By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Even though it is a Holy Day of Obligation, it is a sacrifice to attend Mass on New Year’s Day.
A congregation that nearly filled St. Therese Little Flower Parish in south central Kansas City made that sacrifice to honor 119 Kansas City police officers who made the ultimate sacrifice.
And for the third year in a row, the Ancient Order of Hibernians Padraig Pearse Division picked out one of the 119 to honor with a memorial bench along the “Trail of Heroes” at the Kansas City Police Department’s Shoal Creek Patrol headquarters.
It was an unseasonably warm, sunny morning on Dec. 12, 1978, when Officer John J. O’Sullivan pulled his patrol car over near the intersection of 68th Street and Myrtle Avenue, just south of Swope Park, to write some reports.
Another car pulled alongside the patrol car. There was a brief conversation. Gunfire rang out. Officer O’Sullivan, age 34, was dead.
“Officer O’Sullivan was only 34 years old when he died and left behind his wife, Carol Jean, and two young daughters, Maureen age 5, and Kelly, age 3,” said Kansas City Police Major Diane Mozzicato in announcing the memorial bench to the congregation.
A telephone repair man witnessed the murder. Within hours, O’Sullivan’s killer was arrested. He was a man against whom the officer had testified at a trial a month earlier, and the suspect in a domestic violence call that O’Sullivan answered just a week before O’Sullivan was shot.
On the Web site Officer Down Memorial Page (www.odmp.org), paramedic Terry Benson Louthain offered the following, some 34 years later:
“I was one of the two paramedics that tried to save Officer O’Sullivan. Please know, my partner and I worked as hard as we could to save you. We always regretted that our efforts were in vain. My son, all these years later, is now a police officer and I have told him of this many times. I can still remember the day as if it were yesterday. The temperature, that it was a bright, sunshiny day. And the horror we felt when we arrived on the scene. Please know that I have thought of you often.”
A man with a very similar name, but not related, also took note of the tragedy.
Kansas City-St. Joseph Bishop John J. Sullivan had just returned from his ad limina visit in Rome with Pope John Paul II, two months after the pope’s election, when he was told of the murder.
The bishop dropped whatever plans he had to rest and attended the funeral on Dec. 16 at Nativity Parish in Independence.
“His beautiful wife, Carol, and daughters Maureen and Kelly have a priority in our prayers and affectionate concern,” Bishop Sullivan wrote in his column in the Christmas Eve edition of The Catholic Key.
“John was an outstanding Catholic family man,” the bishop wrote.
Apparently, Bishop Sullivan, who did not concelebrate the funeral, did speak in words that were remembered 35 years later.
Father Ernie Davis, administrator of St. Therese Little Flower Parish, recalled speaking with a person who attended the funeral.
“Bishop Sullivan said that day that the name ‘O’Sullivan’ means ‘one eye,’ and that John O’Sullivan had one eye focused on his faith, his family and his community,” Father Davis said.
Maj. Mozzicato said that Officer O’Sullivan was born in County Cork, Ireland, and came to the United States in 1964, when he was 20 years old, and enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1968, the height of the Vietnam War.
“He became a United States citizen in 1971, the same year he joined the Kansas City, Mo., Police Department,” she said.
“Dec. 12, 2013, marked 35 years since Officer John J. O’Sullivan made the ultimate sacrifice serving and protecting his community,” she said.
Jan. 1, 2014, also marked 90 years to the day that the Kansas City police officer who inspired the annual Mass was slain in the line of duty.
Sgt. Dennis Whalen was working New Year’s Eve watching a pawn shop near 18th Street and the Paseo for people bringing in stolen items. He recognized two men who were members of a gang who had killed two police officers years earlier. Before Sgt. Whalen could draw his service revolver, the two men shot him, severing his spine. He died on New Year’s Day, 1924, at St. Joseph Hospital, his beloved wife Anna at his side.
Anna Whalen then gathered all the jewelry her husband had given her and had it melted into a chalice, which she gave to a dear family friend, Msgr. Maurice Coates.
Named the founding pastor of St. Therese Little Flower Parish, Msgr. Coates would celebrate the first Mass of every year in memory of Dennis Whalen, until Msgr. Coates died in 1962.
The tradition was soon forgotten, until 2009, when Father Davis discovered the tarnished chalice sitting in its case in storage at the parish.
He turned it over to sisters Patty Glynn and Kathy Thompson-Rausch, to see if it could be restored and if there was a story behind the ornate silver chalice, bearing the medallions of the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious mysteries of the rosary.
Their only clue was an inscription at the base, “In loving memory of Dennis Whalen by his wife, Anna Whalen.”
The two sisters discovered the story of Dennis Whalen, and found family members who recalled the long-forgotten annual Mass at St. Therese Little Flower.
On Jan. 1, 2010, Father Davis and the parish revived the tradition.
It is fitting, he told the congregation in his homily, that the parish honor all “first responders” — police, firefighters and paramedics — on a feast celebrating the original “first responder” — the woman who said “Yes” to God’s will, and brought a Savior to the world.
Earlier in December, as has been a police department tradition, several officers on their own time came to St. Therese Little Flower Parish to help assemble and deliver hundreds of Christmas food baskets for the neighborhood’s poor.
That is typical of first responders, the parish’s social services director, B.J. Atkinson, told Father Davis.
“They are the ones running in when others are running out,” of danger, she told the priest.
“Maybe it’s the first responder to someone having a heart attack,” Father Davis said. “Or a firefighter rushing into a home on fire, especially in winter when people don’t have heat and are trying to survive with space heaters. Or a police officer rushing into a domestic violence situation when people like me would have very little idea what to do.”
They rush in because they have to, and because their training tells them to, he said.
“It takes practice and preparation and teamwork before there could be a response,” Father Davis said.
So it is with the Christmas season, as God took on human flesh, a poor infant, to save the world.
“God had to put everything in place first,” Father Davis said. “The prophets had to prepare the way for the coming of Christ.”
“But the first response was only part of what Jesus had done to heal the world,” he said.
Police officers and other first responders know very well the continuing need for the healing of the Savior.
“On duty day after day, seeing the underside of society, what people are capable of doing to each other, their response as police officers is only part of what is needed to heal and save this society,” Father Davis said.
“How can we expect to see justice in this society when people don’t receive the dignity and respect they deserve?” he said.
“How is it that children brought into this life don’t always receive the opportunities to develop the gifts God has given them?” he said.
“How is it that we can begin to heal a society after hundreds of years of racism?” he said.
“How is it that we can begin putting things back together so that fathers and mothers have the support they need to stay married, that we support our schools to that they are places where people want to send their children because it will prepare them for life, regardless of race, regardless of economic condition,” Father Davis said.
Those are the places where people of faith, like first responders, need to rush in, he said.
“Thank God for those who rush in where everybody is rushing out,” Father Davis said.
“You go to places no one else wants to go, and you do it. God bless you for giving your lives to do that on behalf of the rest of us,” he said.
“Let us also pray and respond more deeply to who this child Jesus is that we celebrate, this child who came to us, this child who laid down his life for us,” Father Davis said.