by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — A few years ago, a kindergartner came home from his first day at St. Patrick School here and told his mother all about his inaugural educational experience.
“Did you like going to school?” his mother asked.
“Oh yes,” said the boy. “God came to our classroom.”
Certain her son was mistaken, the mother suggested that someone wrote “God” on the blackboard or said something about God.
“No,” her son insisted. “God visited us. He wore black clothes and he took our picture.”
As it turned out, that was no theophany — that was Msgr. Michael Mullen, the pastor.
If that little boy was wrong, he wasn’t wrong by much. The striking but friendly pastor has long been not only “alter Christus” at the altar, but also a daily factor in the lives of the nearly 300 students plus faculty and staff at St. Patrick School.
“As a pastor, I see education as a very important ministry of the church,” he said. “As pastors, we are priest, prophet and servant — prophet in the sense that we study the Scripture and we try to share the truth of Christ. And one of the very best instruments we have for doing that is in our Catholic schools, where Christ is the center of the curriculum and the life of the school. Everything takes its reference from there.”
Msgr. Mullen was honored for his years of devotion to Catholic education when he was one of 10 priests to receive the National Catholic Educational Association’s “Distinguished Pastor of the Year Award” on April 6 at the Hilton Minneapolis Hotel during the association’s annual conference.
On hand to witness the award were his sister, Barbara Gunderman; archdiocesan superintendent of schools Kathy O’Hara; associate superintendent Karla Leibham; assistant superintendent for special needs Karen Kroh; St. Patrick principal Mary Staley; Resurrection School principal Ann Connor; Resurrection resource teacher Lynda Higgins; and school parents Skip and Joanne Wheat.
“We have a lot of great pastors in our archdiocese who are very supportive of our schools, and Msgr. Mullen is a perfect representative of a pastor who loves and supports Catholic education,” said O’Hara. “He sees the value of Catholic education, and he encourages families to make the sacrifices so their children may attend our schools.”
No distant figure ruling from the rectory is he. Msgr. Mullen is down in the trenches — doing everything from signing contracts to comforting a teary student having a bad day.
“Msgr. Mullen is a true spiritual leader and educator,” said Staley. “He’s always that consummate Catholic educator who does so much for the students and staff.”
The pastor of any decent-sized parish is busy enough, even with the help of an associate, but Msgr. Mullen somehow manages to defy time and space to benefit his school.
He celebrates Mass twice a week for the students, teaches a weekly seventh- grade vocations class, has a monthly “doughnuts and discussion” session with the eighth-graders, does sacramental preparation, conducts daily morning prayer for teachers, attends school council meetings, conducts evaluations, and on and on.
He’s even on the board of Bishop Ward High School and is co-director of seminarians for the archdiocese.
If you wanted to simplify his job description, you could do no better than kindergartner Isabella Brazo.
“He teaches us about God,” she said.
“He teaches us a lot about God,” added classmate Aiden Patrick helpfully.
“He teaches us about God, and he’s funny,” said Anika Smith. “He has a furry puppet, Critter.”
Critter, crafted by Velma Peine at his former parish of Sacred Heart Parish in Ottawa, is Msgr. Mullen’s sometimes-mischievous alter ego. Although there was no course in puppetry in the seminary, Msgr. Mullen has found Critter to be a useful instructional tool. Over the years, he’s acquired about seven puppets.
Msgr. Mullen is himself a product of Catholic education, from the former St. Peter Cathedral School in Kansas City, Kan., to graduating from Bishop Ward in 1954, and then on to the seminary. On top of that, Msgr. Mullen has been involved in Catholic education in one form or another for his entire priesthood — 48 years.
After he was ordained, he was a part-time religious education teacher and chaplain at Immaculata High School in Leavenworth.
Then he served as a faculty member from 1965 to 1987 at Savior of the World Seminary in Kansas City, Kan.
He also at taught at Maur Hill Prep School in Atchison, where he was part of the high school seminary program until 1990. Finally, he has served for years on the archdiocesan vocations team as director of seminarians.
In 1995, he became pastor of St. Patrick Parish and began his work at the school. He has also been on the board of Bishop Ward for 14 years, serving as chairman for six.
“To me, it’s very important that the formation [begun in grade school] continue into high school,” said Msgr. Mullen. “One of the very first sermons I gave here when I came in 1995 is that Bishop Ward is ‘St. Patrick High School.’ What I mean is: Let a growing junior high student continue that formation into high school.”
The news of Msgr. Mullen’s honor caused excitement and satisfaction in the St. Patrick School community, from the kindergartners to parents, who chatted about it as they picked up students after school.
“No one is more deserving [of the award],” said Staley. “No one loves Catholic education more than he. Monsignor is so passionate and so positive about Catholic education, and everything in life. This is why he received the award. I think it’s God’s way of acknowledging him in a special way. He’s a good man.”