Historic parish a ‘place to come home to’

The beauty of the Church’s interior has not faded.

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

KANSAS CITY- Many of the founders of this city embraced the Catholic faith, especially French, Irish and German men and women in the years between 1845 and 1900.

Around midcentury, German families began leaving their homeland amid an economic depression and growing anti-Catholic sentiment. Once in the United States, many sought opportunities in the heartland, bringing their language, customs and Catholic faith with them. In Kansas City, they settled on the what is now the eastern side of downtown, in the neighborhood surrounding Cherokee (9th) and McGee streets.

By 1866, the German population had grown large enough for the Catholics to petition Archbishop Kenrick for a parish. They had been attending Father Bernard Donnelly’s Immaculate Conception Church in Quality Hill and continued to attend that church until 1868. When Archbishop Kenrick appointed Father Herman Grosse founding pastor of the new parish, it was for several years known as Immaculate Conception German Parish.

Eventually dedicated as Saints Peter and Paul Church, it served the German residents of the city for more than 50 years. By 1900, however, it was increasingly evident that downtown Kansas City, which was growing, expanding and attracting new businesses, encroached on the church campus and would eventually swallow it.

Even before then, those German families who had later settled in what was “the Southwestern part of the city,” found the distance to Sts. Peter and Paul Church too far, especially if they had children attending the school. In 1890, they petitioned Bishop John J. Hogan to erect a new parish in closer proximity to their homes.

Bishop Hogan sent a delegation to the Franciscan Fathers at St. Anthony Parish in Kansas City, Kan., to invite them to establish a parish ministering to the German-speaking Catholics living in the neighborhoods of Dutch Hill, Hospital Hill and what is now the Crossroads District. The Franciscans accepted the bishop’s invitation, and permission was received from Rome for the Franciscan Fathers of the Province of St. John the Baptist, based in Cincinnati, Ohio, to take charge of the new Our Lady of Sorrows parish, under the direction of the bishop.

Our Lady of Sorrows was first housed in Doherty’s Hall, a two-story rented building on Southwest Blvd., which served as church and school. During its first year, Franciscan Fathers John E. Wellinghoff, Stephan Hoffmann and Aloys Kurz served the parish on a rotating basis from St. Anthony’s in Kansas City, Kan. Parish membership grew exponentially and a new location for the church and school was imperative. Bishop Hogan was interested in property at the southwest corner of 23rd and Baltimore. He donated 50 feet of the frontage on Baltimore and the parish paid for the rest. Work began immediately on the church building; the cornerstone was laid March 8, 1891 and the church dedicated by Bishop Hogan Nov. 15.

The new building just south of O.K. Creek was two stories: the school occupied the first story and the church the second. The rectory next door connected via a closed walkway to the second floor; on the first floor, besides classrooms, were living quarters for the Sisters and meeting rooms.

The solemn blessing of the church bells, Mary, Joseph and Charles, took place April 16, 1893. Funds for the bells were raised by voluntary contributions from the parish. At the time, the bells were touted as the only church bells in Kansas City, besides those of the Cathedral.

The Franciscan Sisters of Oldenburg, Ind., took charge of the school in 1899. They would remain until Our Lady of Sorrows School closed in 1964.

Kansas City was also growing exponentially, and businesses and residents clamored for a new Union Station. They were no longer happy with the station located in a welter of warehouses, an area they considered an “eyesore.” Unfortunately for Our Lady of Sorrows Parish, the location deemed expressly designed for railroads to enter and exit Kansas City was right where the church stood.

After much discussion and negotiation, the church property sold Feb. 17, 1906 to the Terminal Company for $51,000 (about $1,281,288 today). It was agreed that the congregation was allowed use of the buildings until July 1, 1907.

Bishop Thomas Lillis of the Diocese of Leavenworth, Kan., grew up in Kansas City and knew the area well. He advised both Bishop Hogan and Our Lady of Sorrows parish to purchase land on the northwest corner of 26th Street and Locust (now Gillham Road). The neighborhood was known as Dutch Hill, which may have been a mispronunciation of the word Deutsch, ‘German’. The land cost $23,000 (around $577, 835 today).

The land on Dutch Hill was a former chicken farm and, in the opinion of some folks, resembled a pioneer-era forest. The parish quickly transformed it into a very desirable church site. The cornerstone for the new church/school combination was formally laid Dec. 8, 1906, in a ceremony linking the old with the new. Following Vespers in the old church at 23rd and Baltimore, the congregation paraded up the hill to the new site where the cornerstone ceremony was held. That winter’s mild weather allowed construction to advance rapidly.

The week before the congregation was to relinquish the former church building, the furnishings, decorations and fixtures of both church and school were carried up Dutch Hill to the new church. According to the 1992 diocesan history, ‘This Far By Faith’, the various histories of Our Lady of Sorrows parish credit “virtually every parishioner” with carrying “something from the old buildings to the new.” The carrying of the church fixtures was nicknamed, “The Parade of the Israelites.”

The former church was torn down to make way for the new Union Station, and parishioners and friends carried the old bricks and the original cornerstone up and around the hill to the new site.

The new church/school building, built in part with the bricks of the old church, was dedicated Sept. 15, 1907, the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. The ensuing 13 years saw the parish continue to grow and outgrow the current facilities.

In 1915, future parishioner Mary Frances Healy’s mother was born, one of Joseph and Mary Elizabeth Hoedl’s 10 children. Mary Healy recalled her mother saying her parents insisted their children speak only English, even though the adults didn’t always understand it.

In 1921, Our Lady of Sorrows parish made the decision to raise funds to build a new church. Franciscan Father Richard Wurth, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows, proposed a ‘Bau Verein’, a building society, which was not only popular with the parishioners but quite successful. Every parishioner received a subscription card with 100 weeks marked off—parish secretaries received payments on the subscriptions each Sunday after Masses, and at the end of the 100 weeks, the parish had $90,000 on hand, almost enough to build the new church. Parish societies and clubs also made substantial contributions. They were ready to build.

Ground broke for the new church on March 25, 1922, and the cornerstone laid July 30, 1922. In addition to the cornerstone of the new church, the original cornerstone from the church on Baltimore was laid in the southeast corner of the building (check). The first Mass was celebrated in the new Our Lady of Sorrows Church on Easter Sunday 1923, and the church dedicated Sept. 16, 1923 by Bishop Thomas Lillis of the Diocese of Kansas City. The old church became the parish hall.

The work of the architect Henry Brinkman (1881-1947) of Emporia, Kan., included several churches and schools in Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska. In this diocese, he was the architect for St. Ludger Church in Montrose, as well as Our Lady of Sorrows.

The building we know and love today is an Italian Renaissance, built of brick and pale stone with granite pillars flecked with pink, black and white. Two towers originally graced the roofline, one rising 146 feet 5 inches above the ground, the other 77 feet above the ground. The church was built to seat 600. The columns supporting the altar were made of wood and painted to look like marble.

The church and its towers were lauded for their beauty. An article in the July 1931 Kansas City Times says in part, “Henry Brinkman has … introduced something of poetry into his ‘frozen music’. In Our Lady of Sorrows there is an exceptionally fine altar and other commendable features, but the tower is a thing of beauty that may well be numbered among the city’s art treasures.” Then in 1944, lightning struck one of the towers. Mary Healy said it was never replaced.

In 1932, local church artist Dante Consentino frescoed the walls on either side of the altar and in 1953 refreshed them. The images of angels in the clouds remain as fresh as the day they were painted, despite the passage of years. Our Lady of Sorrows is now the sole remaining church with Cosentino’s artwork.

Father Albert Q. Senn, O.F.M., was assigned to the parish in 1936, and while serving there organized a men’s choir considered one of the best in the city. Less than a decade later, he directed a choir of 700 singing the Berlioz Requiem, accompanied by the Kansas City Philharmonic Orchestra before 5,000 in the Music Hall.

The Memorial inscribed with the names of those parishioners wounded or killed during World War II. (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

In 1939, as Germany was invading Poland, instigating the Second World War in Europe, the United States was in the throes of a depression. Businesses and banks closed, people were thrown out of work, and parents worried about feeding their children. Ed Gumminger, a sheet metal worker before being laid off, took a job as a custodian at Our Lady of Sorrows in order to feed his kids. He fell in love with the temporary position, and it grew into a full-time job that Gumminger worked until he finally retired in 1993. He loved the parish, the church, and the Franciscans who served the parish until they regretfully turned it over to the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in 1986.

In 1947, a statue of St. Francis of Assisi gifted to the parish by members of the Third Order of St. Francis was blessed, and to today guards the church’s entrance. Around the same time a memorial tablet inscribed with the names of parishioners wounded or killed in World War I and II was hung in the parish hall and remains there today.

Our Lady of Sorrows School in the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s had four classrooms, recalled Jim Healy, Mary’s husband. Mary recalled the closeness of her classmates with two classes in each room. Jim said the Sisters would each teach one class while the other class worked on assignments. After a certain amount of time, the Sisters would switch classes.

Jim chuckled and said, “On report card day, the pastor would sit at Sister’s desk and read the grades on the report cards before handing them out!” He also said there was no kindergarten or eighth grade in those years.

When asked why his family moved into the parish, Jim said his dad drove a city bus.

“He moved our family into Our Lady of Sorrows’ neighborhood because he felt there was something special there. He’d drive his route and walk home every night.”

A classmate of Jim Healy, Frank Franke, also fondly remembered the neighborhood.

“There wasn’t great wealth in the parish,” he recalled, “We were good ole worker bees. It was a tight-knit neighborhood. We had big Easter and Christmas celebrations at Our Lady of Sorrows, and the church was always full; both parishioners and visitors came for the celebrations!”

As a seventh grader, Franke became an altar server and that same year a sacristan. He recalled the ego boost the appointments gave him.

Jim Healy and Mary Hiller were married at Our Lady of Sorrows in 1961. One of Jim’s groomsmen was Frank Franke.

Franke graduated from college in 1963, started work as a CPA and “became pretty successful.” He later married a divorced, non-Catholic Christian and attended Sunday services with her. He always attended the Christmas and Easter celebrations at Our Lady of Sorrows, however. Some years ago, the couple learned that her first husband had applied for and received an annulment. Frank and Sharon were married again at Our Lady of Sorrows.

He said that in thanksgiving for his “coming home” to Our Lady of Sorrows, he paid for all new vestments for the parish priests.

That same year, Hallmark, which had recently built its corporate headquarters at 26th and McGee behind the church, was permitted by the city and Our Lady of Sorrows to construct an entrance from 26th street to their parking lot.

The numbers of Franciscan Sisters were declining by the 1960s and in 1964 the school closed. The children were expected to attend St. Vincent’s School. St. Vincent’s school later was merged with other schools, closed and then reopened as an alternative school. Today, it is Operation Breakthrough, a lauded daycare and early childhood education center for children in need at 31st and Troost.

Jim and Mary Healy moved to Independence and attended Mass at St. Mark’s Church. All was fine, but Jim recalled feeling something was missing. Then in 1999, the Healys went to a funeral Mass at Our Lady of Sorrows. Afterward, Jim said he told Mary, “‘it’s time for us to go home, to Our Lady to Sorrows.’ And that’s why we live in Independence and go to Our Lady of Sorrows!”

Mary thought for a moment and said, “A lot of people have long family histories at the parish. My grandmother, mother, my aunts and uncles, Jim and I, and our oldest granddaughter were all baptized at Our Lady Sorrows.”

They both recalled the longtime custodian, Ed Gumminger, and his son Jerry, who grew up in the custodian’s cottage and attended Our Lady of Sorrows School. Jerry was a classmate of theirs.

In 1974, Hallmark desired the land north of the church and began negotiations with the parish. An agreement was reached whereby Hallmark would pay to have a new rectory and parish hall built, and for the installation of a new heating and air conditioning system in the church. In return, Hallmark would own the land north of the parish campus and have a permanent lease on the land behind the church, which they intended to be a parking lot. The parish would be allowed to share use of that parking lot. The new building and parking lot was blessed Feb. 20, 1987.

During the 1950s-70s, parishioners aged or moved out of the area, which was burgeoning with car dealerships, light industry, and of course, businesses associated with the railroad.

The first half of the 1980s saw fewer parishioners, fewer vocations for the Franciscans and increased business activity in the Longfellow neighborhood. Jim Healy remembered the All Saints and All Souls days Masses. “When we were kids,” Healy said, “we had five priests, and each said three Masses on holy days and Sundays. That’s 15 masses in one day!”

The Franciscans had been considering returning to Cincinnati as parish membership rolls shrunk and signed the parish back to the Diocese in 1986, although the parishioners hoped they would stay four more years to celebrate the parish’s centennial anniversary in 1990. By 1986, there were only 84 families registered at Our Lady of Sorrows.

Over the years, the Franciscans had built a ministry of community service for the people of the neighborhood, area businesses and the employees and patients of the three hospitals. Many of the people who sought counseling or went to confession at Our Lady of Sorrows live outside the parish but work at nearby businesses, restaurants or hotels, even Union Station.

The priests of Our Lady of Sorrows had long served as chaplains at Truman Medical Center, Children’s Mercy Hospital and Western Missouri Mental Health Hospital, now the Center For Behavioral Medicine, in Truman Medical Center.

When the Franciscans left after 96 years of ministry, then-Bishop Sullivan appointed diocesan priests to staff the parish and to serve as the hospital chaplains. The last Franciscans, assigned to Our Lady of Sorrows in 1982, were Fathers Marcellus Moorman and Conradin Stark. In 1986, diocesan fathers took charge of the parish, followed in 1987 by Fr. Alexander Sinclair.

Since 1992, parish membership has risen and fallen, with local employees, visitors and out-of-parish wedding parties comprising much of the attendance at Masses.

Today, the parish is run by Deacon Tyrone Gutierrez, Pastoral Administrator, Fr. Leonard Gicheru Parochial Vicar, Deacon Michael Elsey Parish Deacon, and Stephanie Franke-Ibarra, Director of Operations. Deacon Gutierrez recalled the service of the Franciscans for nearly a century and that their influence and memory remains a part of the parish today.

Franke-Ibarra is an example of the long parish family histories mentioned by Mary Healy. Frank Franke is her uncle.

The parish website states, “We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, as the writer of Hebrews would describe it—Franciscan and diocesan pastors, German Catholics and other Catholics. The great cloud includes those who have, at some time in history, called Our Lady of Sorrows home. They are all standing with us for our future.”

Our Lady of Sorrows parishioners love their church and its 129-year history and are confident that it will continue for many years into the future.

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  1. December 9, 2019 at 7:05 pm #

    Thank you for this article about Our Lady of Sorrows Church, a beautiful and Holy place. The Latin Mass Community of the Diocese of Kansas City St. Joseph was at home there for nearly 20 years in the 1980’s, 90’s and into the 2000’s, through the action of dear Bishop Sullivan+. The Latin Community became a part of the parish and generously helped to support it during those years, before being moved to a different facility. Sadly, this important part of the history of Our Lady of Sorrows was not included in this narrative.

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