by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan — Father Dennis Wait remembers the time a woman knocked on the front door of the Sanctuary of Hope and startled him with a profound question.
“Where is Jesus?” she asked.
“My first thought was, ‘He’s in the Blessed Sacrament upstairs in the chapel,’” said Father Wait, the former director. “Then I thought, ‘Well, we have an image of him down here on the first floor.’”
Then she clarified her question.
“No, the one that overlooks the highway,” she said.
Sheepishly, Father Wait directed her to a walking path that led to a statue of Jesus that overlooked Interstate 70, which was on the southern border of the property.
A lot of seekers have made their way to the Sanctuary of Hope since it was founded in 1996. Sometimes they were seeking God, or answers to questions, or healing, or even just a little peace and quiet.
The Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes says: “There is a season for everything, and a time for every occupation under heaven. A time for giving birth, and a time for dying; a time for planting, and a time for uprooting what has been planted” (3:1-2).
The Sanctuary of Hope, an interfaith prayer and retreat center near the intersection of Interstates 70 and 635, has reached its 25th anniversary while it is also undergoing its season of ending.
The last retreat was held on Sept. 18 for a Hispanic ministry group from St. Mary-St. Anthony Parish in Kansas City, Kansas. Since then, the concentration has been on emptying the building, which should be finished by the end of November.
The 27,000-square-foot building and the approximately 30 acres of surrounding property will be used by Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas for a ministry to be announced later. The building was originally built in 1893 as a mental health asylum and tuberculosis sanitarium.
The idea of Sanctuary of Hope came to Father Wait after a series of inspirations, the last of which came during a retreat at the Franciscan Brothers of Peace Monastery in St. Paul, Minnesota.
“I heard these simple words in my heart,” Father Wait later wrote: “‘Dennis, just bring the people to Me.’”
Archbishop Emeritus James P. Keleher gave his approval to the mission of Sanctuary of Hope to be “a contemplative, ecumenical community committed to knowing, loving and serving God and each other and those in need. They will be working with people of different faiths, cultures and social understandings. The site is easily accessible to the inner-city people.”
“We [welcomed] all faiths and cultures and backgrounds,” said Father Wait. “Each was permitted to go to God in their own way. . . . If they were Catholic, they could attend Mass and receive reconciliation. Sometimes, I would do anointings for people who were associated with us.”
Father Wait was assisted by a small staff — some resident — and a large group of volunteers, both Catholic and non-Catholic, said Sue Ryan, a longtime volunteer of 20 years.
“Even though he was a Catholic priest, [Father Wait] welcomed people of other faiths so we could come together, know each other and grow together in our spiritual life,” said Ryan. “Even though we were of different faith beliefs, we still believed in the same God. It was a very loving environment of people of different faiths.”
Julie Elwell, a retreat coordinator for 20 years, remembered how Sanctuary of Hope sponsored 5K races, concerts, prayer walks and other events for the surrounding community.
“It was the best job I ever had or will ever have,” said Elwell. “They were wonderful people to work with, all dedicated to the mission.”
Father Joseph Arsenault, SSA, who succeeded Father Wait as director in 2017, praised the latter’s vision and leadership.
“Sanctuary of Hope was the vision and dream of Father Wait,” said Father Joseph. “He entered into prayer and trust of God and made that vision a reality. It really was his openness and trust in God that allowed it to continue for 25 years.
“Miracle after miracle took place. When there was a need to fix or purchase something, money just appeared to make it happen. It was a great grace in the lives of people [Father Dennis] touched with this ministry. It’s beyond words. People are so grateful for how he ministered to them and was open to sharing God with them.”
There are two things, in particular, that Father Joseph both appreciates and will miss about Sanctuary of Hope. The first, of course, is the people. The encounters he had with visitors, staff and volunteers was “a tremendous blessing and gift,” he said. Their generosity was overwhelming.
The second thing he’ll miss, though, is the space itself — a peaceful, prayerful, quiet oasis in the middle of the city — a wonderful place to encounter God.
He struggled writing his farewell note in the final Sanctuary of Hope newsletter, he said, but then he was inspired.
“I was having a hard time. . . . Finally, I sat down and asked, ‘What’s deep in my heart?’” said Father Joseph. “Two things came to me: gratitude and hope.
“Gratitude for the 25 years and vision of Father Wait, and hope for what will happen there, the future with Catholic Charities. Gratitude for what has been, and hope for what will be.”