By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Ironically, his heart gave out. And it was a heart that had given so much, as his grandson explained at his funeral Mass Dec. 30.
“Love,” said Brian Thompson, speaking of Father John Wandless. “Unconditional, everlasting love. There was no room in his heart for anything else. So make sure your heart is filled with love for God, love for country, love for family, love for all and love for yourself.
“If you can be John Wandless to just one person, that would be huge,” Thompson told the congregation that nearly filled Visitation Parish.
Father John Wandless passed away suddenly at his Kansas City residence on Dec. 23. He was 79.
A husband, a father, and an extremely successful businessman who heard the call to priesthood following the death of his beloved wife, Jane, Father Wandless’ love — and his compassion for the poor coupled with determination to raise them up — was felt by two special guests at the liturgy.
Anthony Lewis is 15 years old. He’s going to graduate from high school, then college with the ultimate goal of becoming an FBI agent.
Seventeen year old Vonzell Garth will graduate this spring from Hogan Prep Academy. Then he will sign up for service with the United States Marine Corps.
Lewis and Garth are Urban Rangers, a program that Father Wandless not only established but funded himself out of his own bank account to give young men surrounding his St. Louis Parish where he pastored the jobs that they needed, and along with that the self-discipline, the self-respect, the determination, and the realization that work pays off in the ability to dream big, and to plan to turn those dreams into reality.
“It was my first job,” Garth told The Catholic Key before the funeral Mass began. “I was able to learn leadership and work ethic there. And now, I am going to enlist in the Marine Corps.”
“Urban Rangers will always have a spot in my heart,” Lewis said. “It helped me grow as a young man.”
“That’s what we do,” said Eric Dickinson, to whom Father Wandless handed the reins of the Urban Ranger program.
“Young men in the core of the city see a lot of terrible things. It was the vision of Father John and our program to tell them that they can become whatever they want to be. We are all about hope and building futures.”
Then Dickinson’s thoughts turned to the man who dreamed of Urban Rangers, then made it happen.
“Father John means the world to me,” Dickinson said. “To see someone like him who wanted to see change in the central city, well, I grew up in the central city, and that means the world.”
That was Father John Wandless, said his longtime friend, Father Don Farnan as he delivered the funeral homily. He never did anything without putting everything he had into it.
Father Farnan was a newly ordained priest assigned to Visitation Parish in 1987 when he first met John and Jane Wandless, and their children Tom and Julie.
Father Wandless by that time had gotten in on the ground floor of the computer revolution and designed software for hospitals to track physician credentials.
It had made him independently wealthy, but then Jane was diagnosed with lymphoma and passed away in 1992.
John was devastated, Father Farnan said. “Till death do us part” didn’t cover it for John Wandless. He was going to love Jane forever.
“It was clear that he wasn’t going to marry again,” Father Farnan said.
Two years after his wife’s death, John Wandless set up an appointment with Father Farnan, who was then the diocesan vocations director.
Comforted by priests who served him in his grief, John Wandless, then 57 years old, told Father Farnan that he felt called to spread the care he received from priests through his own ordination to the priesthood.
By 1997, he had received his advanced degree from the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif., and was ordained by Bishop Raymond J. Boland.
“Wherever he was, he absorbed everything he could, soaking in the culture and learning the history. He never seemed to tire,” said Father Farnan.
“While at Berkeley, he worked in Oakland, immersing himself in inner city ministries, inspired by the perseverance of the poor,” he said.
“When he looked at realities, he always saw possibilities,” Father Farnan said. “He rallied many of his friends and dug deep into his own pockets for the sake of whatever happened to be his latest plan to make life better for those who didn’t have much of a voice, or possess many of the skills needed to accomplish the task.
“His journey of life was a journey of love,” he said.
Father Farnan said that Father Wandless embraced patriotism during his service in the U.S. Navy, just before attending Rockhurst College on the G.I. Bill.
“He believed that the United States of America was formed by divine guidance and that God had a special purpose for us here, on planet earth,” Father Farnan said.
“He embraced and promoted all that was right with our country, and he wanted to fix all that was wrong,” Father Farnan said.
Father Wandless loved the church exactly as much and exactly the same way: “He loved all that was good, but wanted to fix what was wrong.”
“Like Pope Francis, he thought we needed to be out in the streets, rolling up our sleeves. Shepherds getting dirty with the sheep, wrestling with tough issues and essentially setting people free,” Father Farnan said.
“He was genuinely interested in everyone he served, especially those viewed as the least among us,” he said.
“He took risks in business and in his vocation. When chaos surrounded him, he always remained calm, never sweating the small stuff and diminishing every problem he faced into small stuff,” Father Farnan said.
“Yes, he experienced every facet of love, and he absorbed every ounce of life that he could,” he said.
“But he was always ready and ever eager to go home, to return to the open and loving arms of Jane and God,” Father Farnan said.
“As we lay to rest 2015, so do we now also lay to rest John Wandless,” he said. “As much as Christmas gives us new birth here on earth, so now does he experience new birth in the Kingdom of Heaven.”