by Sheila Myers
Special to The Leaven
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — If you haven’t already visited the Strawberry Hill Museum and Cultural Center here, go now.
The 1887 Queen Anne-style home has served as a private residence, a Catholic orphanage and a cultural museum, but the stately mansion is at its best decked out in Christmas splendor.
The museum reopened on Nov. 17 for the Christmas season after being closed for three weeks, during which an army of volunteers installed the decorations.
“There’s a very wonderful group of talented, dedicated people who help,” said volunteer and tour guide Bernadette Soptick. “It’s like a labor of love. Even families come and do it — mothers, fathers and kids.”
Like Soptick, many of the 30-some volunteers who keep the museum running grew up on Strawberry Hill or are related to someone who did. They volunteer to stay connected to their heritage.
Soptick (her maiden name is Modrcin) is an ideal representation of the southern Slavic cultures that populated the area, with a heritage that’s one quarter Slovenian, one quarter Croatian and half Serbian.
She attended St. John School and was married in St. John the Baptist Church next door. Soptick now lives in Lenexa and is a member of Holy Trinity Parish.
Father Mark Goldasich, the Leaven’s editor, was born and raised on Strawberry Hill. His picture is displayed with other priests from the neighborhood, like Msgr. Martin Krmpotic, the St. John’s pastor responsible for acquiring the property from owner John Scroggs.
Victorian wealth, Catholic frugality
Besides finding an ideal specimen of a Queen Anne-style home adorned in full holiday regalia, visitors can view artifacts and decorations from 16 different ethnic cultures, all of which have left their mark on Strawberry Hill and Kansas City, Kan.
The tour takes you through the original home, where John Scroggs lived with his wife and five children until 1919. It continues through the four additions constructed in the 1920s while the property served as an orphanage run by the Sisters of St. Francis of Christ the King.
The orphanage closed in 1988 and the Strawberry Hill Museum opened.
The tour starts in the chapel, with 32 donated mangers and Nativity sets on exhibit. The large Nativity set in the front corner comes from nearby St. Mary Church, the Irish parish, which is now closed.
“[The Nativity set] comes in three pieces and takes a lot of men to put it together,” said Soptick.
The next stop on the tour is the original family residence, which incorporates signs of wealth for the period: ornate oak woodwork, stained-glass windows, and a round corner tower.
Soptick points out craftsmanship that has gone the way of the horse and buggy — all intact, even though the place teemed with children.
“How did 3,000 children come through this home and not damage the woodwork?” Soptick asks.
Chalk it up to the durability of oak . . . and the discipline of nuns.
Upstairs are the ethnic rooms — one for each country. Volunteers in charge of decorating the rooms choose which artifacts to display.
The Polish room contains a table set with Polish pottery. The Russian room has a Russian crèche. The Lithuanian room displays amber jewelry and decorations, and straw ornaments. The Slovenian room is filled with red carnations, the national flower.
Each room is a representation of the craftwork and Christmas traditions for that culture.
“A lot of people are surprised at all the diversity here, but they don’t know Wyandotte County,” said Soptick.
Besides cultural and religious displays, the museum also contains a multitude of historical objects that help tell the Strawberry Hill story.
One of the upstairs rooms has been left intact as a “cell” where the nuns lived, to show the simplicity of their lives. The room contains only a small bed, a sink and a desk.
In another area, behind a glass pane, visitors will find the “Pope Room,” so-called because it displays the bed Pope John Paul II slept on during his TWA flights to the United States. The bed was moved to the museum for safekeeping and because John Paul II was Polish.
“Now we have it under lock and key, because he’s on his way to becoming a saint,” Soptick said.
The bedroom where the Scroggs boys slept displays dozens of Christmas toys from the period and an infant bed from the orphanage.
An elaborate handmade Nativity set that depicts the entire city of Bethlehem and Croatian memorabilia from St. John the Baptist Church and School are displayed downstairs in the addition.
At the end of the tour, there is traditional Slavic pastry — povitica or apple strudel — in the Tea Room and souvenirs in the gift shop.
Visiting the museum
The Strawberry Hill Museum and Cultural Center is located at 720 N. 4th Street in Kansas City, Kan. The museum is open to the public Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is $7 for adults; $3 for children. Christmas decorations will remain up through Jan. 27, 2013. Private tours for larger groups can be arranged by calling the museum at (913) 371-3264. To volunteer, donate or become a member, call, or visit the museum’s website at: www.strawberryhillmuseum.org.