By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY —The framed photograph hung in the upstairs hallway of her parent’s home the whole time Lili Bliss Shank was growing up in the Brookside area. She passed the photo a couple of times each day, and as she grew, she also grew curious about the photo of two men, one in a white chasuble and the other in a dark suit, smiling at each other as they shook hands. She learned that the two men were President Harry S. Truman and Father Louis Curtis Tiernan, her great-uncle, at the Potsdam Conference. But she knew little about Father Tiernan, except for one big connection: both Lili and her great-uncle bore the same middle name, Curtis.
Her father often told stories of his family, so even as a child Lili was interested in personal histories. Her interest increased in high school, when her history teacher assigned the class to interview a family member about a period in American history. Lili interviewed her father’s mother, Agnes Tiernan Bliss, about her life and experiences in Kansas City during Prohibition. The colorful tales her grandmother told about those days, especially about family and friends, fascinated the teenager.
Lili graduated from Stanford University with a degree in economics and then completed the 10-week summer program at the university’s Mass Media Institute. She worked at KOLR-TV in Springfield, Mo., before joining KCTV-5 in 1983. In 2007, after 25 years as a news anchor and reporter, Lili said goodbye to the TV station to pursue becoming a personal historian. She credits part of her inspiration to StoryCorps, the personal history collection initiative begun in 2003. It was through helping others preserve their family histories that Lili realized she wasn’t preserving her own. Knowing that her great uncle and Harry Truman were friends, she impulsively emailed the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library asking if they had anything in their files about Father Tiernan.
Lili recalled that she “wanted to know the back story” of that photo that held such pride of place in her childhood home. To her delighted surprise a thick envelope soon arrived containing 35 years of correspondence between Truman and “Padre,” as he fondly called the priest, revealing a friendship forged during World Wars I and II, and lasting until Father Tiernan died in 1960.
She did not want the letters “to remain buried in a file cabinet;” they triggered “a two-year research project” that culminated in “Harry & Padre,” published in March 2016.
Between those letters, and the newspaper clippings and photos her grandmother, Curtis’ youngest sister Agnes, kept and passed down to Lili’s father, she had a starting point in her research. She began at the beginning —Louis Curtis Tiernan was born in 1884 to Peter and Lillie Curtis Tiernan in St. Louis. An older brother died in early childhood. Curtis, as he was known was followed by four younger sisters and a brother.
When he was very young, his parents moved to Kansas City, residing first at the Coates House Hotel downtown, and then, as the family grew, moved to a home on Independence Avenue. Curtis attended the Christian Brothers grade school near the Cathedral, and continued there even after the family moved to 35th and Genesee, riding his pony to and from school.
When Curtis was 12, his father died. The son attended Central High School, and then St. Louis University, graduating in 1906.
He “headed off” to what is now the Pontifical North American College in Rome to prepare for ordination to the priesthood, which occurred in 1910. Father Tiernan then returned to Kansas City.
Lili learned that he served in several parishes in the western Missouri Diocese of Kansas City, which then stretched south from the Kansas City area to the Arkansas border. As war clouds gathered over Europe, he was serving as pastor of Annunciation Parish in California, Mo. Father Tiernan became convinced that the United States had a moral obligation to step up and fight.
President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany in April 1917. Three months later, Father Tiernan returned to Kansas City to celebrate Agnes’s June 16th wedding to George Bliss. He was approached by a group of Irish Catholic young men wanting to organize an artillery regiment who requested the priest to serve as their chaplain. In August of 1917, Father Tiernan entered active military service at Fort Sill’s Camp Doniphan in Oklahoma. There, in what became the famous unit Battery D, he got to know a young Baptist corporal named Harry Truman.
It was during fierce fighting in the Vosges Mountains of France in 1918 that the men in the trenches began calling Father Tiernan “Padre.” The moniker stuck, for the remainder of the priest’s life, as did his close friendship with Truman and the “Boys of Battery D.” Msgr. Tiernan died in Kansas City in 1960.
A half century later, Lili and her husband Chris traveled from Kansas City to Fort Riley, Kan. to Rome and many points in between, checking out clues that peeked out of old letters, photographs, and artifacts of the First and Second World Wars belonging to Msgr. “Padre” L. Curtis Tiernan, Head Chaplain of the European Theater Office, highly decorated U.S. Army Colonel, friend and occasional advisor to Harry Truman, President of the United States. Many of those letters, photographs and artifacts appear in the book.
In addition to the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum, she sought information from several historical sources, including the National World War I Museum, Kansas City; the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps Museum, Fort Jackson, S. Carolina, and the 1st Infantry Division Museum and U.S. Cavalry Museum in Fort Riley, Kan. She asked the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocesan Archivists, Father Michael Coleman, author of This Far By Faith, the 1992 history of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, and Zachary Daughtrey, Ph.D., for information the diocese holds on Msgr. Tiernan, explanations of terms and other things Catholic and diocesan, particularly in the years before Vatican II. Bliss and Tiernan family members and descendants of friends of Msgr. Tiernan provided Lili with stories, memories and photos that became part of the book. She also pored through biographies of Truman, military and U.S. chaplaincy histories, and compilations of Truman’s letters and his oral biography, as well as the history of Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Branson, Mo. “Harry & Padre” offers readers many aspects of Msgr. Tiernan’s life, priestly and military career, and his friendship with Harry Truman.
Lili Curtis Bliss Shank feels that she now knows the great uncle who baptized her, but who died when she was just 19 months old. He’s more than a face in an old photograph, more than a name in history books. And she’s proud to know him.
The book, Harry & Padre is available for $15 a copy at the Harry S. Truman Library, Independence, Mo., or by contacting Lili Shank, (913) 831-0848 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about recording a personal history, visit www.voicesintime.com.