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Column: Pioneer priests set bar high for presbyterate

by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann

Recently, our priests gathered to honor their brother priests who are celebrating special anniversaries this year. It is always an inspiring event as we focus on the remarkable zeal and dedication of the priests of our Archdiocese. Often, as I visit parishes, people beg me not to transfer their priest. This love for the priests of the Archdiocese is well earned.

The priests of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas are part of a human chain of heroic priests that stretches back to our first bishop, Jean-Baptiste Miege. In July 1850, Father Miege — a French Jesuit serving at St. Louis University — received a decree from Pope Pius IX appointing him bishop of the newly formed Vicariate Apostolic of the Indian Territory East of the Rockies. Father Miege ignored this letter, assuming confidently that it was
a prank perpetrated by his Jesuit confreres.

When he realized that it was authentic, he noted that the documents spoke of his nomination as bishop. After prayer and reflection, he wrote back to the appropriate authorities in Rome declining the appointment because of his unworthiness.

Father Miege wrote to his brother Urban, who was a priest in Europe, informing him that “he just missed being named a bishop.” He was certain his brother would be amused by this whole episode. Father Miege wrote: “I firmly trust that they will leave me in peace in this matter. I would a thousand times rather return to Europe than accept this dignity. I have enough difficulty keeping myself out of trouble when I have only myself to guide, what would it be if I had to guide others?”

Father Miege was shocked when he was informed that the Holy Father had expressed his formal and absolute wish that he accept this appointment. Bishop-elect Miege wrote his brother again: “Truly I did not come to America for this kind of tribulation, and if I had been able to suspect the slightest possibility of it, I would never have left a country where I was better known and as a consequence sheltered from this heavy burden.”

Of course, Father Miege became a great bishop who impressed his dedication, zeal and humility on the presbyterate that he formed.

Bishop Miege invited others to come and join him in serving the people in the Territory East of the Rockies. At first, the mission was primarily a ministry to the Native Americans. With the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act opening the territory to homesteaders, the pastoral needs of the vicariate changed and expanded dramatically.

Father Henry Lemke, Father Augustine Wirth and Casimir Seitz — Benedictines from Pennsylvania — came to assist with the spiritual care of the people of northeast Kansas. Father Wirth founded St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison. Casimir Seitz was the first to be ordained a priest in the territory that would eventually become the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

In a letter by Father Wirth, we receive a glimpse of the challenges faced by the laypeople and priests: “With an entire chapel in a traveling bag, which is tossed on a horse’s back, the priest wanders from one station to another, the family table serving as an altar. . . . The houses in which people live do not deserve that name; they are ordinarily of one room, sixteen square feet, that also serves as the kitchen. In this room there are one or two beds, a table and a stove, so the room is already full, and here in the midst of a crowd the priest must also sleep, which is very unpleasant. The houses are so badly built that the wind whistles in from all sides, so that it is a wonder that the people do not get sick and die.”

And we think our times are tough! In 1864, Father Anton Kuhls came to Kansas, being only the fourth priest to serve Catholics in Wyandotte County. He lived in absolute poverty, sleeping at night on the sacristy floor of the original St. Mary Church.

Franciscan Father Joseph Perrier was the first to serve Catholics in Emporia, Hartford and Olpe. Father Perrier purchased two dollars worth of lumber and ten cents worth of nails in order to build the first altar in Emporia in his hotel room above a restaurant, where the tiny Catholic community would gather for Mass.

Jesuit Father Ponziglione accompanied Bishop Miege to Kansas, serving both Native Americans and white settlers. In two years, he established twelve churches which he would regularly visit to celebrate Mass.

Father Theodore Heimann, Bishop Miege’s vicar general, joined the Carmelite Fathers who were given the care of St. Joseph Parish in Leavenworth — the first permanent foundation of the Carmelites in America. Father Heimann would eventually build a large church and Carmelite monastery in Scipio, even founding a college there.

In 1863, Father Sebastian Favre was pastor at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Lawrence. He was hosting Bishop Miege for confirmation when the infamous Joseph Quantrill and his pro-slavery militia made their notorious raid on Lawrence. Father Favre and Bishop Miege saved the lives of a Quaker minister and his wife, hiding the minister by wrapping him in an old rug in the basement while his wife posed as Father Favre’s housekeeper.

These brave, courageous priests laid the foundation for the presbyterate of the Archdiocese. They would be followed by more remarkable priests like Father Francis Hayden, who for a time served four Kansas counties on horseback. Eventually, he became pastor of Assumption Parish in Topeka, founding a high school that would eventually bear his name.

More recently, the Archdiocese was blest with the examples of Monsignors Heliodore Mejak, Joseph Biehler and Arthur Trumpeter who, while living into their late 80s or 90s, continued to serve their people faithfully. Msgr. Mejak is believed to be the longest-serving active pastor at a particular parish in the world, serving as pastor of Holy Family Parish from 1944 to 2007 — 63 years.

In this year for priests, we gratefully remember the remarkable heritage of our presbyterate. Even more, we pray with gratitude for the priests who currently serve the Archdiocese with such passion, zeal and talent. May the Lord always give them joy as they strive to lay down their lives daily in love for their people, seeking to become more and more shepherds after the heart of Jesus!

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Archbishop Joseph Naumann

Joseph F. Naumann is the archbishop for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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