by Moira Cullings
LEAWOOD — Maureen Henderson can’t recall a funeral Mass quite like the one held at Curé of Ars Parish here Oct. 25.
“I have played lots of funerals in my career over the span of the years,” said Henderson, an organist for the parish. “I don’t know that I’ve ever had a funeral be that big.”
But the funeral wasn’t for a dignitary or popular local.
It was for a retired veteran with no family or friends — an unknown soldier.
“On Saturday, I got a call in the morning from Porter Funeral Home,” said Father Rick Storey, pastor of Curé.
Rick Wiseman, a director at the funeral home, called Father Storey to ask if he would say a funeral Mass for David St. John, an 80-year-old Air Force veteran who had died.
At the time Father Storey agreed to the request, he didn’t even know the man’s name.
St. John’s neighbor, who had only spoken to him a few times, explained to Father Storey that the man’s last wishes included a simple Catholic funeral Mass.
But because they didn’t expect anyone to show up, they planned to take the man’s ashes to the National Cemetery in Leavenworth and celebrate Mass after the burial.
“We thought, ‘No, we can do better than that,’” said Father Storey.
“There’s no reason for a soldier or anybody to have to be buried without anybody there,” he added.
Father Storey asked parishioners at all Masses that weekend if they would come to honor the unknown vet.
Over 1,000 people turned up.
“I don’t know when I have seen grown people coming and leaving there so emotional,” said Henderson.
Henderson received a call the evening before asking if she would play at the Mass.
“I switched things around because I was so honored to be asked,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is what our ministry is all about.’ It feels good to know you can share your talent and give back.”
Father Storey gave a homily at the Mass and Father Jerry Spencer, senior associate at Curé and chaplain of the Navy League of Greater Kansas City, offered a reflection following Communion.
Father Spencer’s connection to the military made the experience even more meaningful.
“I have a brother who was in the Navy, a cousin who was in the Air Force and a cousin who was in the New Mexico National Guard,” he said.
The opportunity to honor an unknown soldier meant a lot to him.
“Jesus gave us the command to love God and our neighbor,” he said.
“We came together to pray for our deceased neighbor who we didn’t know, but he was a member of the body of Christ, so we are bound to him by spiritual bonds,” he added.
And those who came together weren’t just parishioners — or even adults for that matter.
The entire Curé of Ars School attended, too.
Henderson, who has grandchildren in kindergarten and fifth grade at Curé, is certain it was a unique learning opportunity for them.
“I think it had to have been a very powerful day for that entire school,” she said.
“To know that they were getting out of school to do what’s important — and that is to pray for someone they didn’t even know,” she added.
The students stayed after Mass to watch the Patriot Guard escort the hearse to Leavenworth.
“They were taking it all in and understanding what it means to serve your country,” said Father Storey. “They were very taken by it.”
The funeral had a profound impact on the adult community of Curé as well, said Father Storey.
“A stranger who we took in totally has changed in many ways our faith,” he said.
He taught us, Father Storey continued, the gift of burying the dead.
“And in doing so, we realize life has only changed, not ended,” he said. “How deep we all became in our spirituality with this man, knowing he’s our brother.”
“It really brought us all together,” said Father Storey. “This man that no one knew.”