‘What did you do right?’

Father Phil Kendall counts among his life’s blessings, his years as Sisters, Servants chaplain


by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org

It was the kind of thing that could have turned very ugly, very fast.

Instead, it became a witness to the power of love.

Some years ago, one of the Sisters, Servants of Mary was shopping for food at a grocery story on Minnesota Avenue, in the then-gritty urban core of Kansas City, Kan.

Suddenly, three masked men, guns drawn, burst through the doors.

The trio forced the checkers to empty their tills and began to rob the customers.

But when one of the gunmen spotted the nun, he waved off his partners in crime.

“Don’t touch the Sister,” he said. “They helped my mother.”

The gunman’s act speaks volumes about the special respect in which the Sisters, Servants of Mary are held in their community, for their selfless service to the sick and dying.

The immense reservoir of goodwill for the Sisters, Servants of Mary began to grow almost as soon as members of the order arrived here in 1917 to establish a convent. The establishment of a new order of nursing nuns couldn’t have come at a better time for the community. Between the United States’ entry into World WarI and the flu pandemic a year later, there was more than enough work to go around.

The Sisters pioneered what is today called hospice care. They went to the homes of the sick, offering nursing care and the love of God without cost. The times and medical technologies have changed since the order was established in 1851 in Spain, but the Sisters have remained true to their mission.

Few people know the Sisters, Servants of Mary better than Father Philip E. Kendall, CSV, who served as their chaplain for many years.

Father Phil was first invited to the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas in 1972, to head up the archdiocesan tribunal office. Later, when the order that had previously provided chaplains for the Sisters left Kansas City, Kan., he was asked to become the Sisters’ chaplain and teacher.

“My provincial came down for a visitation,” recalled Father Phil, “and he said, ‘What did you do right to get this blessing of God?

“‘These nuns are going to save your soul against your will!’”

He might have been the Sisters’ teacher and chaplain, he said, but in many ways it was they who taught him by their total reliance on the will of God. When he himself fell ill in the late 1970s, the Sisters took care of him, and he found out firsthand why the Sisters were so beloved.

“The Sisters are so generous, polite and holy,” said Father Phil. “Their holiness is not just something you talk about. It is generosity; it is love, and very visible love.

“They are just the sweetest people you can imagine,” he continued, “and they go out of their way to help one in sickness. That’s why people love them.”

The Sisters’ generosity and absolute trust in God gives them the courage to do their very challenging work.

“They have been in homes that you and I wouldn’t dare stay overnight,” said Father Phil. “[The Sisters] just don’t talk the talk — they walk the walk. They are real, and that’s pretty hard to find in this world.”

If you were to drive past their provincial house on 18th Street, he added, you would likely see very little activity, except when the Sisters are coming and going to care for their patients.

“They are devoted to their community life and mission,” he said. “Anything outside of that, literally, they have very little interest in.

“Not that they’re out of touch, but it just isn’t where their heart is. Their heart is caring for their patients.

“And they take their nursing studies very, very seriously.”

With their vows of obedience, structured community life, and old school habits, one might assume that the community is some kind of throwback to the pre-Vatican II era.

Nothing can be further from the truth, said Father Phil.

Many of the Sisters are very well educated. They’re trained in the latest in nursing, he said, and they’re current on what’s happening in the world.

The Sisters are very much individuals, but committed to their community. They have, he said, “an obedience of understanding.”

“It’s the happiest [religious] house in the whole city,” said Father Phil. “They laugh and scream, and you should see them when they start playing their banjos and guitars! Sister Marycruz [Garcia] can play that guitar — she could be on the stage,she plays so well.”

“They’re happy,” he continued. “Theirs is a family happiness. There’s very little I’ve ever seen in [terms of] ambition. I’ve been impressed by every [one of them] I’ve met.”

Why would a young woman want to become a member of this order? What’s in it for them?

“Sacrifice,” said Father Phil simply. “There’s nothing in it for them — just love of God and love of neighbor. They really believe that!

“That’s what’s so hard for people to understand — that’s their life.”

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