Reluctant angels: ‘We don’t want it to be about us’

by Jill Ragar Esfeld
Special to The Leaven

OVERLAND PARK — When Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann told Church of the Ascension parishioners John and Pat Menghini that the Catholic Education Foundation (CEF) would like to honor them at its seventh annual Gaudeamus dinner, their reaction was unexpected.

“We were really very uncomfortable,” said Pat. “And we even said to the archbishop, ‘Has anyone ever said no?’”

His answer was short, and sweet.

“No,” he replied.

“We were reluctant to be recognized,” confirmed John. “We don’t want it to be about us.

“It’s really about our schools and our teachers and our kids.”

But a few days later, the couple had dinner with the Apostles of the Interior Life at St. Lawrence Center in Lawrence, and a conversation with the head of the order, Sister Susan Pieper, cast a different light on the situation.

“Sister Susan said to us, ‘You are doing what the archbishop has asked you to do,’” recalled Pat. “‘That’s called obedience.’

“She said, ‘It’s hard for you to accept this honor, but it’s still a blessing. And if you don’t do it in a joyful way, then that takes away from what the bishop is asking of you.’”

Indeed, the archbishop told the Menghinis he wanted to use them as role models so others would look to them and want to do the same.

“I understand that now,” said Pat, “and I think it’s wonderful.”

CEF executive director Michael Morrisey is glad for the change of heart.

“John and Pat work as a team and have been involved with CEF since its inception,” he said. “Their contribution to our families and schools is unparalleled in today’s world.”

Born to give

Both John and Pat said they inherited their generous spirits from their own parents.

“He’s one of six, and I’m one of four,” said Pat. “That’s what we saw from our parents — just give, give, give . . . and do, do, do. We saw the joy they received, so it was very natural for us.”

The couple, originally from New York, met on the feast of the Assumption when Pat was 15 and John was 16. They dated through college and married right after they graduated. John’s employer, Gear for Sports, brought them to Kansas City.

A retired chief operating officer from Gear, John has for the last 10 years enjoyed a second career as a developer and builder. The couple has three grown children: Lisa, John Jr. and Michael. Their ninth grandchild is expected this November.

John and Pat agree that one of the best decisions they’ve made is their move to the Midwest.

“We absolutely love it,” said Pat. “We feel very fortunate that the Lord brought us here and know he brought us here for a reason.”

That reason seems to be Catholic education. Pat answered the Lord’s call by working and volunteering at their children’s schools and supporting John in his many efforts.

“I have been involved in education throughout the diocese going all the way back to Holy Cross Parish [in Overland Park] when they bought the first school and I was on the school advisory committee,” he said. “And I served for many years at St. Thomas Aquinas [High School in Overland Park] on their board of directors. And then I just finished a five-year term on the advisory board of St. James High School [in Lenexa].”

The couple is also active with the School of Faith, Project Moses and the archdiocese’s newly formed Fine Arts Council. But CEF is closest to their hearts.

Finding a cause

The Menghinis were introduced to CEF through their son John, who began working for the program in its earlier incarnation as The Gardner Plan.

“He was there from the ground floor, so naturally I heard about it directly from him,” said John. “We just liked the concept of supporting our less fortunate Catholic schools that don’t have the resources to do some of what we do in Johnson County.”

“And we feel like everyone should have an opportunity to be at a Catholic school,” said Pat, “whether they can afford it or not.”

From the start, the Menghinis have been valuable financial benefactors to CEF and have also lent support through their advice and encouragement.

“I try to be a good benefactor and share our blessings with the program,” said John. “But most times I think our charitable efforts need as much moral support as they need financial support.”

The main reason the couple is so passionate about Catholic education here in the archdiocese is because of their children and grandchildren.

“I just believe it’s how we have to pass on the faith to each generation,” said John, whose mother was a Catholic school teacher. “That’s a responsibility we have — not only to our own children, but to our neighbors and our whole community.”

The couple also feels Catholic education is an important part of today’s culture.

“I don’t know who would take up any of these issues — right to life and stem cells or protection of marriage,” said John. “Catholics are the lead on that.”

Fruits of giving

A few weeks ago, the couple toured Resurrection School in Kansas City, Kan. What they saw there only reinforced their commitment to CEF.

“I was so impressed with the students and what was going on there — how poised they were and polite,” said Pat. “It brought tears to my eyes to see those kids and hear the stories about how their families are struggling.

“I walked away and I said to John, ‘If we can help, that’s what I want to do. I want these children to be able to have their education and have their faith.’”

Despite the couple’s initial reluctance, Morrisey is grateful they’re giving CEF an opportunity for one evening to thank them.

“They are strong believers in Catholic education and live that belief in their daily lives,” he said. “The Menghinis are true ‘angels among us.’”

The couple, in the meantime, hopes their example will draw more people to support CEF.

“I think there’s a lot of people who want to help, but don’t know how,” said Pat. “Well, this is how you can help.”

“You can be involved in changing one child’s life,” she promised. “And how beautiful that is.”

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