by Jill Ragar Esfeld
OLATHE — Archbishop Emeritus James Patrick Keleher has one prayer request from the people of the archdiocese he has served so faithfully,
“I love this state,” he said at the Villa St. Francis “Faith in Bloom” benefit luncheon May 9 at the Olathe Conference Center. “I love our people.
“They’re so good, so generous and so loving.
“I want to thank you all and ask you to say a prayer for me that I can continue my ministry.”
The archbishop emeritus was the first recipient of the Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann Sanctity of Life Award presented at the event.
The award honors Archbishop Naumann’s appointment as the chair-elect of the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities and is presented to a member of the archdiocese who has exemplified outstanding dedication to the pro-life mission of the church.
Archbishop Keleher’s 60 years of service to the church have been grounded in respecting the life and dignity of every person.
Though he will turn 87 next month, the archbishop is still actively ministering to the people of this area.
He serves several prisons in Leavenworth — not only saying Mass, but also hearing confessions and celebrating baptisms.
“Today,” said Villa St. Francis CEO Rodney Whittington, “we celebrate all the incredible work he’s done and continues to do for the Catholic Church over the past 60 years, both here in Kansas City and throughout the world.”
Five years after his installation in 1993, Archbishop Keleher recognized that St. Joseph Care Center in Kansas City, Kansas, could better serve the Catholic community from a new location in Olathe.
The move also inspired the change of its name to Villa St. Francis.
Talking about the outstanding care provided at the facility, Archbishop Naumann said that Villa St. Francis was “one of the ministries that truly benefited from Archbishop Keleher’s support.”
One of the highlights of the event was a video featuring people throughout the archdiocese who have been influenced by Archbishop Keleher.
Staff from Prairie Star Ranch in Williamsburg and St. James Academy, Lenexa, talked about his support and active participation in their ministries.
“He was always there for Mass and stayed to get to know the kids,” said Prairie Star executive director Deacon Dana Nearmyer.
“He set the template for making it personal,” he added.
Monsignor Thomas Tank agreed.
“He doesn’t know a stranger,” he said. “Long before Pope Francis was talking about the gospel of joy, Archbishop Keleher was living the gospel of joy.”
Archbishop Naumann, too, echoed the sentiment when he presented the Sanctity of Life Award, saying, “Thank you for being a man of life and for life.”
After accepting the award, Archbishop Keleher charmed the crowd by assuring everyone that he could not afford to pay the people speaking so glowingly of him in the video.
“I have never heard such exaggeration,” he said to much laughter. “But I appreciate it.”
The archbishop emeritus had great praise for the current archbishop, telling the audience “we have a real winner.”
He recalled his invitation to come to serve in Kansas from Illinois and the deep love he has developed for the state he now considers his home.
“I love our archbishop,” he said. “I love our priests and deacons.
“But our people are among the most generous in everything they do.”
The audience enjoyed a champagne toast to Archbishop Keleher and the staff of Villa St. Francis. At the luncheon’s conclusion, Archbishop Naumann reflected on the mission of Villa St. Francis and the quality of care provided there.
“Pope Francis has put a lot of emphasis on how important it is for societies to take care of the elderly,” he said. “He’s been a great champion of that and I think rightly pointed out to all of us the way we care for those in their final years of life really characterizes what a society truly values.
“So, thank you for being here today and showing your own support for this great ministry of the church that we’re so proud of.”