Poland in September, igniting World War II.
That summer, men of the parish formed a Holy Name Society and a Church Committee. The committee was commissioned to buy land for a church. The land, two acres of pasture, was found and purchased in Dec. 1939. Plans were drawn up for a combination church and school, but were soon found to be financially impossible.
The U.S. declared war on Germany in Jan. 1941.
Plans for Nativity Church were redrawn and construction of a church basement began in Sept. 1941, with willing parishioners doing much of the work. On Dec. 7, Japan attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, which precipitated American entry into World War II, in both the European and Pacific Theaters. Young Nativity men responded to the country’s call for soldiers. Most, but not all, would come home. Those who remained at home continued to work on the basement church.
In 1942, four years after the celebration of Nativity Parish’s first liturgy, the basement church was dedicated.
Bishop Finn linked the past and the future of the parish. “Within a short time the place for Mass would change … a basement church dedicated in Sept. 1942; the completion of the (first) upper church in 1949 … and the consecration of this present church in Dec. 2004, you built steadily on the foundation that was laid. Faithfulness, fidelity, commitment and sacrifice. Jesus asked this of his apostles and, in every age, we too are called to faithfully follow him.”
Fidelity and commitment were first tested in one morning in March 1956. A parishioner, on his way to work, noticed flames coming from the church. The fire virtually destroyed much of the sanctuary and damaged the roof. But the parish cleaned up, rebuilt and continued growing.
A second test wasn’t long in coming. In 1959, St. Bernadette Parish was established by Bishop O’Hara. At about the same time, he closed Holy Family Parish in Leeds. Boundaries were redrawn, and Nativity Parish lost about one third of its families. Again, the parish regrouped and kept on growing. By 1959, more than 1,850 adults called Nativity of Mary their church home.
In 1955 a five-classroom school had opened, taught by Franciscan Sisters; the student population grew so rapidly, by 1959, it was necessary to build 12 new classrooms to accommodate all the students. The Franciscan Sisters withdrew from the school in 1960, and the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth took charge.
By 1964, parish growth necessitated that Masses be celebrated upstairs in the upper church and downstairs in the basement church. And the parish decided that the best place to hold Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve was the school basement. It worked out so well the parish held Midnight Mass the following year in the school basement. The parish council and pastor decided to move Masses to the school basement until a new church could be built, a move that proved so successful that the basement church was used for worship until the 1990s.
During the pastorate of Father Bob Rost, the parish complex underwent changes. Construction began on the current church early in 2004. St. John’s Minor Seminary had closed in 1983, and the building was sold in 2000. That summer, Bishop Boland wrote to the pastors of all diocesan parishes to say they were welcome to purchase liturgical furnishings from the seminary. Father Rost was out of town when the letter arrived. When he returned and saw the letter, he contacted the Chancery. He was informed that “everything had been snapped up” except for two stone altars. The parish was able to acquire them through the generosity of Deacon Justin and Virginia McMenamy. The altars were incorporated into the design of the new church, dedicated in December 2004.
In the midst of the construction, 14 stained glass windows, originally commissioned in 1935 by St. John’s Seminary to commemorate Bishop Lillis’s Golden Jubilee, were discovered in storage at Holy Rosary Church in Kansas City. Nativity parish was able to obtain them for $1500 each, and had them cleaned, restored and framed. Again, parishioner donations made the purchase possible.
Nine of the framed windows hang in the window sections of the church — the circle begun when the windows were commissioned to honor Bishop Lillis is complete. The windows grace a church he established.
Telling the congregation he was honored to be there, the Bishop Finn continued: “I know well that you are here not only to commemorate the past but to renew your commitment to the future, to continue to build on the foundation that was laid. Your dedication is not just to make things holy and blessed for yourselves and your families today. You are fostering a vision for generations to come. … we have received much because of the generosity and faith of … people who, over the last 75 years, did so much to build this parish. We are looking — in faith — far ahead. We want to make a contribution so that Catholics who come after us … 25, 50 and 75 years from now … will also wish to say ‘thank you’ for our work.”
Father Stone wanted to recognize 10 parishioners and thank them for their generous service. Following Holy Communion, he wished the congregation “Happy Anniversary!” which was greeted with cheers. He then awarded Nativity of Mary medals to the surprised parishioners, saying he hoped they’d wear the medals “with distinction and pride.” He added that he planned the medals to become a tradition at Nativity, on or near the Feast of the Nativity of Mary. One by one he called them forth:
Esther Cunningham organized and built the kitchen in the Ministry Center basement which is still in use today. The cinnamon bread lady, Esther and her late husband, Rob, registered in Nativity in 1958.
Ray Singer is the parish go-to-guy for all woodworking projects including building fences, stages, and refinishing cabinets. He is a Eucharistic Minister and takes communion to the homebound. Ray has been very active in the Boy Scouts for many years. Ray and his wife, Mary, are a lead couple for marriage prep. They have been parishioners since 1970.
Norm Steffen is a retired electrician who is called whenever anything electrical goes wrong. He is ready to help whenever the parish maintenance supervisor needs a hand with a variety of projects. Norm was also active in Boy Scouts and a former money counter. Norm and his wife, Bernice, have been parishioners since 1967.
Lucy Lamb, longtime parish business manager, bookkeeper, and secretary, has served on the Ministry Council, PTA, and Building Committee for the new church. Lucy is a Eucharistic Minister and serves on the parish Finance Council. She is a former president and current member of the Altar Society. Lucy has coordinated the Altar Society’s biggest fundraiser, the rummage sale, for many years. Lucy and her husband, Paul, were also a lead couple for marriage prep. The Lambs registered in the parish in 1952.
Madge Sutherlin is a Eucharistic Minister, a member of the Liturgy Committee and past president and current member of the Altar Society. She served on the Building Committee and was instrumental in the refurbishing of chalices and obtaining weavings from Mexico to decorate the church. Madge and her late husband, Ed, registered in the parish in 1953.
Bud Vitt’s family is one of the oldest pioneers of Nativity, joining in 1939. He was an usher for many years and very active in the Boy Scouts. Bud was Esther Cunningham’s go-to-guy for tasks including bread baking and assistance with parish art and environment issues. Bud and his late wife, Helen, registered in the parish after their marriage in 1954.
Ralph Wolfgeher is the school’s go-to-guy for just about everything. He grills hot dogs monthly for Nativity School and is the parking lot supervisor wearing many “silly” hats. Ralph is always smiling and ready with a friendly greeting to students to start their day. A former PTO member, Parish Council member, he served on the Camp Fire District Council Committee. He is also a member of the Knight of Columbus. Ralph and Carmen Wolfgeher have been parishioners since 1965.
Martin and Vera Mosbauer were the first couple to be married at Nativity. They were on the PTA and very involved in the school when it opened in 1955. Martin was head usher for more than 50 years and served on many committees while Nativity was in its formation years. Vera is a past President and current member of the Altar Society. She started the Quilters Group in 1976, which still meets every Tuesday morning. Martin and Vera have been parishioners since 1939.
Mike Fetters is a Eucharistic Minister and Lector. He was chair of the Liturgy Committee for many years and did all of the ministry scheduling. He is very active in the Boy Scouts and a past Chairperson and Ministry Council member. He was also a member of the Building Committee. Mike and his wife, Helen, have been parishioners since 1962.
The children of all these families attended Nativity of Mary School and many of their grandchildren are currently enrolled.
Following the Mass, parishioners gathered in the parish hall to continue the anniversary festivities. There was adult food (brisket), kid food (hot dogs), a TV broadcasting the Kansas City Chiefs playing the Jacksonville Jaguars (and winning!), cool drinks, an art auction, 75th anniversary memorabilia for sale and, for kids who didn’t mind the 100 degree temperatures outside, games. Sounds of conversation, laughter, hugs and cheers filled the hall. The celebration closed at 3 p.m., but it was only the end of the day. As the bishop had said to the assembled parishioners, “This is just the beginning, right? Seventy five years and counting!”