by Kevin Kelly
LEAWOOD — The good times were rolling and the ballroom at the Leawood South Country Club was chaotic.
Scores of priests, Serrans and volunteers, replete from a day of golf, card playing and barbecue, sat shoulder to shoulder, laughing, joking, renewing friendships and making new ones.
At the podium, Kerm Fendler and Shelly Kelly were struggling mightily over the din to give away door prizes, including Jack Henry suits, gift cards, gasoline cards and global positioning systems.
Director of vocations for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Father Stephen Cook said his big prize was the love and appreciation shown for the priesthood.
“This tells me that a lot of people appreciate the good work of priests,” he said.
That is a message he has been selling for years — the life of a priest is a happy life and a good life.
“I’ve always said that all priests are vocation directors, and that the best vocation directors are happy priests,” Father Cook said. “They realize that the priesthood is a good option, and it’s good for all priests to know how much people love them.”
Under the guidance of Serra Club members Bob and Carol Miller, the annual event has exploded into a “can’t miss” celebration of appreciation.
Just three years ago, about 35 priests attended the daylong event, which, until this year, was held on the Missouri side. Two years ago, 73 priests attended. Last year, 97 priests enjoyed the event.
Open to priests and seminarians from both the Diocese of Kansas CitySt. Joseph and the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, the vast majority seemed to come from the Missouri diocese, and that didn’t sit well with Bob Miller.
So Miller personally visited every region in the archdiocese, spreading the word that the Kansas side priests were not only wanted, but needed to make the celebration complete.
Then Miller moved the party across the state line to the Leawood South Country Club.
This year, 157 priests from both sides of the state line attended.
“Our politicians can’t seem to cross the state line, but the Catholic Church can,” said Fendler, to cheers from the crowd.
Two came from Topeka. Father Bill Bruning, pastor of Mother Teresa of Calcutta Parish, and Father Tim Haberkorn, pastor of Sacred Heart-St. Joseph Parish, said they both relished the chance to have fun with their brother priests.
“It’s just a good time to get together,” Father Bruning said. “We just don’t get enough opportunity to see each other.”
Father Haberkorn said it was also an opportunity to meet priests he has never met — priests from the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
“We never get to see them,” he said.
But it was the love and support from the lay Serra Club members from both Kansas and Missouri that impressed the bishops of both dioceses.
“This is the kind of event that makes sense for both sides of the state line to be involved with,” said Kansas City, Kan., Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann.
“It’s a great boost for our priests’ morale to see so many people involved and how much they appreciate and love what priests do,” the archbishop said.
That morale boost was especially important to priests in the Missouri diocese, where a $10 million settlement was announced in August in lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by priests, said Kansas City-St. Joseph Bishop Robert W. Finn.
“It’s been a difficult month,” Bishop Finn said. “I don’t think any of our priests doubted that people care for them. But this is the chance for the laity to show their appreciation. When priests see that the church, as the Body of Christ, cares for them, then we’re built up by the faith of the church.”
This year’s appreciation day was a record-breaker not only in terms of priestly attendance, said Kelly, a member of St. Elizabeth Parish in Kansas City, Mo.
Kelly, tabbed by Miller to organize the event, said the golf tournament was a sellout. A record 288 golfers paid to play tournament golf with the priests and seminarians.
In addition, during tough economic times, more than 200 corporate and individual sponsors stepped up to underwrite the dinner and prizes — no priest or seminarian walked away empty handed — that included 60 clothing packages from Jack Henry and Peter’s Clothiers, 70 retail gift cards, nine $250 gasoline cards, eight vacation resort packages, and three GPS systems.
After all the bills were paid, the event made roughly a $65,000 profit, which will help finance priestly and religious life vocation efforts in both dioceses, Kelly said.
Next year’s event should be bigger and better, she said.
“We want to make this a fun day for priests and seminarians,” Kelly said. “A lot of times, they may forget how much they are loved.”