St. Peter and Holy Name, shared stones, one future

St. Peter's Church (Key photo/Marty Denzer)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter

KANSAS CITY — On the second Sunday in September, 65 years ago, St. Peter’s parishioners celebrated the dedication of their present church.

The years have not been kind to the church’s limestone front wall, which has fallen victim to Kansas City’s cold, heat and humidity. The parish plans to restore the wall, using limestone from an inner city church that is being demolished. Their restoration project, called Upon this Rock, seeks to raise $30,000 or more to pay for the stones, repair, restore and conserve the front wall. The campaign is a three-fold appeal —to the St. Peter School alumni, to the neighborhood, and an appeal to the parish, which will be launched at Masses on Sept. 11, the 65th anniversary of the church’s dedication.

St. Peter’s had been founded when Bishop Thomas Lillis decided to establish two new parishes in what was then the southern reaches of the city. To fulfill a promise he had made in 1921 when closing the historic Sts. Peter and Paul Church downtown, he announced that the new parishes would be named St. Peter and St. Paul. The parish established in the Blue Hills area at 58th and Michigan in Oct. 1925, was not named St. Paul. A few months earlier, St. Therese Lisieux, the “Little Flower,” was canonized and, to honor the parishioners’ chosen name, Bishop Lillis dedicated the new parish to her.

The parish established at Meyer Blvd. and Holmes Road in Nov. 1925 was named St. Peter. The property was the site of a corn field with a two-story pre-Civil War farmhouse, some outbuildings and a corrugated iron building, which was to serve as the church. There were no other buildings on Meyer between Oak Street and Paseo.

About 175 parishioners joined Bishop Lillis and founding pastor Father James N.V. McKay for the 10 a.m. Mass on Nov. 8 in the “tin cathedral,” as the iron building had been dubbed. The farmhouse became home to Father McKay and Father Maurice E. Coates, founding pastor of St. Therese Little Flower parish.

By 1928, St. Peter’s parish had outgrown the “Tin Cathedral” and, that March, ground was broken for a building that would combine the church, a school and a convent for the Sisters of Mercy who taught in the school.

The parish and school population continued to grow. In 1935, Father McKay was elevated to the rank of Papal Chamberlain, and titled “Monsignor.”

Early in 1941, Msgr. McKay met with members of the Holy Name Society and persuaded them to launch a campaign to raise the money to build a new church. He contracted with the Carroll and Dean architectural firm, who were known for their church designs. Although at that point, the United States had not yet entered World War II, the government was very aware of the probability. As a result, restrictions were placed on building, as labor and materials would be needed for defense. Permission to build had to be obtained before any work could be legally started, so Msgr. McKay sought and eventually received the permit. Ground was broken the day after Christmas, 1943.

The design of the church created a minor furor at City Hall when the parish approached the city on a rezoning matter. The tale was recorded in The Kansas City Star, Feb. 13, 1944: The architectural plans drawn by Maurice Carroll, Chester E. Dean and Joseph B. Shaughnessy showed that the platform, steps and wall extended more than 6 feet into Meyer Blvd.’s parkway, causing a “City Hall teapot tempest.” The City Council’s Art Commission reviewed the plans however and recommended approval of the design, calling it “a work of art.”

Built of native limestone quarried in Carthage, Mo., the church, which later won Kansas City Chapter of the American Institute of Architects awards for outstanding institutional architecture, was dedicated Sept. 8, 1946.

Since that day, the wall has seen, according to a recent brochure, “more than 10,000 Sunday Masses, 3,400 First Communions, countless weddings, funerals and baptisms,” and endured 65 years of bitterly cold, damp winters and blazing hot, humid summers. The mortar has crumbled in places and some of the stones have fallen out. St. Peter’s parish launched a drive this summer to raise funds to restore their “front porch.”

Earlier this year, the former Holy Name Catholic Church at 23rd and Benton Blvd., unused for many years, was condemned by the city at the request of the owner, attorney Brian Gordon. The church building, completed in 1928, was also built of Carthage limestone, almost a match of the stone in the wall at St. Peter’s. Gordon, who owns the Holy Name property, and George and Danny Sullivan, who own the building and the salvage rights, offered the stones to Catholic churches and institutions in the diocese. St. Peter’s was the first to take them up on the offer.

The parish purchased 12 pallets of the salvaged limestone, with which they plan to repair the front wall and have some left over for miscellaneous repairs to the church.

St. Peter’s pastor Father Steve Cook said the parish is excited that the “beautiful stone will be kept out of the landfill.”

It’s a win-win situation for both churches. Karen Conley, St. Peter’s parish development director, said that the aged limestone from Holy Name matches the stones in the front wall, and “will be an ideal look for St. Peter’s.” And, she added, reusing the stones will help, in a way, to preserve the legacy of the historic east side church — unwittingly, it played a key role in the 1968 race riots in Kansas City.

Holy Name parish was founded by a Dominican priest, Father J.A. Sheridan, on Jan. 1, 1886, the Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord. According to Jewish Law, a male child is given his name during the ritual circumcision eight days after birth, so the church was named Holy Name of Jesus.

At the time, the neighborhood was made up of white, mostly middle class families of mixed European heritage, in all sorts of occupations — from lawyers to laborers, salesmen to firemen, physicians, engineers and widows. Parishioners gathered for Mass in four different homes before a church was begun at 23rd and Monroe (now Walrond) in the spring of 1887. Mass was not always well attended because there were very few streets laid out on Kansas City’s east side. It was difficult to get to the church.

The 1992 diocesan history, This Far By Faith, cites a Holy Name parish history published in 1940: “There were few streets, nor were there buses, streetcars or automobiles to convey them. Some were forced to start for Mass before dawn with lanterns to guide them through the fields, wooded lands or over the muddy roads to get to church.”

In 1899, the city ordered grading and widening of 23rd Street, which placed the church and school on the edge and 12 feet above the street level. Since the buildings had to be moved, it was decided to turn them to face east.

Eight years later, in 1907, land was purchased from Thomas Swope on the southeast corner of Benton Blvd. and 23rd Street, to build a new church and school. But parish officials soon realized the lot was too small for a church the size they envisioned — a cathedral-sized church that would seat 1,000 people. So the northeast corner of the block was purchased from owner John Birmingham. The church’s basement was completed by early 1911, but by then the parish had run out of money. The basement was enclosed, so that Masses could be held, but construction of the church was suspended for 13 years.

According to the historical summary of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Registry of Historic Places, on which Holy Name Church was placed in 2003, the architectural firm of Wilder and Wight had been chosen to design the new church. What should have been fairly straightforward was consistently hampered by a lack of funds. The summary continues “Throughout the design and construction of the building, the parish suffered continuous financial difficulties. Wilder and Wight … worked with the congregation through the 1910s to modify the design to reduce costs. … the proposed design of the church continued to evolve.”

Finally, in 1920 the parish platted the former church site for home sites, and sold the land. The proceeds from that sale plus additional funds from donations and diocesan loans enabled the parish to pay for the completion of design drawings and, at long last, resume construction. Money worries led to design revisions, including reducing the size of the building and spire.

In 1921 conflicts with the architects led church officials to sever ties with Wight and Wight, formerly Wilder and Wight. Holy Name Parish then hired Henry Brinkman of El Dorado, Kan., to finalize the plans, which were completed that October. Brinkman’s design was remarkably similar to the original, according to the historical summary, with a few exceptions, especially changing a massive central spire to a slender spire gracing the southwest corner of the church. Carthage limestone was selected for the building, and construction resumed in 1924. Holy Name Church, modeled after the Cathedral at Rouen, France, was dedicated June 3, 1928.

By the time the church was dedicated, changing demographics were coming into play, in a way forecasting the future of the neighborhood.

Around 1910-1911, several African American families moved into the neighborhood. White residents used death threats to try and get the families to leave, but the threats did not work. As time passed, the tension accelerated and finally culminated in six explosions that destroyed or severely damaged neighborhood homes.

By the mid 1930s, demographics were changing, from middle class whites to working class families, both white and black. In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed discriminatory real estate and deed restrictions, empowering more black families to buy or rent in the neighborhood. As black families moved in, white families moved out.

Over the next two decades, the parish instituted several programs to serve parishioners, including installing a bowling alley in the church basement in 1949, to help pay the bills. In 1953, the Radio Rosary was first broadcast on KPRS radio. About 2,000 listeners tuned in to the broadcast. KPRS, the People’s Radio Station, was founded by Andrew “Skip” Carter in 1950. Still owned by the Carter family, KPRS is now the oldest African-American owned and operated radio station in the United States.

In 1956, neighboring Holy Spirit Parish, a predominately black parish established by Bishop Edwin V. O’Hara in 1945, closed. Most of its parishioners went to Holy Name, because their children were enrolled in the school. Church officials integrated religious services, in order to serve all parishioners, but some of the extras, including the bowling alley, remained for whites only. The church also hosted weekly dances for young people, as a way of reaching out to them.

Holy Name Parish, as described by Kansas City Star reporter Tony Rizzo, “scuffled along” through the remainder of the 1950s and first half of the 1960s. In the spring of 1965, the tension and conflict over voter registration and other civil rights for black citizens increased tenfold. Then an incident occurred at Holy Name that, decades later, was still associated with the church.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968, and much of the country mourned him. The funeral was scheduled for April 9, and school districts all over the U.S. called off classes in his honor. The Kansas City School District was one of the few that held classes. A large group of teenagers demonstrated on the front steps of City Hall in protest. Already jumpy, Kansas City police were on full alert as grief, anger and fear plunged the city into riots.

KPRS disc jockey J.L. Frazier invited the demonstrators to a dance at Holy Name that afternoon, an effort by the radio station to diffuse the tension, and busses were chartered to take them to the church. Someone called in a report of a disturbance at the church and the police, unaware that a dance was taking place, arrived.

Some of the teenagers threw stones at the police officers, who responded with tear gas. When the young people ran inside, police fired six canisters of tear gas into the church basement, affecting about 400 teenagers and their chaperones.

The community reacted violently. Years later, an observation was printed in a commemorative booklet of the Church of the Risen Christ: “Many believe the riots here would not have occurred or would have been less violent had it not been for the tear gassing of 400 black teenagers at a dance in the basement of Holy Name Church ….” Whatever the cause, rioting increased in the following days, resulting in many deaths, hundreds of fires set, rocks thrown, buildings and automobiles damaged.

In the early 1970s, Holy Name’s parish council began discussions with St. Vincent’s and Annunciation parishes about consolidation. All the details were worked out by May 1975 and the three parishes merged into one about 5 weeks later. The consolidated site was at Annunciation (31st and Benton) and the new parish named Church of the Resurrection. St. Vincent’s and Holy Name’s church and school buildings were sold. Holy Name Church was sold to Bishop Harris E. Moore of the Church of God in Christ and renamed Barker Temple. Seton Neighborhood Services, which had been founded by the Daughters of Charity in 1969, moved from their former quarters at St. Vincent’s to the former Holy Name School and changed their name to Seton Center.

Over the next decade, several Christian Evangelical congregations purchased the former Holy Name church, but none stayed for long. By the mid-1980s, the majestic old building stood vacant, a target for vandals, thieves and the wind, a home to pigeons and an occasional shelter for the homeless.

Holy Name as it is being demolished. A chain link fence surrounds the demolition site of the building.

When Gordon purchased the building in 2007, he and others first tried to find ways to restore it, and perhaps have it be a Catholic church again. Financially, that wasn’t feasible, so Gordon and his group began working to interest Catholic institutions in reusing its Carthage limestone and aiding non-profit groups at the same time.

Danny Sullivan said his crew is “hand demolishing” the church building, rather than using a wrecking ball, to prevent damage to as much of the stone as possible. Any mortar clinging to the stone is cleaned off and the stone is placed on a pallet. From the site, the pallets will be hauled to the Sullivan’s warehouse and stored there until an interested Catholic parish or institution purchases stones.

St. Peter’s was definitely interested. The fundraising began with St. Peters’ Wurstfest, held Aug. 20, which raised $11,000. Donations are coming in from school and parish alumni and from the neighborhood. Conley said the parish hopes to finish fundraising by the end the month so that construction can begin in October.

“We are excited that this gorgeous stone will restore our front porch and that sharing the stone will, in a way, keep Holy Name alive,” she said. “If the circumstances were reversed, we’d want our stones reused. They’re part of our legacy.”


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October 22, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph