By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — For many Catholics in the south central part of Kansas City, Christ the King Parish was a part of their growing up. Founded in 1938, the parish anchors the southern edge of Waldo, and to those born after 1945, it has always been right there.
During this past year, Christ the King parish has celebrated its 75th anniversary, with a parish picnic, a Heritage dinner, and the anniversary Mass and banquet Nov. 23, the evening before the Feast of Christ the King. The principal celebrant was Bishop Robert W. Finn, with Father Gregory Lockwood, parish administrator, Father Richard Rocha, diocesan vocations director in residence, Father Joseph Powers, rector of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Father Joseph Totton, pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Parish concelebrating, assisted by the bishop’s Master of Ceremonies Deacon Ralph Wehner and Christ the King’s Deacon David Healy.
The parish was originally established in 1938, and covered the area from 75th and Troost south to Martin City and west to the state line. Bishop Thomas Lillis, in failing health but determined to establish parishes to serve the growing Kansas City Catholic population, appointed Father Thomas Connelly founding pastor of the new parish. He did a census of the area and found 17 families. The new congregation’s first Mass was celebrated by Father Connelly in a rented storeroom northeast of 85th and Holmes in October 1938.
Bishop Finn said in his homily, “Christ the King Parish has always been and will always be, a Gate of Heaven.”
In the beginning it might not have seemed that way. A small, grey barn on W. 85th Street was obtained in November, and converted into a worship space. Mass was celebrated there beginning in December 1938. Bishop Lillis died that same month.
A parish history written in the 1950s recounts that the congregation learned that first Sunday that the small, grey structure had been a night club called the “Silver Barn,” which was probably the reason a man drove up to the church as Father Connelly was speaking with parishioners as they left after Mass. The man asked the priest why everyone was leaving, “I was just going to buy the house a drink.” The history assured the reader that within a few days, a cross was erected on top of the building so that passersby would know it was a church. “The Silver Barn existed no longer.”
Several years later, in 1941, a corner lot at 85th and Wornall Road was purchased and a mission style church was built on the property. About 75 families were registered in the parish at the time.
Defective wiring started a fire in the church in 1943 and it burned to the ground. The parish was located in the county as the city limits still ended at 77th Street, and there were no fire fighting facilities.
Almost before the rubble cooled, parishioners started clearing it away and within a week were able to celebrate Mass in the remains of the basement. A new church, identical to the first, was built, and dedicated Dec. 19, 1943.
During the dedication ceremony, Bishop Edwin V. O’Hara encouraged the parishioners to plan for a school. He was certain the area was going to grow rapidly and land prices would rise, partly because Waldo straddled Wornall Road, the main auto and street car route to downtown. With that endorsement the parish began to buy land.
In the fall of 1945 the church basement was divided into three classrooms. Christ the King School opened with 46 children enrolled, taught by three Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Patrick Lynch was the first and only graduate in 1945.
Southwest of the church, a new, four-classroom building was rising. By the fall of 1946 it was ready for students, teachers and class work. The building cost the parish $68,000.
In 1949, Ed and Karosie (Katherine Rosemary) Ismert, still newlyweds after just 7 months, joined the parish. Her sister Betty was married to Ed’s brother Jerry, and they too joined the parish.
By 1950, Christ the King Parish’s rolls had swelled to 325 families. Kansas City was expanding south, and the city limits had been pushed to 85th Street in 1947.
In November 1952, ground was broken for a new brick church. Under the leadership of Father Arthur Tighe, the new church was built. The church was dedicated May 7, 1954. The free-standing altar facing the congregation, a privilege granted by Pope Pius XII, was consecrated May 19, 1954.
The first couple married in the new Christ the King Church was Dick and Mary Ann Melchior, whose marriage was celebrated in July 1954.
Father Tighe was elevated to Domestic Prelate in 1956, with the title Monsignor.
Msgr. Tighe was succeeded by Father Vincent Kearney in 1957. A year later, there were 2,457 adults in the parish, of which 2,178 were married. The parish census at the time indicated that there were 2,029 children; 925 were enrolled in the school. More classrooms and other additions were made to the school to accommodate the growing number of students. In 1961, Father Kearney was elevated to Domestic Prelate.
By March 1965, a gym and a cafeteria had been added to the school.
Students studied and got involved in sports, playing intramural basketball and volleyball. As time passed, the intramural sports became part of a parochial school league and Christ the King’s student athletes fiercely competed against other Catholic schools in the diocese. In academics, spirituality and athletics, the school was well regarded throughout the Kansas City Catholic community and beyond.
In the spring of 1960, the Holy Name Society began working toward the goal of air-conditioning the church, as Kansas City summers could get uncomfortably hot and humid. It would take six years, but in the late summer of 1966, the church was air conditioned.
By 1963, the city limits of Kansas City had reached the Cass County line. St. Thomas More Parish had been established southeast of Waldo at 118th and Holmes in 1958. Christ the King Parish continued to grow.
In June 1978, Bishop John Sullivan granted Msgr. Kearney a leave of absence in lieu of a transfer, which lasted until Msgr. Kearney’s retirement in 1983. Auxiliary Bishop George Fitzsimons was named pastor of Christ the King in 1979.
Several years of conflict and protests followed, but quieted down by the early 1980s. By 1983, the parish counted 4650 registered parishioners in 2280 households.
The years passed. The 13 children of Ed and Karosie Ismert all graduated from Christ the King School, attended Catholic high schools, went on to college and eventually married and started their own families. Karosie, now widowed, proudly counts 76 grandchildren and 52 great grandchildren, “with four more on the way.”
The parish’s oldest member, Mary Rensvold, 104, is currently in hospice care.
Demographics changed along the way. Young families grew up and grew older, children moved away and over the years, parish and school registration decreased. By the 2012-2013 school year, only 91 were enrolled in the school.
The class of 2013 was the final graduating class of Christ the King School, which closed at the end of May. The Montessori school continues to teach preschool age children, and recently a Home School Association began using the school building two days a week.
Several pastors also changed the physical plants of the church and the school. Father Bill Bauman became pastor of 2,280 parishioners in 1984. The following year, half of the convent was converted into an apartment while the other half became the LIFE Center (Lay Involvement, Faith Enrichment) with seven offices and an assembly room for gatherings and meetings of up to 35 people.
In 1991 St. Augustine Parish closed, adding 100 parishioners to Christ the King. That October, wheel chair ramps and an elevator were installed and restrooms were upgraded in the hall below the church. That same year the preschool was remodeled.
Father John Weiss was named pastor in 1993. He initiated several needed renovations to the school, including new restrooms near the gym and the addition of a computer lab in the school basement. The school cafeteria was remodeled to accommodate a hot lunch program. The former convent was converted into an Infant/Toddler Center in 1996, as the number of working parents needing child care was increasing.
In 1997 a Pastoral Council was begun. Council members assist the pastor with direction setting, planning, policy formation and spiritual leadership for the entire parish. Members are selected through a discernment process.
When Father David Holloway became pastor in 2004, he immediately set out to air condition the school, which was completed in 2005. There were 175 students enrolled in the school at the time.
In 2011, Father Gregory Lockwood was asked by Bishop Finn to take the helm of Christ the King Parish.
About 262 current and former parishioners and priests attended the invitation-only banquet in the church hall. It was catered and served by Above and Beyond Catering. There was food, wine, and the sounds of laughter, conversation and camaraderie. Other friends, including Father Ernie Davis, administrator of St. Therese Little Flower and St. James-KC parishes, who was celebrating the 11th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, joined the party.
Father Lockwood officially started that party by thanking the parishioners who worked to make the three-part celebration a success. Bishop Finn told those in attendance that “the work of the lay faithful in the parishes inspires us priests.”
Father Powers, who served as assistant pastor in 1982, recalled the faith of the parish. Father Totton served as an associate at Christ the King for one year following his 2004 ordination. “It was an impressionable year, and powerful!”
Father Holloway said that a parish is about the people and the relationships. “It was good to be here, a good experience,” he said.
To laughter and applause, Father Rocha announced that the Missouri Tigers were leading the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) Rebels by a touchdown and the score was 7-0.
Father Lockwood said Christ the King Parish has had an incredible impact on Kansas City over the years, both when the parish was counting members in the four thousands and when the membership declined. The longest lasting impact comes from the school’s alumni, a number of whom have returned to the parish as adults.
He added that new families are joining the parish, about 40 this year alone. “Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) schools’ (including UMKC) students and alumni come to Christ the King because Mass is reverent. We have young couples and families in the parish again.”
Three quarters of a century. In the life of a parish, that is definitely long enough to establish a strong legacy of people, relationships, good times and bad, and secure a place in the history of an area and its residents. In its 75 years, Christ the King has done that.
Father Lockwood said, “Christ the King Church is a proud place, as it should be.”