by Joe Bollig
He didn’t have wealth, possessions or power, but few cast a larger shadow in Wyandotte County than Father Raymond J. Davern.
Officially, he was pastor of Christ the King Parish. Some, however, called him “the unofficial chaplain of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas,” and “Mr. Wyandotte County.”
He was a spiritual leader as a pastor, a visionary educator as president of Donnelly College and principal of Bishop Ward High School, and a social dynamo through his many civic and ecumenical activities.
One fellow priest called him, “our Irish pontiff,” because like the pontiffs of ancient times, Father Davern was a “bridge builder” between all kinds of people.
When he died on Sept. 23, 2005, Father Davern was mourned by all of Wyandotte County. He was also mourned in County Limerick — in Ireland.
And this is why: Before Father Davern was “Mr. Wyandotte County,” he was a son of Ballylanders, a small town in County Limerick.
A bridge builder still
Father Davern was born and raised in the village of Ballylanders, a picturesque rural town with a population of about 900.
Although he left Ireland to become a priest in America in the mid-1950s, Father Davern always maintained ties to his many relatives and neighbors back home.
He became the living link between County Limerick and Wyandotte County, and the last in a long line of Irish immigrant priests who helped build the church in northeast Kansas. He also symbolized the contributions of all immigrant Irish to Wyandotte County.
Many people appreciated this connection, including Kansas City, Kan., Mayor Joe Reardon, a member of the Cathedral of St. Peter Parish and a graduate of Bishop Ward High School.
His own father, Jack Reardon, was mayor from 1975 to 1987. During his term in office, the mayor wanted to establish a sister city relationship with an Irish community, but it didn’t come together.
“I knew it was something on his agenda and that he had made a couple of trips to Ireland and formed some relationships,” said Mayor Joe Reardon. “It wasn’t long after I became mayor that I had several citizens, that had been involved at that time, come to me and ask if was an agenda item that might move forward. I thought it was great idea.”
Kansas City, Kan., already had sister city relationships with Linz, Austria; Uruapan, Mexico; and Karlovac, Croatia. In each case, the relationship was built on the relationships and histories of immigrant communities.
In 2007, Mayor Reardon established a committee to investigate the proposition of adding an Irish sister city. He then led a delegation of 30 people to meet government officials in Limerick. The Irish reciprocated in March 2008, when three County Limerick officials and a spouse traveled to Kansas City, Kan., to further develop the proposal.
A reception was held for the Limerick delegation, and a dinner was served at Bishop Ward, hosted by the Top of the Morning Club. Naturally, conversations turned to their mutual relationships with Father Davern. While here, the Irish insisted on visiting Father Davern’s grave.
Back to the Emerald Isle
One of those involved with the sister city effort was Peter Adams, president of the Top of the Morning Club, a substitute teacher in Catholic schools, and a member of St. Peter Cathedral.
Adams became acquainted with Father Davern during teaching stints at Donnelly College, Ward High School, and the activities of the Greater Kansas City Irish community.
“For years, I had been taking my students to Ireland for spring break,” said Adams. “So I went to [Mayor Reardon], and said I’m going over and I’m taking some kids from Ward [and Immaculata High School in Leavenworth].”
Adams proposed that he and the students visit Ballylanders and meet with the friends, neighbors and family of Father Davern. Adams led the second Kansas delegation for a visit from March 13-20 this year.
The delegation visited several of Ireland’s ancient and not-so-ancient sights such as the Cliffs of Moher, the statue of Molly Malone in Dublin, the Blarney Stone, the pub where the film “The Quiet Man” was filmed, and the graveyard where Father Davern’s parents and other relatives are buried.
In Ballylanders the Kansans met three of Father Davern’s brothers and sisters who still live there, another who made a special trip home from England, and numerous nieces and nephews. They also met Gerry Behan, county secretary; Eugen Griffin, county clerk; and John Gallahue, county council chairman.
Among the Kansans were Anne Breitenstein, a 2009 graduate of Ward High School, and her father Bill, both parishioners at the Cathedral of St. Peter.
“We went to church one Sunday [in Ballylanders] and we had lunch with Father Davern’s family,” said Anne Breitenstein.
“We just got to meet them and they got to meet us and exchange stories and learn a little more about the town,” she continued. “It was almost like a party. They entertained us with traditional Irish dance and songs. It was interesting to learn more about how the old culture still exists.”
The Irish commented that “Breitenstein” was a very unusual Irish name, until Anne’s father explained the ethnic diversity of Kansas City area Catholics and the effect of intermarriage.
The Irish couldn’t have been more hospitable . . . and the outcome was never in doubt.
“By the time we were finished, Ballylanders became our sister city,” said Adams. “I came back and told [Mayor Reardon], ‘I’ve got it. Let’s get the paperwork together.’ And so we did that.”
A proclamation formalizing the relationship was passed by Kansas City, Kan., and signed by Mayor Reardon on June 4, and Ballylanders did the same on June 12.
“This is the first time we have chosen a person, Father Davern, and a church person as focus of the reason Ballylanders became our sister city,” said Adams. “This was also a tribute to Father [Davern], who had passed.”
Getting to know all about you
There’s a lot to look forward to for Ballylanders and Kansas City, Kan. Adams is planning more visits, and Mayor Reardon hopes that special visits, commemorations and opportunities for a variety of exchanges can be arranged. And of course, he hopes to maintain that primary tie.
“I hope there will be a way for us to continue to honor Father Davern as we move forward in this relationship,” he said. “I think we always will. To make that a part of our commemoration will be important.”