Lawrence parish celebrates unity in diversity

by Jane Graves
Special to The Leaven

LAWRENCE —Father John Schmeidler, OFM Cap., pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church here, decided to keep the parish’s 150th anniversary celebration simple.

“It’s just us all gathering together for a family reunion — to celebrate the life that God has given us and the heritage that helped us come to this point,” he said. “We’re not making it grand. The simplicity of it is that we’re just gathering.

“What makes it grand is that we’re together as one.”

But a family reunion of more than 1,200 people is a grand event — no matter how simple the intent may be. Since the church holds only 300, the Sept. 20 Mass was held at KU’s Lied Center of Kansas.

The next challenge was how to show appreciation for the diversity within the parish. The history of St. John the Evangelist is rooted in the era of border warfare — where differences often resulted in conflict and where appreciation of diversity was scarce.

According to a parish history written by Michael T. Hoffman in 1937, the first Mass was celebrated in the Bernard Donnelly home in October 1857. The priest, visiting from Lecompton, was ordered out of town by sundown by “ruffians.”

In 1863, during Quantrill’s infamous raid, Bishop Jean-Baptiste Miege, who was visiting St. John’s to administer confirmation, intervened with Quantrill — keeping the church, the rectory and the people within the rectory safe from the torching and murder that devastated most of the rest of Lawrence. Father Favre, pastor of St. John Parish at the time of the raid, is said to have hidden the Quaker minister in the basement of the rectory, wrapped in an old carpet.

Rather than looking back at history, however, Father John said he wanted to focus on what the parish has become and to celebrate “that oneness in our diversity.”

Lisa Roush, director of music at St. John, was given the charge of merging the worship styles from the six, regular weekend Masses into one representative liturgy. Since those styles range from a Spanish choir with guitars and brass to a contemporary choir and a youth-oriented choir incorporating full bands, mixers, and electric guitars to the more traditional choir with organ or piano accompaniment, it was a challenge, Roush said.

“The thing that comes to mind is just universal church — all in one parish,” said Roush. “There’s so many people from different backgrounds, different cultures . . . different life experiences, and it just comes together.”

“We’re at a point where we can appreciate one another’s gifts,” she added. “Different as they are, they do fit together.”

Pete Haack, assistant music director at St. John in charge of the Jubilate Choir, agreed that the logistics of merging the smaller ensembles into one, large music ministry — as well as singing the songs in both Spanish and English — was a challenge.

But “any time you can get this many people together in one place to celebrate and to praise God,” he said, “it’s worth it.”

“I think the music does a great job of bringing everybody together,” Haack said. “It’s something that goes beyond the language or the style.”

“The one constant is that we’re all celebrating the Catholic Mass,” Haack said. “And that’s going to remain constant for the next 150 years. So that’s what we’re going to be remembering and celebrating today.”

The Mass — including the homily, music and readings — was done in both English and Spanish. Sign-language interpreters translated the service from the altar. Students from St. John Catholic School, dressed in their school uniforms, brought up the gifts at the offertory procession. After the liturgy, parishioners gathered at the church grounds for a picnic, music, and games for the children.

“I think it’s important — especially for the younger generations — to see how you work together and keep up that family feeling in the community. That it just continues to thrive,” said Dolores Lemus-Kenney, a lifetime parishioner of St. John.

“I think it shows [the children],” she added, “that they should continue on with that, and it sets an example for them.”

The Sunday bulletin distributed at the celebration included renderings for expanding the church and school so that it could accommodate ministry needs in the coming years, including space for parishioners “to worship together for the 175th anniversary on the church grounds in 2034.”

“When the community gathers, and celebrates, and commingles with one another in that friendship and the goodness of God, the Spirit enlivens the heart to a richness that just wants to come back and give itself to the community in a new way,” said Father John.

“So to me that’s what’s important about this 150th. Not that it’s the 150th,” he said, “it’s just that we’re gathering to renew our hearts to once again enter back into the community and give ourselves for the next generation.”

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