By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — Our Lady of Guadalupe School was founded December 12, 1915, the feast of its patroness. Alumni memories go hand-in-hand with those of a century-old community determined to hang onto its identity as Hispanic and Catholic.
The community developed in waves. Beginning around 1900, the Kansas City Southern Railway, whose founding president Arthur Stilwell dreamed of creating a north-south railroad from Kansas City to the Gulf of Mexico, called for laborers to help build that railroad. Laborers were also needed by of the Union Pacific, Burlington Northern and the Santa Fe. The calls attracted Mexican nationals to the area, men who had been working on the Santa Fe lines near El Paso, Texas.
Meat-packing, Kansas City’s largest employer from 1890 – the 1950s, also lured Mexicans to the area. The newcomers settled in La Colonia, the growing community around 23rd Street (now Avenida Cesar Chavez) and Madison on the West side, and in Kansas City, Kansas, obtaining work in the slaughterhouses and packing plants of Wilson, Swift, Cudahy and Armour.
The influx of Mexican families displaced Irish families living along the river bluffs, causing many of them to move south of 26th Street, near Sacred Heart Church and School, established in 1887. Others moved even further south toward the new Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish on the outskirts of the city.
The Mexican Revolution of 1910 found many Mexican nationals fleeing their homeland for the U.S.; Kansas City was a destination point.
Construction gangs working on building the new Union Station also attracted families who arrived between 1910 and 1914 hoping for work. And the outbreak of World War I made war-industry jobs available.
By 1914, Bishop Thomas Lillis agreed that the population of La Colonia was large enough to need a parish, which was established that spring. The following year, Our Lady of Guadalupe School was founded in two rented storerooms at 21st and Belleview. For the next 4 years, about 110 students annually were taught by two Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, Sisters Rose and Cyril.
In 1919, the parish was able to purchase the former Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Emmanuel Church on the corner of 23rd and Madison and parishioners bent to the task of transforming it into a Catholic church. The school was moved into the church’s lower level.
School records date to 1919, and many of the names on the school rolls have been repeated through multiple generations, names like Robles, Paredes, Sanchez, Bustamante, Arroyo, Arzola and Garcia.
It was a different world: a different way of educating the young, different views on society, government, mores and morals. Jessie Garcia Nieto, born in 1921, her sister, Teresa Garcia Medina, 1923, and their friend, Irene Arzola Garcia, also born in 1923, are all alums of Our Lady of Guadalupe School.
Jessie started school in 1927, attending kindergarten and first grade in one of the three large classrooms assembled in the church’s lower level. Property on Madison, just south of the church, had been purchased from the Mary Troost estate in 1925 with the intention of building a school. Fund raisers, including the Fiesta held in 1926, helped fund the construction. In early 1927, a city-wide campaign was begun to raise more funds.
The school building was designed by Henry W. Brinkman, an architect located in Emporia, Kan., who practiced from 1910-47. Five classrooms surround a central hallway leading into an open area. Twin staircases lead to the second floor and more classrooms. Two offices near the front doors are for the principal and school secretary. The playground is located behind the school, through the back door on the Monitor Street side.
Our Lady of Guadalupe School was dedicated in August 1927. The name of the school was never engraved over the front doors; the story goes that Bishop Lillis was in a hurry to get the building dedicated and there wasn’t time to do the engraving. Engraved name or not, by Nov. 1927, the school was in operation.
Irene and Teresa both started kindergarten in the new school building.
Jessie: I have real good memories of First Communion, May Crownings, and some of my classes. The Sisters made a big deal of First Communion and May Crowning Day especially. They always chose a really tall girl from the seventh grade to crown Mary with flowers. The whole school and parish were involved in the planning celebrations of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe!
She continued, “Some of our teachers were Sister Guadalupe, Sister Josephine and there was a lay teacher named Miss Flood. Adoration was also special. We kids went into the church by grade for one hour of adoration each week. Oh and summer school was fun, taking classes with our friends, classes like sewing and culinary arts. We were a small year-round community.”
Irene recalled being very shy at first, answering questions with “I don’t know.” Then she took the sewing class with Jessie and Teresa. Jessie, she said, “was really a good seamstress. She taught us how to put zippers in dresses. Irene’s shyness began to disappear.”
Teresa proudly remembered winning a little sewing machine as a prize. Jessie said the Sisters helped children in need, and students pitched in to help also. “I made baby dresses and sold them to raise money for children in need and for myself.”
Our Lady of Guadalupe was the only school in the city that boasted an “Open Air” or “Fresh Air” room. Tuberculosis, a serious bronchial disease, was pretty widespread in Europe and America in those days. An immunization against TB was developed in France in the early 1920s, but only received widespread acceptance in this country after World War II. Polio was another serious and crippling disease. One treatment for children and adults with TB or Polio was thought to be fresh air. Jessie recalled that the Sisters established an “Open Air Room,” on the second floor, where school children with the disease spent a lot of time. A nurse, a doctor and a cook were installed in the room. “The kids with TB and the rest of us, if we had a tummy ache or a cold, were given spoonfuls of cod liver oil. UGH!” The Open Air room was discontinued in 1942.
Jessie: Our whole lives revolved around the school and the church. We had huge Fiestas, and we kids always volunteered to clean tables. Our families and friends meant everything to us.
She said over the years the circle of friends and family split up, came back, split again and returned. “Teresa and I spent two years in Mexico taking care of our grandmother, who was poorly. I came back to Kansas City in seventh grade. That would be 1936-37.”
Irene: Guadalupe taught us a lot! We knew how to behave, to be polite to others, to say the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, and prayers morning, noon and at the close of the school day.
Later in life, Irene and Teresa used the skills learned in the sewing class at Our Lady of Guadalupe as seamstresses at Jack Henry Clothing on the Country Club Plaza.
The women shared memories of riding in a horse-drawn wagon, filled with corn reaped from a field by the river owned by Irene’s father. Later they piled into the bed of an International truck and cruised around the neighborhood.
Jessie recalled groups of guys and girls wearing high heels walking from La Colonia to Union Station or to Municipal Auditorium to see concerts. “We saw every Big Band – Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington – the concerts cost $1.50 each and when they were over, one of the boys would hold the last streetcar until we got there, so we could ride home.” In all their activities, family and friends, and their faith was everything.
Teresa said many alums remained in or returned to the neighborhood and sent their children and grandchildren to Our Lady of Guadalupe School. Ramona Herrera-Zuniga was a classmate of Teresa and Jessie. She sent her children to Our Lady of Guadalupe, as did many of her relatives.
Steve Belen, vice-principal of Northeast High School in Kansas City, a nephew of Ramona Zuniga, graduated from Our Lady of Guadalupe School, as had his mother, aunts, uncles and cousins. His siblings all attended the school after its 1966 consolidation into Our Lady of the Americas. It became Our Lady of Guadalupe School again in 1991.
“We were Mexican immigrants,” Belen said, “and we worked to achieve assimilation and acculturation in our new home. We built a close-knit community with a strong historical, ethnic and faith history.”
The children of that close-knit community were not allowed to wander south of 26th Street; they were to leave the Irish and German residents alone. Of course, when the school consolidation occurred, that rule disappeared.
Belen recalled being discouraged from speaking Spanish in school; the Sisters believed that would help the kids become fluent in English faster. With parents and grandparents speaking only Spanish, that could get confusing. Sometimes as many as 14 people lived together in one house, communicating in a mix of English and Spanish.
Belen, as well as Irene, Jessie and Teresa, remembered the school’s back door being unlocked during the day so many of the students would go home for lunch. Others, including Belen, often went to Johnny’s, a nearby restaurant.
“We didn’t know it then,” he said, “but back then we were spoiled! The nuns were strict, but they loved us and had our best interests at heart. They encouraged us to make our place in society, and most of us did. The majority of us have college degrees.” Belen himself is working on his doctorate in School Leadership.
He said he and his contemporaries are grateful to the moms and grandmothers who, over the years, made thousands upon thousands of tamales for Fiestas and other fund raisers for the school.
“The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the 100th birthday of our school is coming up. Many of us will get up in time to make it to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe (formerly the parish church) to say the Mananitas, Happy Birthday, to the Virgin. She left her stamp, the roses, on Juan Diego’s tilma (cloak) back in 1538. It’s a story we pass on to our children. “
Belen said, “Many of our families were quite well off in Mexico. Pancho Villa pillaged and raped, leaving families destitute and devastated. By the time they arrived in Kansas City, about all they had were their families and their identities as Catholics and Hispanics. We struggled financially, but we hung on. Our stories are the history of Our Lady of Guadalupe School, countless histories, stories of struggle, survival and eventual success. We give credit to our parents, grandparents and our school for what we have become in the past 100 years. We want the school to be here for another 100 years!”
A centennial celebration is planned for Dec. 12 at Union Station, where grandparents of many of the alumni worked as dishwashers at Fred Harvey’s to earn money or hung out with friends.
For more information on the celebration, contact Maria Sanchez-Chastain firstname.lastname@example.org.