St. James Parish in Liberty breaks ground for new church

Bishop Johnston leads the Dirt Service, as it was named in the groundbreaking program, by hefting a big shovelful of dirt to officially break ground for the construction of the new St. James Church in Liberty on April 15. (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

LIBERTY — St. James Parish has a long history in Liberty, nearly as long as that of the city itself. Liberty was founded in 1822 and incorporated in 1829. St. James was founded in 1837 by Jesuit missionary Father Christian Hoecken who, along with another Jesuit missionary, decided to open two missions, one in Liberty and one in Plattsburg. Liberty at the time was the largest settlement in Northwest Missouri. The first parish church, named for St. James the Greater, was built a decade later near what is now downtown Liberty.

The parish remained a mission for decades: first of the Jesuits ministering to the Kickapoo Tribe in the Leavenworth area, later of Weston and, in the late 1850s, was entrusted to the care of the pastor of St. Mary’s in Independence, Father Denis Kennedy. Through the years before and during the Civil War, Fr. Kennedy made the 15-mile trip monthly to celebrate Mass at St. James, braving guerilla bands, such as the Kansas Jayhawkers and later William Quantrill’s Raiders. In fact, there is a story that Fr. Kennedy was captured by Quantrill’s band and, suspected of being a Kansas spy in disguise, would have been executed except that the priest was recognized by a member of the band, Jesse James.

In the 1870s, three Sisters of Humility of Mary arrived in Liberty to operate a school for children that would be built on St. James Church property. The sisters operated the school, lived in it, and took in boarding students, but after only 6 years, left and consigned the school building to Bishop Hogan in return for $5.

St. James Parish was a mission of Plattsburg 1880-81, and for the next two years it was a mission of Redemptorist Parish in Kansas City. In 1889, St. James’ pastor, Father Peter Cullen, helped the small Catholic congregation organize into a parish and build a church. In 1896, St. James became a mission of St. Ann’s in Excelsior Springs. It remained so until Father Edward Mallen arrived in 1912.

Fr. Mallen came to the parish from Nashua, now a suburb of Kansas City. Reporting that he was able to “scrape up” only eight families, he nevertheless decided to build a church. In 1913, a brick church was built on the same street that the first church had been built on in 1847.

In the early 1950s, land was purchased to build a new school building and convent, to house the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth who were to be in charge of the school. The school was dedicated and opened din the Fall of 1956. The Sisters withdrew from three schools in the diocese — St. James, Nativity of Mary in Independence and Our Lady of the Presentation in Lee’s Summit — in 1972. St. James’ pastor, Father Linus Link appointed the first lay school board who believed there was a way to save Catholic education in the parish.

The lay teachers and administration hired by the school board and Fr. Link proved to be the solution. Enrollment in the school and membership in the parish grew. In 1959, there were 567 adults and 460 children listed in the parish on the diocesan census. By 1984, the diocesan census listed 1,650 Catholics in the parish.

Although in 1959, Father William Blacet, pastor, had decided to build a new church, that didn’t happen. And in 1977, when the parish was entrusted to the Society of the Precious Blood, they decided to relocate the parish. An 8-acre site on South Stewart Road was selected in 1978, and an additional 2.26 acres were added later. A new parish plant — church, school, rectory, parish offices, and social hall — was built, and dedicated in May 1981.

The parish continued to grow, as did Liberty. Some time ago, the parish decided that a new church would be built. A capital campaign began, and by March 31, 2018, 881 families had pledged $7,970,477.

The groundbreaking ceremony with Bishop James V. Johnston, Jr. was planned for April 15, and parishioners and Father Michael Roach, pastor, grew more and more excited.

The day dawned cold and drizzly with snow in the afternoon forecast, but that didn’t stop more than 400 parishioners from attending. Parishioner Troy Sheeley, a member of the Groundbreaking Committee, welcomed parishioners, guests including the bishop, the mayor of Liberty — Lyndell Brenton, the architects — SFS Architecture, the general contractor — A.L. Huber, and the longest-time parishioner — Frances Mentch. In his remarks Sheeley called the forthcoming ceremony “the culmination of years of preparation.” St. James and Liberty continue to grow, but St. James is the only Catholic Church in the city of nearly 30,000 people.

Sheeley praised the parishioners, saying that the parish debt was paid off and the parking lot completed, clearing the way for the church project.

Parishioner Dick Brown presented a brief biography of St. James the Greater, son of Zebedee and brother of John. Jesus Christ recruited both brothers, along with their business partners Simon Peter and his brother, Andrew, to be “fishers of men.” James is traditionally considered the first Apostle to be martyred. St. James is the patron saint of Spain, Portugal, and a number of other countries and locations; veterinarians, equestrians, and pharmacists among other patronages. Fellow parishioner Dan Bacon presented a short history of the parish 1837-2018.

Then the long-awaited moment arrived. Led by the bagpiper, a new member of the parish in full kilt, Bishop Johnston; Deacon Chuck Koesterer; Fr. Mike Roach; and former pastors Precious Blood Fathers Timothy Armbruster; Joe Miller; Ron Will and Tom Albers, followed by the parishioners, choir and special guests, processed to the construction site south of the school.

As many as could squeezed under the tent near the site to hear the bishop as he read, “The work we are beginning today should enliven our faith and make us grateful. We know the familiar words of the psalm, ‘If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do its builders labor.’ … we are in a sense, God’s own co-workers. Let us pray for his help through this celebration … that God will bring this construction to successful completion and that his protection will keep those who work on it safe from injury.

“My brothers and sisters, listen to the words of the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians: For we are God’s co-workers: you are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a wise master-builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it. But each one must be careful how he builds upon it, for no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely Jesus Christ. The word of the Lord.”

Bishop Johnston blesses the construction site. (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

Bishop Johnston, accompanied by Troy Sheeley’s son, a server, went around the site’s circumference, blessing it with a holy water-drenched evergreen branch. It was a windy afternoon, and his vestments billowed out and the ribbons of his miter flew behind him, so from a distance the bishop almost seemed to be sailing around the site. When he returned to the tent, Bishop Johnston, with Deacon Koesterer, Fathers Roach and Armbruster, hefted golden shovels and turned over the dirt. Parishioners were then allowed to come to the trench and fill small vessels prepared for them by the groundbreaking committee to take home as a souvenir.

The chilled folks hurried back to the church for the closing ceremonies, including music, a standing ovation for and remarks by Fr. Roach, who recalled growing up in St. James parish and celebrating his first Mass after ordination there in 1981; the current church was then only 3 weeks old. He was named pastor in 2012, his sister Jean Roach served as school principal for more than 20 years. He spoke of solidarity with the other 97 parishes and missions in the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese, and his pride in his parish.

Liberty Mayor Brenton said the groundbreaking ceremony was a monumental moment for the parish, a great time for the community and a really special moment for the faith community. He hoped St. James Parish would continue to nurture the spirit of the community of Liberty and expressed his congratulations.

Bishop Johnston gave a final blessing and many of those in attendance headed for the parish hall to enjoy a reception. Construction should commence soon.


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October 26, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph