‘She evangelized for the church in a way that didn’t require rallies and banners, and handing out tracts on the corner. She evangelized by the way she treated others.’
by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The year 1967 stormed across America like a prairie supercell, bringing lightning bolts of social upheaval, torrents of political activism and churning vortices of new ideas.
There were race riots and civil rights protests. American troops fought a war in South Vietnam while antiwar protesters occupied college campuses. The new National Organization for Women agitated for a new feminist ideology. Timothy Leary urged hippies to “turn on, tune in and drop out.”
It was a year of “firsts” for African-Americans:
• Thurgood Marshall was appointed the first U.S. Supreme Court justice.
• Carl B. Stokes was elected the first mayor of a large American city.
• Robert H. Lawrence Jr. became the first accepted for astronaut training.
And in Kansas, there was Bea Swoopes. The 21-year-old mother became the first woman and African-American member of the Kansas Catholic Conference.
Swoopes was a stalwart foot soldier of the conference for 46 years. She served under the leadership of 17 bishops and five executive directors and rose to be associate director by the time she retired at the end of June.
“I loved the Kansas Catholic Conference,” she said. “It was my life. Family came first, but this was my home for 46 years. You can’t help but own something in that time.”
The barrier breaker
Bea Burdette was born into a devoutly Catholic family. She and her family belonged to the predominantly African-American Our Lady of Perpetual Hope Parish in Kansas City, Kan.
Growing up, the Burdette children attended the Church of Our Lady School at Fifth and Parallel. It was not far from the historic ruins of Quindaro, an important station on the Underground Railroad and site of the Quindaro Freedman’s School, the earliest school for African-Americans west of the Mississippi River.
“Our family walked past the white Catholic [St. Rose of Lima] School at Eighth and Quindaro to get down to Fifth Street, where Our Lady School was,” said Swoopes.
“And so my father, not seeing the rationale behind that, because St. Rose was closer, went to the pastor [of St. Rose] and said he’d like to enroll us,” said Swoopes. “We, along with another family down the street, were the first [African-American children] to enroll in St. Rose.”
There, she excelled in her studies and became captain of the volleyball team. Later, the Burdettes and Dwights became the first African-American families to integrate Bishop Ward High School. Bea Swoopes graduated in 1964.
“There were three black kids in my high school graduating class,” said Swoopes.
Between her junior and senior year, Ward principal Father Francis Maher asked her to be one of the school’s delegates to the American Legion’s Girls State Convention in Topeka.
“It was mock state government,” said Swoopes. “He asked me what office I was going to run for, and I said, ‘Well, if I’m going, I’m going for governor.’ ”
The young Swoopes campaigned hard and did, indeed, became the first African-American Girls State governor — which created a nervous moment for the organizers. Traditionally, the Girls State and Boys State governors were a couple at a joint dance.
“This was hot at the time,” said Swoopes. “There were very few black gentleman at this dance. So, we were an interracial couple — in 1963.”
Swoopes won a scholarship to Marymount College in Salina, but married before she graduated.
She was working for the Sears department store chain as a collection agent (a job she disliked), with a one-year-old son, when she heard from Father Maher once again — in December 1967.
“They were looking for a minority to fill the position as the administrative assistant,” said Swoopes, at a new agency that would serve as the lobbying arm of the Kansas bishops.
Swoopes, who developed an interest in government at Girls State, was excited about the job. She took a typing test, passed, and was hired.
The Kansas Catholic Conference was to be the church’s public policy voice, bringing Christian witness into the arena of government. Kansas was among the first four or five states in the nation to have a Catholic conference.
A story about the first executive meeting of the conference appeared on page one of the Dec. 15, 1967, issue of the Eastern Kansas Register, the forerunner of The Leaven. The accompanying photo showed eight persons: two laymen and six clerics — all men, all white.
The conference was in need of a little diversity, and the first executive director, Vince DeCoursey, understood that. He respected Swoopes and her role soon began to expand. She became involved in all aspects of the conference.
The personal is the political
Swoopes has been affectionately called “the mother of the conference” for her role in establishing and growing the conference. And at the same time, she raised two boys and went to night school to earn a bachelor’s in English from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, graduating in 1972.
“Those were wonderful years with Vince,” said Swoopes. “They were learning experiences. He had a great deal of confidence in me and my abilities. That’s when the foundation of the conference was established.”
“Vince was a gentleman and a statesman,” she continued. “He was a bridge builder. He was all-inclusive, as far as the issues that we lobbied for. . . . Nobody could tell if Vince was a Democrat or a Republican, because he presented himself to both sides equally. That’s when it was a ladies and gentleman’s game. No matter how differing you were in your opinions, you were respected. There was true dialogue, true compromise — it was a different ballgame.”
Certainly, the bishops of Kansas and thus the conference supported the viewpoint and particular concerns of the Catholic Church, but the goal of the conference was the common good, not merely the promotion of sectarian interests.
“We brought another dimension to the debate,” said Swoopes. “We always asked that question, ‘Is this for the common good?’ in all the different issues. That faith dimension would not have been there if we did not exist.”
The conference’s advocacy included such things as social justice, farm issues, the life issues, and education. Swoopes, naturally, was often the point person.
Jan Lewis got to know Swoopes through the conference and through Swoopes’ service to Catholic Charities, most recently as a current member of the board of directors.
“She has been uncompromising in her vocation and her values,” said Lewis, former president and chief executive officer of Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas.
“In my working with her on the board and her work with the conference, I found her to be someone who always has God’s people in front of her. She truly and firmly believes that it’s our responsibility to be the voice of the voiceless. . . . And she has been a good advocate for the people we serve. She is everything that our current political world is not. She can disagree with someone but still recognize their humanity.”
No permanent enemies
Former executive director and state legislator Mike Farmer (who died in 2007) would tell Swoopes that the conference has permanent interests, but no permanent enemies.
This nonpartisan, common- interest, honest broker approach gave Swoopes and her colleagues the ability to talk to anyone and opened many doors. She learned that trust, compromise, credibility and relationships comprised the grease that made the gears of government grind.
“The personal relationships that we built through the years served us well,” said Swoopes.
“Our stand on the issues was pretty much constant . . . so we incrementally succeeded in changing a lot of things.”
The conference sought input from all kinds of people. Conference meetings included Catholic newspaper editors, diocesan school superintendents, Catholic Charities directors, and rural life office directors. The bishops also got input from lay advisory groups.
“We were a very collaborative entity, and it had its pros and cons,” said Swoopes.
And for many of those early years, she was still the only woman at a meeting.
“I was the only woman in all of these situations except when we had invited guests,” she said. “I’m not going to say I spoke for every woman, but I brought a feminine viewpoint.”
During her more than four decades with the conference, Swoopes has done it all, serving in every position possible — from administrative assistant to acting executive director when two executive directors fell ill or died.
She even held offices in the National Association of State Catholic Conference Directors.
“She has always been well respected among the other state conference directors,” said Robert Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois and president of the National Association of State Catholic Conference Directors.
“She has also brought to the table those years of experience in dealing with all different types of elected officials,” he continued. “She has a way of dealing with people that is to be emulated.”
Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann praised Swoopes for her communications skills and congeniality.
“Bea’s attitude has always been so positive,” said Archbishop Naumann. “One thing that made her so effective in her role was her warmth and ability to communicate easily with all sorts of different people, whether it was parishioners or pastors, or legislators. Bea was able to communicate with them all, with great congeniality.”
Swoopes needed those skills, because the conference often had to fight an uphill battle.
“The Legislature is all about communications,” said Sen. Susan Wagle, R-30th District and Senate president. “It’s all about building relationships, it’s all about advocating for a position and winning other people over to your side. And she had that ability and was respected.”
“In 1996, we passed that first pro-life bill, the Women’s Right to Know Act, with a minority [of pro-life legislators] in the House and Senate,” Wagle continued. “It took a lot of gentle persuasion to get that bill passed, and Bea Swoopes had the ability to get that done.”
Sometimes the atmosphere on tough issues could get heated to the point of boiling, but Swoopes knew how to keep the kettle turned down.
“She had a very calming personality,” said Rep. Jerry Henry, D-63rd District. “Some people, when you challenge their point of view, get upset.”
“Bea would stay very calm and say what she believed in,” he continued. “You could tell she did her homework on what different faiths believed, and could point in that direction and why the point she was advocating for was important not only for her faith, but all faiths.”
Swoopes would not let the political process become impersonal and technical.
“She could tell a story,” said Lewis. “And take an issue out of the debate and make it real and personal about someone who would be impacted. It’s one thing to talk facts and figures, but it’s another to put a face to the issue, and that was something Bea always tried to do — to bring the humanity of the issue forward. There’s no price you can put to the benefit of that.”
Turning over the next page
For the first time in 46 years, Swoopes wakes up without a full agenda demanding immediate attention. She can afford to have a quiet morning
It won’t stay this way for long, however. That’s not her style. She cares too much about too many things to just rest and rust.
“There were so many issues that we could not delve into deeply [at the conference],” said Swoopes. “There were so many times I really wanted to spend time with an issue and find out the systemic reasons there was achievement or failure, and delve into the social justice issues.”
At present, she is seeking something to do that aligns with her interests and passions. Even as she does so, she looks back at her years at the conference with gratitude.
“I can only say that it’s been remarkable, it’s been incredible. It’s been a life of service. It’s been a life well lived,” said Swoopes.