A story of faith and love brought full circle

Father Tom Curran, S.J., president of Rockhurst University, incenses the font during the blessing ceremony in Mabee Chapel earlier this month. (Photo courtesy Tim Linn, Rockhurst University)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

KANSAS CITY — Marcia McMullen and her siblings boast a long family history with the Jesuits, going back to when St. Aloysius Church was completed in 1889/90. Many Irish Catholics were living in the northeast neighborhood near 11th and Prospect streets, with families, so a large marble bowl was made part of the rectory’s baptistry furnishings. As the parish grew, generations of baptisms were performed at the marble font.

Around the turn of the century, several recent immigrant families from Ireland, settled in the neighborhood and the parish, among them the McCormicks and Luke Byrne, Sr. and his wife Ellen Hawley Byrne. Luke and Ellen’s daughter Helen attended St. Aloysius Academy, an all-girls high school, graduating in 1917. She later married Clement McCormick, who graduated from Rockhurst Academy (now Rockhurst High School) in its first graduating class in 1917.

Their daughter, Marianne, was baptized at the marble font in St. Aloysius Church in 1931. When she grew up she married Edward McMullen, and they settled in Kansas City. The McMullens raised four children, Michael, Mary, Mark and Marcia.
Ed McMullen, an engineer, frequently thought about Marianne, especially if he was out of town on business. He developed the habit of bringing her a teacup and saucer from each city or country he visited, and as her collection grew, he built a shelf that encircled a room in their house for the cups and saucers. When he heard that St. Aloysius, their childhood parish, was holding an auction in the early 1970s, he went to see what memories he could find for her. He found the marble baptismal font and purchased it.

The marble is a peachy taupe. There are some darker smudges that could have been caused by a fire. The parish history at the time of St. Aloysius’ centennial, 1986, recalls the fire that destroyed the rectory in Jan. 1959. The priests lived at Assumption parish rectory until the beginning of the summer and then moved to the St. Aloysius convent when the Sisters vacated it for the season. They then rented a nearby house until a new rectory designed for three priests and a housekeeper was built. When completed the rectory’s living quarters were on the second floor and the first floor contained three offices, kitchen, dining room, the housekeeper’s quarters and a utility room. The history says that formerly a bridgeway had led from a south aisle of the church into the baptistry in the old rectory. When the church was redecorated in the early 1950s, Msgr. George King had installed a marble font in the large vestibule and a family of the parish had donated a painting of Raphael’s Madonna of the Chair for the baptismal alcove. The marble font was likely the same one that had been installed in the late 1800s.

The histories concur that urban renewal was the prime reason the church was torn down. That and a leaking roof. The original church was demolished in 1969-1970 and a new “fortress-like” building was constructed without windows, which may have resulted from the riots of the late 1960s. Windows were a prime target of the rioters. The new church left the parish in debt and the auction could have been held to raise funds to lower the amount owed. Whatever the reason, Ed McMullen brought the baptismal font home to Marianne.

The font sat near a corner of the fireplace in the McMullen’s living room and served as a receptacle for birthday and graduation cards and once, an Easter basket for Jesuit Father Luke Byrne, a cousin of Marianne’s who would often come to their home for Sunday dinner. Other Jesuits from Rockhurst College and the high school, including Father Maurice Van Ackeren, also came for dinner.

She said that when Sunday dinner was over, the adults would relax over coffee and the kids would go upstairs to finish homework or watch a Disney movie on TV. “But, no matter what we were doing, when Dad called up the stairs that the priests were leaving, we would get up and go downstairs to say goodbye and receive their blessing.” It was a ritual she fondly remembers, even when it interrupted Disney.

The marble baptismal font was a constant presence in the living room, a presence of history, of family memories, and of their faith. “My parents didn’t talk about their faith, they lived it!” Marcia recalled.

Ed died in 2013, and Marcia stepped into the role of Marianne’s “primary pal, care monitor and driver,” a role she was happy to fill. Her conversations with her mother gave her many insights into her mother’s “indomitable spirit,” personality and thoughts. Marcia and her brothers and sister occasionally discussed with their mother what would happen to the font. The consensus was to give it to the Jesuits. And when Marianne died in 2016, Marcia was determined to do so. But life got in the way and it was just recently when she called Rockhurst University to offer the font as a gift from Ed and Marianne McMullen’s children, Michael, Mary, Mark and Marcia.

Bill Kriege, Rockhurst’s director of Campus Ministry answered the phone when she called. He was delighted to accept the font for the university’s Mabee Chapel, which needed a holy water font. Arrangements were made for Marcia to deliver it to Kriege. Now, a stand was necessary, so it wouldn’t be on the floor.

The stand had to be sturdy enough to hold the solid marble font, which weighs more than 100 pounds. The basin is just over 14” in diameter.

J.R. Mease, Rockhurst’s resident blacksmith, who had fabricated some of the ironwork in the chapel, undertook the stand. He knew that the marble font had originally been the baptismal font at St. Aloysius Church, which for more than 50 years was a Jesuit parish. And now it would be the holy water font at Rockhurst University’s chapel, a Jesuit institution. St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus was a 16th century soldier-turned-religious, and Mease was inspired to use 16th century blacksmithing techniques in crafting the stand.

He said he caught the metal-working bug when a junior in high school, and it never left him, even when he studied aerospace engineering in college.

Mease had crafted a “wrought iron” multiple candle holder for the chapel and used some of the same decorative elements in the stand, so the two pieces would match. The fleur-de-lis, a stylized French lily, which has often been used in artworks depicting Catholic saints, especially St. Joseph, is a prominent design element of the stand. Another faith-based design element is three triangles symbolizing the Holy Trinity that could be used to hold prayer books or perhaps small vases of flowers.

A close-up view of the new/old Holy Water font in Mabee Chapel. (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

He said he used mild or low carbon steel, a modern equivalent of the wrought iron of the past. When asked how he shaped twisting ribbons of metal, he smiled and said, “With an anvil, a mallet, and 1800 degrees.” He added that when he forges metal in his shop the temperature can go up to 2000 degrees.

The sections are held together with pins that were hand-shaped into rosettes with the mallet.

Mease and his assistants, Matt Raimo and Rockhurst student Jack McCune, finished the stand in about 40 hours. Marcia was amazed at how quickly it was done, and the dedication scheduled for the first week of December.

Father Thomas Curran, SJ, president of Rockhurst University, presided over the dedication and blessing service. Marcia said, “The blessing ceremony was so moving, especially as we blessed ourselves from the font. I felt it had come home. The basin is on a new journey now, with the students, faculty and staff at Rockhurst, with the Jesuits as it had been in its first home, St. Aloysius.”

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Wednesday
October 16, 2019
Newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph