Father Keith Lunsford knows how to satisfy a hungry heart and tummy
by Joe Bollig
PRAIRIE VILLAGE — Father Keith Lunsford could put a name to nearly every face at his going away dinner this past June at Holy Trinity Parish in Paola.
It’s going to be difficult to duplicate this feat at his new assignment, however. While Holy Trinity had about 470 families, St. Ann Parish in Prairie Village has 1,500.
But he’s off to a good start. His bags had no sooner hit the rectory floor in early July when friendly parishioners began to call and visit. His calendar and appointment book filled up almost immediately.
“I have been so [greatly] welcomed here,” said Father Lunsford. “People have been so generous, and open, and kind.”
“To know and to be known is one of the great gifts of my priesthood,” he continued. “People let you into their lives instantaneously and intimately. You are with them at the highest and lowest moments of their lives.” To know and to be known at St. Ann’s will be a challenge — not only because it is much larger than his previous parish, but also because he is the only priest in residence, having taken the place of two. He gets some assistance, however, with weekday Masses from a retired Precious Blood priest who lives in Kansas City, Mo.
“The rectory almost feels like a luxury hotel,” said Father Lunsford. “Since I’ve unpacked my bags, most of the time I leave at 7 a.m. and come home at 10 p.m.”
“My neighbor saw me after Mass one weekend and said, ‘Father, we just gave up coming over to your house, because your lights are off and you’re never at home. So, when you get the chance, we’ve made you some apple crisp, so just knock on the door.”
That down-home feeling
The warmth and friendliness that has greeted Father Lunsford at St. Ann’s has a familiar feel. In many ways, it is like the parish in which he grew up — St. Lawrence Parish in Easton.
“I grew up in the house my grandfather grew up in,” he said. “He bought it when he married my grandmother.”
His paternal grandparents lived a couple of fences and a pond away, and an aunt and uncle were neighbors. The Lunsford kids were cousins twice over with the Chances and Beying kids. And they all went to school with each other.
And the cousins — and all the extended family — worked together, too.
“Everyone worked on the farm,” said Father Lunsford. “So when it was hay season, all the cousins came and put up hay. And whenever we put up a barn, or shed, or farrowing house, everyone showed up with hammers and saws and we’d have a barn raising. But it was all family.”
Growing up on a farm teaches a lot of things. Consequently, Father Lunsford is pretty handy, although his pastoral duties seldom allow him much time to use those skills.
But vacation is another matter. He usually spends his break visiting his brother, during which they put up a deck, paint, landscape, or do some other little project. Someday — if he ever has the time — he’d like to take a course in furniture building.
“If I could do anything [else], it would be a ‘flipper’ — buy a house and renovate it,” he said. “That whole process of taking a house and transforming it, I think, is what is done [for people] through the priesthood. Through the power of Christ, we help transform people’s lives.”
But extended family gatherings were not limited to working; in fact, the most important get-togethers featured eating — on Sundays at Grandma’s.
“We all lived within miles of one another, so Sunday dinner at Grandma’s had anywhere from 20 to 30 people,” he said. “You didn’t have to wait for Christmas or Easter [to see lots of relatives]. It was just Sunday dinner at Grandma’s.”
That good-old country cooking had to be done on an assembly line basis to feed that many people, especially when the entree was fresh fried chicken. One person would kill the chicken, another would bleed it out, still another would scald to get the feathers off, another would pluck the pin feathers, and so on.
At the end came the noon meal, with home-fried chicken to die for: crispy on the outside, moist and juicy on the inside.
“Mom and Grandma would cook the chicken — not by sight, but by sound,” said Father Lunsford. “When the chicken has a certain ‘pop,’ it comes out moist and just piled with this golden-crunchy outside.”
Naturally, the chicken came with all the fixings, most of which came from the family’s huge garden.
“My mom still puts in a garden three times the size of my yard,” he said. “I grew up cutting the eyes of potatoes, putting in roasting ears, planting green beans, squash, cantaloupe — just about everything. We would can tomato sauce, green beans, pickles. . . . It was just country life.”
And don’t forget dessert: six or so pies and cakes.
A gathering of the clan would also occur in time for hog butchering in the fall. Grandma would always bake fresh bread in anticipation of a special treat when the lard rendering was done.
“When she’d strain off the lard, there would be all these bits and pieces of crunchies,” said Father Lunsford. “We’d take all the crunchies and put them between slices of fresh-baked bread.”
Warm up that skillet
It was only natural that, having grown up in a family of prodigious country cooks, Father Lunsford would learn a thing or two. He’s only built on that knowledge.
“Because of my journey toward the priesthood, the whole world has opened up, through my education and relationships at seminary,” he said. “I met another seminarian who trained under a chef, and we used to cook for our floor.” For himself, Father Lunsford cooks simply.
For example, he’ll sauté some onions and ground turkey and put it on a tortilla for lunch. He has, however, cooked much more elaborate fare for charity dinners at Paola and for his Jesus Caritas priests’ prayer group.
His repertoire includes bourbonmarinated beef tenderloin, grilled pork tenderloin with praline-mustard glaze, crème brûlée, flourless chocolate cake, and stuffed figs wrapped in prosciutto.
In the past, appreciative parishioners have declared him a gourmet cook.
“I’m not a gourmet cook,” he said. “I just follow the recipe.”
There is every possibility that someday some lucky person in St. Ann Parish will have a chance to sample one of Father Lunsford’s specialties — or even his mom’s ecstasy-inducing fried chicken.
“I don’t have time to cook this year because I’m so busy,” he said. “Maybe next year. I still owe an auction dinner in Paola, and they’ve requested my mom’s fried chicken. She’ll bake fresh bread and make mashed potatoes, and I’ll do all the desserts.”
Getting to know Father Keith Lunsford
Current assignment and duties: Pastor of St. Ann Parish in Prairie Village
Years Ordained: 17
Hometown and Parish: Easton, St. Lawrence Parish
My favorite food is: sushi, and Mom’s fried chicken
My favorite book to recommend is: “Pillars of the Earth,” by Ken Follett
As a child, my favorite toy was: Tonka trucks
The most important lesson the priesthood has taught me is: People are most accepting and forgiving of a priest’s foibles.
The thing that’s surprised me most about life as a priest is: Love has no limit.
It would surprise people to learn that: I have a congenital defect — my right knee barely bent as a child. After I was accepted to the seminary, a doctor was found to fix it. It now bends barely enough to kneel, but just enough. God is good!
Favorite TV show: “Stargate,” on the Syfy Channel
Favorite band or musician: Depends on my mood
Dream vacation: Going to Minneapolis to be with my brother. It’s not where, but with whom.
Worst job I ever had: Bolting huge culverts together (big enough to drive a truck through) on a Leavenworth road crew.
If I couldn’t be a priest, I’d be: a musician in an orchestra.
If I had a church history time machine, I’d: go back and watch the construction of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.