by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Ken Gibson marveled as he looked at the bright, spacious interior of Donnelly College’s new academic building.
“I’m just overwhelmed,” said Gibson, who was the college’s president from 1998 to 2007. “Somebody asked me if I ever envisioned this, and I said, ‘In my day, we just envisioned keeping the air conditioning on. We would have never envisioned this magnificent facility.’
“And I’m so proud that we kept Donnelly going through the hard times so the students could enjoy these good times.”
Other than its opening day in 1949, the dedication of the three-story, 72,000-square-foot building on a blustery April 22 was the biggest thing to happen in the 73-year history of Donnelly. Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann blessed and dedicated the Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos Chapel and the whole building.
It was a celebration of the rebirth of Donnelly College, known as “the Miracle on 18th Street,” a beacon of hope to first-generation, immigrant, nontraditional and economically challenged people in the heart of Kansas City, Kansas, and Wyandotte County.
The building had been in use since August 2020, but the dedication was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic and for completion of grounds work.
The college was founded by Bishop George Donnelly and Sister Jerome Keeler, OSB, of the Benedictine Sisters of Atchison.
Its first home was in the former Wyandotte Catholic High School, built in 1908, at 12th and Sandusky streets. Later, the college took over the former episcopal mansion next door, built in 1891. In 1982, the college moved into the old Providence Hospital at 18th and Tauromee Ave.
“Over the past 70 years, this institution has lived with hand-me-downs,” said Richard Flanigan, past board chairman and master of ceremonies for the dedication.
“Many of you grew up in families where hand-me-downs were quite common. It’s not that common in 21st century higher education, however, and it became clear to the board and all the supporters of Donnelly that this institution really did need to think differently about its future.”
Donnelly has always offered a first-rate education at a rock-bottom price for those who otherwise couldn’t afford an education. Consequently, it had to make do and pinch pennies.
“I knew when I came here, when I first visited, when I was thinking of taking this job [as president], I saw what a first-rate education was doing to transform the hearts and minds of the people who came here. But quite frankly, the campus didn’t look first rate,” said Msgr. Stuart Swetland, Donnelly College president since 2014. “The buildings didn’t reflect that first-rate education.
“Just like we want to incarnate our values and incarnate diversity, we needed to incarnate first-class service to our students, and this is what this building does for us.”
In his homily during the blessing and dedication of the new chapel, which preceded the academic building’s blessing and dedication, Archbishop Naumann praised the vision of Bishop Donnelly and Sister Jerome, and the continued support and involvement of the Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica.
The essential mission of Donnelly College is to help individuals develop their gifts and talents to the fullest degree possible for their own good and the good of the community, but also to give glory to God by using those gifts and talents in a way that gives God honor, he said.
“We are privileged to share this college with so many who don’t necessarily share our [Catholic] faith, other Christians and those of other faith traditions or no faith tradition at all,” said Archbishop Naumann.
“But it’s important, I think,” he added, “that we express in the very building itself what it is that motivates us to do this work, this important ministry here in the heart of Kansas City, Kansas, and that is our faith in Jesus Christ.”
Having a dedicated chapel where students can encounter God is as important as what takes place in the classrooms, and Donnelly is a place where the minds and souls of students can be served, he said.
Other speakers at the dedication of the building included Nestor Zuluaga, chairman of the Donnelly board of directors; Sister Esther Fangman, OSB, prioress of Mount St. Scholastica and Donnelly board member; Commissioner Harold Johnson Jr. of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas; Joe Reardon, president/CEO of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce; and Dr. John Romito, chairman of the Transformations Campaign and Donnelly board member.
This event marked the fulfillment of the three-phase Transformation Campaign that raised almost $34 million. Phase 1 was the completion of the Community Event Center in 2013; Phase 2 was Marian Hall renovations completed in 2017; and Phase 3 was the demolition of the old Providence Hospital “tower building,” construction of the academic building, parking garage and grounds.
The general contractor was Excel Constructors of Overland Park and the architect was Burns & McDonnell of Kansas City, Missouri.