by Moira Cullings
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The church of northeast Kansas would look vastly different if it weren’t for the influence of Archbishop Emeritus James P. Keleher.
Although he’s been retired for the past 16 years, his selfless service has left a deep impression on the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.
On July 31, Archbishop Keleher will celebrate his 90th birthday.
The organizations he launched over the years and the people he’s met along the way have been forever changed by his leadership.
Young at heart
Archbishop Keleher’s heart for youth propelled his vision for a new archdiocesan high school: St. James Academy in Lenexa.
Andy Tylicki, the school’s current president, was initially hired as director of activities and athletics and the head boys basketball coach.
Back then, he worked with Archbishop Keleher on building up the school and hiring staff.
“From the very beginning of St. James, he was very involved in who we were,” said Tylicki.
“He would talk about creating a school that was passionate about passing on the faith to the next generation and creating disciples for Jesus,” continued Tylicki. “He sat with me often and talked about the importance of making sure that faith was woven throughout all that we did.”
St. James has come a long way since it opened in 2008.
The first freshman class of 124 students has nearly doubled to the 230 freshmen it will welcome this fall, with 850 students total. The school’s academic and athletic programs are thriving.
Tylicki said Archbishop Keleher’s vision will always be ingrained in St. James.
The archbishop’s quotes and pictures adorn the building, the campus is named after the archbishop and his dream of handing down the faith to young generations is fulfilled there every day.
“It’s who we are,” said Tylicki. “It’s what we’re all about.”
Tylicki said he sees Archbishop Keleher regularly and is grateful for his ongoing friendship and guidance.
“His young heart and his spirit [are]still so intact,” he said. “I’m very appreciative of everything he’s done for me.”
A timeless vision
St. James might not have been a success if it weren’t for Camp Tekakwitha at Prairie Star Ranch in Williamsburg.
Founded by Deacon Dana and Deborah Nearmyer under Archbishop Keleher’s leadership, camp was held near Perry Lake for three years before relocating to the ranch.
During those initial years, the archbishop was moved by camp’s ability to reach young people.
“Archbishop Keleher said, ‘If we can accomplish the conversion of heart in a young person in five days, what can we do in a school year?’” said Deborah.
The archbishop incorporated many elements of camp into the high school, but the connection went even deeper.
Archbishop Keleher named the land camp is on Prairie Star Ranch. Meanwhile, the city of Lenexa named the street St. James is on Prairie Star Parkway.
“The city of Lenexa doesn’t know anything about Prairie Star Ranch,” said Deborah.
That knowledge makes the Nearmyers sure God had his hand on both organizations.
None of it would be possible, they said, without Archbishop Keleher.
“His vision for pouring the love of Christ into young people and their families was something you couldn’t wait to get behind,” said Deborah.
“His joy, along with his compassion for what it’s like to live as a teenager in 1998 and 2020, was uncanny,” she added.
Archbishop Keleher was inspired by Pope John Paul II after he traveled to Denver for World Youth Day in 1993. He returned home determined to reach youth of the archdiocese in a fresh way.
“No one in our diocese had really ever gone to Catholic camp,” said Deacon Nearmyer. “There was no template for it. Now, [families] consider it part of their Catholic education plan for kids.”
The Nearmyers said the archbishop’s heart for young people continues to beat in every aspect of camp today.
“You can look around and see the love he poured into this place by the amount of things that are available to our young people and the way he still prays for our staff and this mission,” said Deborah.
“His joy and his laughter and his kindness will impact me for the rest of my life,” she said.
Archbishop Keleher’s heart for youth was matched by his empathy for the elderly.
Although he wasn’t around when the Sisters of Charity founded Mount St. Joseph in Kansas City, Kansas, in 1945, he was the archbishop when it underwent massive changes.
“In 1998, Archbishop Keleher was responsible for the moving of the old Mount St. Joseph Home in the former St. Margaret Hospital into a new place in Olathe, naming it Villa St. Francis,” explained Msgr. Ray Burger, who resides at Villa.
That moment was instrumental in the development of Villa St. Francis and its continuous service to the community.
The facility offers long-term care, short-term rehabilitation and skilled memory care.
Rodney Whittington, CEO, said Archbishop Keleher’s legacy is witnessed daily in Villa St. Francis’ ministry to its residents.
“Our facility stands as a reminder of his vision and leadership,” said Whittington. “Our staff lives out a mission of compassion, excellence and dignity because of the example set by Archbishop Keleher.
“Generations will continue to see his impact as we serve the Kansas City community.”
Msgr. Burger said the archbishop’s lasting legacy is appreciated by all.
“Archbishop Keleher is well-loved and admired by the priests of the archdiocese,” he said.
A chance to serve
Within eight years of serving in the archdiocese, Archbishop Keleher wanted other men to have the opportunity to do the same.
In 2001, the archdiocese began the process of establishing a permanent diaconate under his leadership.
Four years later, it accepted applicants for the program, and the initial cohort of aspirants started formation in 2006.
Leon Suprenant, co-director of the permanent diaconate, said Archbishop Keleher’s leadership was key.
“He demonstrated both a keen personal awareness of the gifts the permanent diaconate would offer the archdiocese, as well as a keen pastoral sense which led him to build consensus among his priests and flock before introducing it in the local church,” said Suprenant.
The first cohort of 17 men was ordained in 2011 by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, who shortly thereafter established the office of the permanent diaconate.
Deacon Tom Mulvenon, who serves at St. Joseph Church in Shawnee, said Archbishop Keleher’s influence was instrumental.
“He was an advocate for the permanent diaconate before it got going,” he said. “But he waited to make sure he had sufficient support and buy-in from the priests to make sure it would thrive.”
For Deacon Chris Seago of Mater Dei Church in Topeka, the respect the archbishop showed him and his fellow aspirants was moving.
“He would go out of his way to acknowledge us and make us feel important,” he said. “That always meant a lot to me.”
Deacon Robert Zbylut of Sacred Heart-St. Casimir Parish in Leavenworth said one particular moment has stuck in his mind for years.
Deacon Zbylut accompanied the archbishop on a prison visit to administer the sacrament of confirmation to the inmates. The archbishop was suffering from knee pain and could only walk slowly.
“When visiting an inmate,” said Deacon Zbylut, “[the] archbishop knelt on the concrete floor and anointed the inmate through the small opening on the cell door.
“As I was helping the archbishop stand back up, it struck me how truly Christ-like that moment was.
“We all knew what it took for him to kneel on the hard cement. This was truly a moment of a shepherd leading his flock.”
Two more cohorts have since gone through the permanent diaconate program, with the fourth currently in formation.
“We now have 60 deacons serving dozens of parishes, as well as other key extraparochial ministries, such as prison ministry, hospital and hospice chaplaincy, marriage and family ministry, pro-life ministry and much more,” said Suprenant.
“We owe Archbishop Keleher a large debt for the birth and development of the diaconate in northeast Kansas,” he added, “which is a wonderful legacy he has left the archdiocese.”