Leaven Blog

The little church that could

by Jill Ragar Esfeld

In 1864, Father Anton Kuhls lived in the sacristy of St. Mary Church in what is now Kansas City, Kansas, and survived on a diet of “simple bread and coffee.”

On Sundays, after Mass, he would go to Martin Stewart’s house at Tenth Street and Quindaro for his only full meal.

Father Kuhls was the first permanent pastor of St. Mary, considered the mother of the Roman Catholic faith in Wyandotte County.

Fourteen parishes would eventually be carved out of its original boundaries.

St. Mary was established by Father Theodore Heinman in 1858 in the frontier wilderness of the little town of Wyandotte, which consisted of three hundred families, most of them members of the Wyandotte tribe of Native Americans.

Only seven of those families were Catholic, and they built a small brick church in a wooded area that is now 9thStreet and Ann Avenue.  

Father Heinman couldn’t handle the poverty and rough conditions of frontier life, nor could the few priests who followed him.

But in October 1864, Father Kuhls traveled from Leavenworth to try his hand at being pastor of St. Mary.

The little church was so hidden in the wilderness; Father Kuhls’ stage driver couldn’t find it and dumped the priest on the wayside.

A local woman showed him the way to his new home and lent him a broom and a blanket.

He remained pastor for 44 years.

Within a year of his arrival, Father Kuhls raised $800, enough to buy three acres of land from Mathias Splitlog, a member of the Wyandotte tribe.

A new church was built on what is now the corner of Fifth Street and Ann Avenue. It was dedicated by Bishop Miege in 1866.

Fifteen years later, construction began on St. Mary’s Church as it stands today — a beautiful stone structure built in the Romanesque Revival style.

At the dedication on June 21, 1903, it was crowded beyond its seating capacity of 1,200.

The church and school served its community well for almost a century.

But as the parish population aged, the Catholic community grew smaller, and St. Mary had to be combined with St. Anthony Parish a few blocks to the west.

On July 12, 1980, St. Mary Church had its last Mass.

But the Holy Spirit wasn’t done with St. Mary; in 1982, it began to serve the community once again when St. Mary’s Food Kitchen was established in the church basement.

A small operation at first, St. Mary’s would eventually become one of the largest food kitchens in the metropolitan area, serving as many as 300 people every day with the help of volunteers from 51 churches and a synagogue.

In 1984, St Mary Church went on the state historical registry.

In 1997, St. Mary’s Food Kitchen moved, and was renamed the Wilhemina Gill Multi-Service Center to better serve its many clients.

Once again, St. Mary Church seemed abandoned. But the Holy Spirit showed it was not done with this blessed structure and gave it another meaningful purpose in the service of the community.

Today, St. Mary is answering God’s call to help his children as the home of PAL KCK – the Police Athletic League of Kansas City, Kansas.

Started in January of this year, PAL converted the St. Mary Church interior to a gym facility to help youth in the area learn athletic skills and bond with local police officers.

The police officers who started the program were surprised to learn they were all graduates of Ward High School and saw the “coincidence” as a sign from the Holy Spirit.

And once again, St. Mary proved itself to be a conduit of success in serving others. In February, PAL officially opened with the hope it could interest and engage a few local underprivileged youth.

Just three months later, it has almost 400 young people signed up for the program.

In an upcoming issue of The Leaven, you can read about St. Mary’s new mission as the home of PAL.

But in the meantime, because of the overwhelming interest and need of underprivileged youth in Wyandotte County, PAL is in great need of donations.

 You can visit the PAL KCK website hereto learn about and help support this amazing ministry.

About the author

Jill Esfeld

Jill Ragar Esfeld received a degree in Writing from Missouri State University and started her profession as a magazine feature writer, but quickly transitioned to technical/instructional writing where she had a successful career spanning more than 20 years. She returned to feature writing when she began freelancing for The Leaven in 2004. Her articles have won several awards from the Catholic Press Association. Jill grew up in Christ the King parish in Kansas City, Missouri; and has been a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa, Kansas, for 35 years.

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1 Comment

  • What an amazing history of not just this little church, but of the early sacrifices of the pioneers of faith in our country!
    I will be proud to donate to an organization who recognizes the need for social action as a true sign of God’s work on this earth. In this light, liturgy is still happening in the lives of these kids. God bless them and t those running the program. Amen!