Former teachers, students, reflect on 50 years of Savior

Leaven file photo Msgr. Michael Mullen, a former instructor at Savior of the World Seminary, talks with Chris Towle in 1975 for SemWeek, a time set aside in the summer for grade school boys to spend time at the seminary and get to know archdiocesan priests and seminarians.

Msgr. Michael Mullen, a former instructor at Savior of the World Seminary, talks with Chris Towle in 1975 for SemWeek, a time set aside in the summer for grade school boys to spend time at the seminary and get to know archdiocesan priests and seminarians. Leaven file photo.

by Joe Bollig

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — It’s 50 years old and still looking good, but you should have seen Savior Pastoral Center when it was brand spanking new.

Construction of the new Savior of the World Seminary was one of the most exciting things going on in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas in 1964.

“I was there when it was going up,” said Father Al Rockers, now a senior associate at the Church of Nativity in Leawood and one of the first faculty members.

“It was delightful. It was majestic, with the bell tower reaching into the sky and the arches all around the building,” he continued. “It was amazing.”

This was a modern building that spoke of optimism for the future. It had clean, horizontal lines with no architectural frills or decoration. The colors were stark — black and white. The big plate class windows let in a lot of light and the hallways were long and spacious.

“Back in 1970, a missionary from Africa visited,” said Father Rockers. “He stood at the front doors and saw that broad hallway going to the cafeteria.

“‘All that space!’ he remarked, with tears rolling down his cheeks.  ‘If I only had this hallway for my classrooms in Africa.’”

Savior of the World Seminary was a longtime dream of Archbishop Edward J. Hunkeler, who served as archbishop from 1951 to 1969.  He began a campaign in 1962 to raise funds to build a high school level (minor) seminary.

Ground was broken on 100 acres of donated farmland west of Kansas City, Kansas, in 1964. The building was dedicated in 1965, and the doors opened to welcome 94 freshmen and sophomore boys.

Father Ken Kelly, pastor of St. Pius X Parish in Mission, was a student from 1967 to 1971. His family belonged to St. Agnes Parish in Roeland Park.

“Monsignor [Herman J.]  Koch was the pastor, and he was keen to have his boys in the new minor seminary,” said Father Kelly. “He took a big group of junior high boys out to Savior to just look at it. They just had freshmen and sophomores out there at that time. We swam in the pool and sat in on some classes.”

His impressions? It was beautiful — and it was way out in the boonies. The nearest thing of any interest was a little café and bus stop at Victory Junction, the corner of Kansas Highway 7 and Parallel Parkway.

Father Pat Riley, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Eudora, attended the seminary as a student from 1969 to 1973 and then taught as a faculty member from 1984 to 1986.

Students lived at the school from Sunday evening to Friday and then went home for the weekend, sometimes hosting a classmate without family nearby. Savior didn’t seem isolated to Father Riley.

“For an eighth-grader just leaving home, it was so huge, especially learning my way around the place,” said Father Riley. “Living there all week seemed strange to me — I could walk to my parents’ house in five minutes.”

Savior of the World Seminary had a good environment and offered a good education, remembered Father Kelly. At Savior, he learned how to take notes from one of his teachers, Msgr. Michael Mullen.

“It served me well in college and graduate school,” said Father Kelly.

“The mandatory study halls taught me to get all my homework done in one-and-a-half hours,” said Father Riley. “That really helped me in college.”

In a lot of ways, Savior of the World Seminary was a lot like any other high school.

The students participated in plays, clubs and classes. They had debate and forensics. They had sports: basketball, swimming, track, cross-country and tennis. Instead of football, they had soccer.

But in a lot of ways, the seminary was very different from the average high school.

It was all-boys, it was residential and it was religious. That meant no socializing with girls (except on the weekends) and lots of prayer as part of the daily routine. There was daily morning and evening prayer, Mass before lunch and prayers at meals. The seminarians also studied religion and took spiritual direction from the priests on the faculty.

“It was humbling to be a spiritual director,” said Father Rockers. “But I enjoyed helping the boys move along, helping them to become more interior and think beyond themselves.”

“I did a lot of individual counseling,” he added. “It was great to see them grow up in the spiritual as well as physical and mental realms. I enjoyed being a catalyst for their spiritual growth.”

Life at Savior was, as Father Riley remembered, no social life and “pretty much chapel, classes, studying and sports.”

Even so, they weren’t student monks. Boys will be boys — with stomachs like bottomless pits.

“They had fun,” said Father Rockers. “They were teenagers. Even when they were supposed to be praying, they were poking around in the tunnels under the building. There were emergency [Civil Defense] crackers by the cases, and they were eating the crackers in the tunnels. We could hear them through the vents. They thought they were hiding, but we could hear them.”

Occasionally, some of the students would raid the kitchens for a midnight snack.

“Sometimes, the boys would sneak off to Victory Junction to buy a hamburger and chips, or hitch a ride to a shopping center at 78th and State,” said Father Kelly. “It had a Kmart.”

“One thing I remember from being on the faculty and living in the dorm with the students,” said Father Riley. “After my first week, I called [former faculty member] Father John Erickson and apologized for everything we made him go through in the dorm when I was a student.”

Savior of the World Seminary was a great place not just for the academics, but because the students were “young men with a purpose,” said Msgr. Michael Mullen, pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Kansas City, Kansas. He was a faculty member for the entire existence of the seminary and also one of its rectors.

“It was an ideal setting for young men to develop all their qualities and virtues — to grow in prayer and academically, to grow in friendships and in responsibilities, and to grow athletically,” said Msgr. Mullen.

There was a closeness and camaraderie among the students, and the faculty got to know the students really well.

“I think there was a wonderful spirit of family,” said Msgr. Mullen.

About 750 students entered Savior during its 22 years as a seminary.  About 270 graduated, and approximately 45 became priests or members of religious orders.

“Of those who did not pursue a religious vocation, a significant number remain active in parish life,” said Msgr. Mullen. “It’s interesting that they became religious education teachers, eucharistic ministers, parish council members and other things.”

Savior of the World was designed and built to be a seminary, but it was also built with other uses in mind.

“Right from the start, there was foresight in the design of Savior so that it could also be used as an archdiocesan pastoral center,” said Msgr. Mullen. “The design of the chapel and the dining room was to accommodate twice the number of students that would attend. That proved to be providential as, in the 1970s, there were much more requests for meeting space and for Marriage Encounter, Cursillo and other programs.”

Savior of the World Seminary closed in 1987 and the minor seminary program was transferred to Maur Hill Prep School in Atchison. In the early 1990s, Savior’s classroom wing was renovated and became the archdiocesan chancery. The remainder of Savior Pastoral Center underwent remodeling in various areas, but many areas — notably the chapel — remain the same as when Savior was a seminary.

About the author

Joe Bollig

Joe has been with The Leaven since 1993. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s degree in journalism. Before entering print journalism he worked in commercial radio. He has worked for the St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press and Sun Publications in Overland Park. During his journalistic career he has covered beats including police, fire, business, features, general assignment and religion. While at The Leaven he has been a writer, photographer and videographer. He has won or shared several Catholic Press Association awards, as well as Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara awards for mission coverage. He graduated with a certification in catechesis from a two-year distance learning program offered by the Maryvale Institute for Catechesis, Theology, Philosophy and Religious Education at Old Oscott, Great Barr, in Birmingham, England.

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