No business like soul business

With a song in his heart, and a parish to serve


by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Father Kent O’Connor’s latest hobby was waiting for him in the rectory of his last assignment, at Sacred Heart Parish in Sabetha.

It was a piano. And not just any old piano, but a beautiful baby grand.

“Rather than it being just a large piece of furniture that everyone would trip over and ask me, ‘Oh, do you play?’ — because I knew that would be the question I’d always get — I decided to learn how to play the thing,” he said.

Most piano teachers don’t get students that old, but a local woman was willing to give him a chance.

“My piano teacher was a lovely lady outside of Sabetha, and she didn’t often take adult students, because they have a tendency to quit,” said Father O’Connor. “She said I hung on longer than anyone else.”

He took lessons for two years. His reason for discontinuing them, in fact, was a very good one: Three months ago, he was reassigned.

Fortunately, a nice, little spinet was waiting for him in the rectory of Our Lady of Unity in Kansas City, Kan.

“I find myself playing it quite a bit in the evenings,” said Father O’Connor. “I enjoy playing the songs and singing along, and I find it quite rewarding and relaxing.”

There’s no business like soul business

One could wonder whether, with such talent, Father O’Connor could have had a career in showbiz. Actually, he did, or at least was starting one.

He discovered theater while he was a student at Topeka West High School. Because he loved to sing, dance and act, he decided to continue his artistic development at the University of Kansas.

“I could have gone for a major in [theater or dance],” said Father O’Connor. “I decided to go for dance, because, as a male dancer, I would be more marketable. I thought I could make the entrance into the world of professional performing by way of dance.”

And it worked. Sort of.

After graduating from KU in 1997, the future priest was hired by the New Theater Restaurant in Overland Park and what is now the Wylliams/ Henry Contemporary Dance Company.

But just as he began to launch his performing career, he got a better offer from a bigger producer: God. The aspiring performer discovered a vocation to the priesthood and followed that path until he was ordained in 2003.

Music has remained a part of Father O’Connor’s life, however.

While an associate pastor at Curé of Ars Parish in Leawood, he wrote and produced a complete musical — “The Musical of Tobit.” A CD of it came out in 2006. Since then, several drama departments have chosen to perform it at their high schools.

“Currently, I’m working with a guy in New Hampshire to finish the musical piano score, because the notes have never been written out,” he said. “People have been playing off of the chords, so we’re trying to finish it out.”

He also produced a second CD featuring 10 original compositions based on the lives and spirituality of various saints, which came out in 2007.

It’s not likely that he will write another musical, however. He began working on “Tobit” while he was a seminarian.

“I think I’m too far removed from the theatrical world,” he said. “Now, I don’t think I could write another musical. There is nothing in the works. I don’t think I have it in me. It’s possible, but I don’t feel particularly called to do it.”

And he doesn’t particularly miss professional theater or dance.

Good dancers make it look effortless, but the truth is that dance is as physically demanding as any sport. One reason dance is so punishing is because it forces the body to do unnatural movements, so the body adjusts. However, you can only fool Mother Nature so long.

For example, Father O’Connor wasn’t long in the seminary when he was just walking down the stairs and his legs suddenly gave out. He figures it was his muscles readjusting themselves.

As for now, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

“It’s funny, because our minds play tricks on us,” said Father O’Connor. “I haven’t danced for so long, but in my mind I still think I could hoof it.

“But I haven’t tried for years and years. It might be interesting to take a dance class just to put it into my mind that I can’t do it any more.”

Father O’Connor also plays the guitar and the mandolin. And now that he can play the piano, he can make a greater contribution to liturgies when he and his brother priests get together.

At one time, he used to get together with three other priests in a group they called The Priest Band. The members still gather occasionally as friends, but the band is no more — retired for the very rare reason (at least among bands) due to pastoral duties. The last gig they played was a fundraiser for Villa St. Francis in Olathe.

But the young pastor might not be out of the spotlight for long. He’s given some thought to producing some sort of spiritual multimedia presentation, or maybe even a concert. Nothing big, something more coffee house-sized.

“One of my goals is that I’d like to get to the point where I can do a little kind of small-scale concert for the parishioners — or whoever would want to come,” said Father O’Connor. “Just playing music on either my guitar or piano would not be enough to sustain an entire concert. But if I did both, with that kind of variety, it might make for a nice, little evening of music and reflection.”

One of Father O’Connor’s skills — although not exactly a hobby — was responsible for his assignment to Our Lady of Unity: He can speak and read Spanish.

“I don’t think I’m very good, but people say they understand me,” he said. “I celebrate Masses in Spanish and give homilies I write myself.”

Father O’Connor studied Spanish intermittently beginning in the sixth grade. Even in high school he recognized that Spanish would be more useful than French or German. He studied Spanish while at KU and in the seminary and enjoyed two immersion experiences — one to Peru for two months, and a month over this past summer in Mexico.

“Reading the Gospel is very difficult because you use a lot of words you don’t use in common, everyday speech,” said Father O’Connor. “I have to pronounce them correctly, so I practice the prayers and Gospel readings quite a lot.”

People seem to tolerate his linguistic efforts pretty well. At least no one has offered critiques — yet.

“We’re still getting to know each other,” he said. “No one has come up to me and said, ‘Father, you shouldn’t say those words,’” said Father O’Connor. “It hasn’t happened yet, but I imagine it will come.”

When he first arrived, he was shy about answering the phone because, being the “new guy,” he didn’t have the information they needed, and callers tended to talk too fast. Usually, he referred them to his bilingual secretary instead.

His Spanish language skills are absolutely necessary, because 90 percent of his baptisms and 75 percent of his weddings are in Spanish. And the demand for religious education in Spanish for children and adults is very high.

“A lot of the parents and grandparents [of our school children] are sketchy at their English, if they speak English at all,” he said. “Some of them don’t speak any English.”

Father O’Connor would like to reach the point where he is able to teach classes in Spanish, because teaching is one of his passions.

“I teach the English-speaking adults, and Sister Maria, who also works at Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park, teaches the Spanish-speaking adults,” said Father O’Connor.

“Her classes are packed — probably 100 — and I have about 30. There is a phenomenal number of people who prefer classes in Spanish,” he continued. “By not offering a class in Spanish, I’m missing a huge number of people who potentially might like to learn more about their faith.”

He’s working hard to improve his linguistic skills, so he listens to Spanish-language radio, talks to people in Spanish, and even goes so far as to check out books like “Winnie the Pooh” in Spanish from the public library.

He has even found help from a most unlikely source: Dan Brown, of “The Da Vinci Code” fame. One of Brown’s books, “Digital Fortress,” has been translated into Spanish. It’s a low-grade read, and that’s the point. Since the language level is low, it’s easier for him to grasp than some more elevated reads.

J.R.R. Tolkien will just have to wait for another day.


Father O’Connor memories

It has been a privilege to have Father Kent as our pastor at St. James for the two short years we had him. His inspiring, if not a bit enthusiastic, sermons had a way of grasping our attention (including that of our 3-year-old), and at the end would leave us wondering if there was something more we could be doing to nurture our faith in God. His ability to demonstrate God’s love for each of us through his music (ask him to sing his song “Mary Has No Y,” and be prepared to chuckle), or through his special water baths — er, sprinklings with holy water — is a testament to the theory that God does indeed have a sense of humor.

-Kevin and Ellie Haverkamp and family

Father Kent’s homilies were always easy to understand, he related to the parish, and he had so much energy that he made it funny! I’m 14 and I went to his adult refresher classes at Sabetha. I learned so much, and it was never boring or confusing.

-Keri Tanking

During my sophomore year, Father Kent was a chaperone for our Chicago mission trip. One night after visiting the cathedral downtown we went to Gino’s for pizza. As we were crossing the street, Father Kent began to “swim” his way across making sure that everyone made it across in one light. As Father Kent was flailing his arms, I couldn’t stop laughing. It was those crazy random moments that made the trip so memorable!

-Maggie Kane

Father Kent is a priest who finds great joy in his faith and finds unique ways to share that deep faith with young and old parishioners. He is a talented, but humble, musician and songwriter who has written and recorded songs about various saints. He has a wonderful way of making the Scriptures apply to our everyday lives, and his homilies always have an easy-to-remember message. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to be one of his parishioners while he served Sacred Heart Parish in Sabetha.

-Karen Nichols

One evening our family was visiting the O’Connors. The children had created a play and wanted to put on the show for us. The children came into the living room and Kent stepped forward with confident stage presence and began to speak in dramatic fashion, far beyond his 8 years of age. It was obvious then that he had something special. These skills have served him well in his ministry.

-Jerry and Anna Marie Lammers

I met Father Kent in 4th grade at Most Pure Heart of Mary School in Topeka, and we have been good friends ever since. Probably one of my best experiences over the years, however, was going to the World Youth Day with Kent in Denver in 1993. Kent and I had just graduated from Topeka West High School, and we went to Denver with a youth group, stopping in Victoria along the way. The highlight of the trip was being at Mile High Stadium when Pope John Paul II arrived. It had been raining all day, and we were all soaked, but the skies parted, and a double rainbow appeared in the sky. It was an awesome experience. We sang and cheered, and even danced a conga line with some bishop. It was an incredible experience for two 18 year-old boys, and I know, for Kent, it was a major stepping stone on his journey to the priesthood.

-Michael J. Book

Father Kent is a great man! He was my high school chaplain when I was at Bishop Miege. He has a great sense of humor. But I can’t see why he likes the Jayhawks so much. Oh well. GO MIZZOU!!!!!

-Brother Maximilian Burkhart, O

We have learned a lot in our 35 year “association” with Father Kent. He’s taught us the joys of dance and music, the thrill of “almost ready,” a slightly more open view to adventure in our lives, how to see humor in the discovery of a misplaced guitar. More recently, he introduced us to a love for the Liturgy of the Hours and to a much richer understanding of what it means to be a diocesan priest. We are grateful for the gift of Father Kent’s priesthood, and we’re very thankful that he is our son.

-Tom and Marilyn O’Connor

One remembrance of Father Kent is his ability to give homilies that are so easy to understand. But one homily will always be in our hearts and mind. We lost a grandson in a car accident earlier this year and Father’s homily at the funeral made us feel he understood our pain and uplifted us at a very sad time. His ability at giving homilies is a rare gift.

-Ron and Linda Bloom

Here are some responses from my children: Bryan Melland (age 14) – “I love how Father Kent use to always come into the cafeteria at lunchtime and just sit down and talk to us. He is just one of the guys.” Tricia Melland (age 11) -“I love how Father Kent started the ‘high five’ thing after Mass!” Andrew Melland (age 9) – “I love how Father Kent would come out in front near us during the homily and tell us funny stories that helped us understand the Gospel.”

-Wendy B. Melland

Father Kent O’Connor is one of a kind. He’s like a jumping bean. After the Gospel, he jumps down from the altar to get close to his congregation. He always has a great story to tell and this is good. It’s like Jesus talking to his Twelve Apostles, and that is what Father Kent is doing for us at Sacred Heart. He’s reaching out his hand and saying, “I am here for you.”

-The DeSeure and Losensky families

My most special memory of Father Kent is when we did a Bible study together when he was a high school student. We used “A Lamp For My Feet And A Light For My Path,” which I had written when I was teaching religious eduction in my parish. Father Kent and I spent many weeks looking up the Scriptures and discussing the questions and subjects brought up in the study. It was evident to me that he had a heart for God and his gentle, quiet spirit impressed me then as it does today.

-Nancy Humes

Father Kent was such a godsend to our parish in the short two years that we got to have him here at St. James in Wetmore. He’s such a vivacious person and reaches out to anyone and everyone. No doubt he’s doing great work at his new appointment as he did here. We send our love and blessing to the man that got our parish working together in the right direction and the dream of building our new church.

-Orville and Shirley Hutfles

I’ll never forget being at Father Kent’s ordination. I could hardly believe it; and I thought, “Sheila, this is your greatest day.” I was certainly blessed to know such a wonderful person, such a cute kid. I have known him since he came to the children’s section of the library, where I was the librarian. I never heard of Tobit until he introduced me to it. I don’t know where he got the idea to write that musical, but it was an amazing story. Just knowing him and his gifts — God’s blessings on him — make me very thankful.

-Sheila Radell

Editor’s note: Because of space constraints we could not publish all the Father O’Connor stories we received. To read all the Father O’Connor memories, visit our Web site at: www.theleaven.com.

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