Our Slovenian Roots
Archbishop Naumann named Rev. Peter Jaramillo, a priest of the diocese and a Kansas National Guard chaplain who served in Iraq, pastor of Holy Family Parish since February of 2008.
Rev. Heliodore N. Mejak, a priest of the diocese, was appointed pastor August 2, 1944. He was to become a legend; a stellar priest and a beloved pastor for the next 63 years. He appreciated the Slovenian culture, learned the language, encouraged the singing of Slovenian hymns and observed some of the old customs, such as the blessing of the baskets of food at Easter.
Father Mejak worked to retire the debt and beautify the church. The exterior was water proofed and the wooden trim of windows and doors painted. The interior plaster wall, never painted before, got three coats of oil paint in various pastels to compliment the jewel-toned colors of the stained glass windows. He designed and had installed three marble altars to replace the wooden one from the first church, along with a new tabernacle at each altar and a new marble baptismal font. Rev. Msgr. Alexander Harvey consecrated the main altar where relics of St. Victor and St. Eumanius were sealed. Early in 1948, new chandeliers were installed to improve the lighting.
With the church beautifully refurbished, the people of the parish were anxious to replace the woefully out-of-date social hall. The original frame church had been remodeled 20 years earlier to become an auditorium with a stage for school productions as a hall for dances and meeting places for the various church groups. In January 1932 the parish had $11,000 in cash and $18,000 in pledges for the new hall. Two years later $39,000 had been raised and a farewell dance held. The hall and convent next to it were raised. Bids totaled $96,358, much more than anticipated. The Holy Family Club saved the day with a $10,000 donation, and work began in July of 1955. The new combination hall-gymnasium, kitchen and clubroom were dedicated by Archbishop Edward L. Hunkeler February 5, 1956, followed by a banquet.
In December of 1958, the tragic parochial school fire in Chicago, were 95 died, resulted in inspections of all schools in the country. Without warning Archbishop Hunkeler condemned the Holy Family building as not being up to modern safety standards and ordered the parish to build a new school. After the shock of the unexpected order had worn away, Father Mejak and a committee began planning a combination school of four classrooms and convent for the nuns. The 2-story building would adjoin the new social hall. Contracts came to $134,800. The parish had to borrow $53,000, increasing the debt to $90,000. Archbishop Hunkeler dedicated the new school September 10, 1961.
In February 1985, a grand celebration was held in honor of the 75 years that the School Sisters of St. Francis of Christ the King, who taught and cared for the children of both Holy Family and St. John of the Baptist Schools. Besides teaching the many subjects in eight grades, the sisters nurtured the children in their Catholic faith and taught them to be courteous, compassionate, caring and helpful to each other.
As the population declined, enrollment began to fall in both schools. In 1989, Holy Family and St. John's were merged. In 2007, they were a part of the consolidation of parochial schools in the eastern part of the city and became Resurrection School at the Cathedral of St. Peter. Holy Family parish continues to support Resurrection School and Bishop Ward High School.
In a showing of love and respect for Father Mejak, well deserved honors came to him. The city named the passageway next to the Holy Family social hall Mejak Lane. When he celebrated the golden anniversary of his ordination, a scholarship was established in his name at Bishop Ward High School, his alma mater. Pope John Paul II elevated him to Monsignor in 1998, his 60th year as a priest.
Monsignor Mejak never retired, never wanted to. Although he was legally blind and used a walker, he continued to say mass daily, administered the sacraments, published the weekly bulletin, and carried out his responsibilities for the parish he loved and served. He cited often as the oldest active pastor in the United States, Monsignor Mejak died on Christmas Eve, 2007, at the age of 98.
Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann celebrated the funeral mass at which beloved Slovenian hymns were sung. Burial was in Mount Calvary Cemetery.
The Early Years
Father Kompare became the teacher for 12 children, and thus Holy Family School began. The next year 22 pupils were enrolled. At the pastor's request, Sister Klotilda, O.S.F., came from the mother house in Maribor in Slovenia, to help him teach. In 1910, two more nuns arrived, Sister Edith and Sister Sabina. Sister Sabina taught in the parish for 35 years and served as organist and choir director. It was not until 1918 that the first graduate, Mary Sneller, received her diploma.
After two productive years as pastor, Father Kompare was transferred to a large parish in St. Louis and Holy Family was without a pastor for several months.
Rev. Engelbert Pollock, O.F.M. took over in August of 1910. To him goes the credit for getting the parish affiliated with the diocese. Because of his affable personality, Father Engelbert won the esteem of young and old who supported his ambitious plans. The interior of the church was decorated and exquisite hand-carved wooden statues of the Holy Family, the Sacred Heart and the Blessed Virgin Mary were imported from Europe. Father Engelbert gave up his assignment in May of 1911, after doing much good in a short time.
Rev. Anselm Murn, O.F.M. who served for two months, succeeded him. Rev. Anton Leskovic came from Europe, and soon saw the need for a larger school. The lot and a house next door were purchased; workmen constructed a 2-room school building and the convent for the nuns. Total cost was $11,000. Father Leskovic installed the beautiful Stations of the Cross in the church along with six artistic bronze candlesticks for the high altar. He left in March of 1916 for a Slovenian Parish in Eveleth, Minnesota.
The next pastor was the Rev. John Perse, 48 years old, who came from Leadville, Colorado, where he had served a Slovenian parish for 17 years. Born in Carniola and orphaned at 6, he came to the United States as a boy to live with relatives. A talented and charismatic priest, he would make an indelible mark on the parish community, and fulfill their dreams for a large and beautiful church. He found 100 families, a school with 68 children and a parish debt of $10,000. Bishop John Chamberlain Ward dedicated the school November 23, 1919. Father Perse took over one class, despite his many pastoral and clerical duties. Two more nuns came from Europe in 1920 to teach.
World War I had raged in Europe (1911 to 1918), halting immigration and causing much anxiety among Slavic families who lost contact with their relatives and friends abroad. After the Armistice, a new wave of immigrants found a hospitable Holy Family Slovenian community to welcome them. Membership in the church and school grew.
It was apparent that a new and larger church was a critical need, but first the indebtedness had to be paid. It was a formidable task to raise thousands of dollars from a parish of wage earners and little wealth. Through Father Perse's encouragement and guidance the parish retired it's debt, and celebrated with a banquet. Bishop Ward congratulated all and encouraged them to continue making sacrifices for God's holy church. On that occasion $10,000 was pledged for a new church.
The building site was purchased in 1921 for $10,000. The large rectangular plot was ideal, close to the parish properties and bounded by Sixth Street, Ohio, Orchard and Northrup. Still another fund drive began with a goal of $25,000 for a new church and rectory. Contributions came from the Sunday collection, pew rent and social events: bazaars, ice cream socials, lamb roasts, turkey dinners and holiday dances. The various church societies and lodges promised to help. Some parishioners offered to make small loans. Fortunately, the country was enjoying the prosperity of the 1920's.
H.W. Brinkman, Emporia, Kansas, architect, drew up the plans for a Romanesque-Spanish brick and cut stone church with a 100-foot bell tower and a rectory of the same style. The estimated cost was $82,000 - a great undertaking for a parish of only 600 souls, including the children. Father Perse pressed on.
Bishop Ward laid the cornerstone October 11, 1925 before an assemblage of 1000-young and old parishioners, priests and members of local churches and two bands. Rev. Wenceslas Sholar, O.F.M. spoke in Slovenian, having earlier conducted Forty Hours of Devotions to seek God's blessing on the project. Father Perse visited the site daily, checking progress. Skilled craftsmen were employed, and the finest materials used. Under his watchful eye work progressed at a fast pace.
On Christmas Eve 1927, the bell from the old church, now installed in the new belfry, pealed joyfully as excited parishioners entered the grand edifice for its blessing and the Midnight Mass by Father Perse. The high altar from the old church, the tall candlesticks, the Holy Family and other statues and the Stations of the Cross graced the sanctuary. The familiar and wonderful Slovenian Christmas carols were sung before the Nativity scene with the Christ Child.
The solemn dedication by Bishop Ward took place the following Fourth of July. The Knights of Columbus band played as school children, members of the church societies and the clergy processed from the rectory to the church. The new Kilgen pipe organ (purchased for $4,000 and still in use) sounded "Ecce Sacerdos Magnus," the traditional hymn of greeting for a bishop. The dream had become a reality. A grateful pastor, Father Perse attributed this success to the Infant of Prague, saying, "Whatever I accomplished was done with the blessing of the Infant of Prague." In his devotion, Father Perse saw to it that the statue of the child Jesus dressed in royal robes and giving a blessing, was placed near his mother, Mary. It is still there.
A month after the dedication, a bolt of lightning struck the top of the bell tower, showering bricks and stone pieces in all directions, but the cross atop remained in place. Insurance covered the cost of repairs and the installation of a lightning rod.
On July 2, 1933, the parish celebrated the 25 stained glass windows from Bavaria were installed as anniversary gifts from church societies and some individuals. Admired today as works of art, they depict scenes from the life of Jesus and honor several saints. The rose window in the choir loft is the Holy Family. The Nativity window was reproduced as a Christmas card by Hallmark a few years ago.
In 1934, Sixth Street was widened by the city and a 10-foot-wide section of parish land taken. This necessitated the building of a block long stone retaining wall. The city paid $2,042 to the parish.
Father Perse would not enjoy the fruits of his labor for long. Even his relatives and close friends did not know that for years he suffered with a brain tumor. He died March 10, 1936, at the age of 68. His parishioners and many friends throughout the city mourned the loss of a zealous pastor who always had the welfare of people at heart. Bishop Johannes celebrated the funeral mass in the church draped with black crepe. Burial was in Mount Calvary Cemetery.
Rev. Daniel Francis Gnidica, O.S. of the Holy Cross Abbey, Canon City, Colorado, was assigned March 20, 1936. It was a challenging assignment for the priest, ordained less than a year. Of Slovenian ancestry, he spoke the language and conversed easily with the older members. As a man of much energy, he attracted the young people, teaching religion in the school and joining the playground activities.
The most pressing problem Father Daniel faced was the parish debt of $43,000. The country was still in the throes of the economic depression, times were hard, but he was determined to try every means to raise funds. In seven years, he reduced the debt by $30,000. He saw the need for better communication among his parishioners, and began writing a weekly bulletin he named "Gems" (Biseri in Slovenian) that listed all religious and social events involving the church, school, societies and lodges. It is still published weekly. Another project was organizing young people to start their own social club in 1940 in the basement of the school. It flourishes to this day. Its monthly publication is the "The Anchor."
The spiritual side of parish life received special emphasis. Father Daniel reorganized the Sodality, revitalized the Altar Society and the Holy Name Society; he was moderator for a study group of mothers and taught religion in the school. He blessed the homes of parishioners at Christmas and visited those who were ill in their homes or in the hospital. Blessed with a fine voice, he sang with fervor at May and October Marian devotions and other services.
In September of 1943, Father Daniel was recalled by his abbot and returned to Colorado to his home parish of St. Mary. He died May 6, 1972 at the age of 63.
Rev. Aloysius Francis Potochnik, O.S.B., also from the Holy Cross Abbey, became pastor at Holy Family in late 1943. An academic who taught courses in Latin, Theology and Canon Law, he had studied in Ljubljana for a year and spoke the Slovenian language of the well educated. His eloquent sermons were given in Slovenian at the early Sunday mass and in English at the later mass. Father Aloysius served until July of 1944, and returned to the abbey as its treasurer. He died April 24, 1990, at the age of 82.
They sought legal help to form a Kansas Corporation. In January 1908, the Carnolian-Slovenian Catholic Church Society of St. Joseph incorporated with the stated purpose to build a Catholic church and school in Kansas City, Kansas. The incorporators were: John Bizal, Nicholas Spehar, Peter Stark, George Veselich and Michael Mayerle (treasurer).
Charter members of the future church were: John Bizal, Peter Bizal, Frank Bojanc, Joseph Bozic, John Bukovac, Joseph Cvitkovic, Mathew Cvitkovic, Joseph Dercher, Peter Gergich, Sr. Mark Gustin, John Janzekovic, Anton Kostelec, John Kreus, Paul Kump, Peter Kure, Michael Mayerle, Peter Majerle, Sr., Peter Majerle II, Ferdinand Martinci, Frank: Martincic, Peter Milcinovic, John Prebelic, Michael Ritmanic, Peter Sneller, Nicholas Spehar, Peter Spehar, Paul Stark, Peter Stark Stark, Andrew Strukalj, George Veselich, John Veselich, Frank Viscek, Sr., Joseph Volk, Anton Zagar, Blaz Zagar, Ferdinand Zagar, Joseph Zagar and Jacob Zupan.
Through contacts in Europe, they found a priest of their own nationality, Rev. Joseph Kompare, who arrived in the spring of 1908. He learned the group was not affiliated with the diocese, and sought and received permission from Bishop Lillis to say mass and administer the sacraments to the Slovenian people. The basement of the newly built St. Anthony's Church became their worship center.
There are no accounts of how the name Holy Family was chosen for the church. The Holy Family official record of baptisms shows Matthew Petrina was the first to be baptized, April 14, 1908, by Father Kompare. The first marriage was of Antonius Malnar and Helena Stampfel June 6, 1908, with Father Kompare officiating.
In accord with his charge, from the Bishop to provide for the spiritual needs of the Slovenian people, Father Kompare acceded to the desires of his countrymen and arranged for the purchase of property for the church. Three lots of 511, 513 and 515 Ohio Avenue, with two frame cottages, were acquired for $3,000 provided by the charter group. One house was converted into a small church, the other became the rectory. On the feast off the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, August 15, 1908, the first Holy Family Church was blessed and mass offered by Father Kompare. That same year a small addition was built at the back of the church for use as a school, meeting room and social center.
A bell for the church was deemed a necessity. Cast by the Stuckfede foundry in St. Louis in 1908, it carries the message (translated from Slovenian): "St. Joseph pray for us. "Slovenci, use your time well." It sounded the Angelus three times each day, called the faithful to mass and other services, tolled at funerals and rang with gladness on joyous occasions.
History of Holy Family (Sveta Druzina)
The history of Holy Family Roman Catholic Church in Kansas City, Kansas, is a story of faith, hope and love, of exemplary pastoral care and countless blessings from heaven. It is a testimonial to the courage, vision and generosity of the Slovenian immigrants who founded the parish 100+ years ago. The story begins in the decade of the 1890's when about 30 men and a few women left their villages in Europe in search of economic opportunity in that wondrous land called America. They were of Slovenian ancestry, commonly called Krainers, because they came from Carniola, then a part of the Austrian Empire. Recruiting agents had promised jobs in the meat packing plants, railroads and warehouses in Kansas. Tears flowed as these brave young people said farewell, knowing they would never see their families or friends again; their only communication would be through the exchange of letters.
After the voyage across the Atlantic and processing at Ellis Island in New York, the train brought them to their destination. They congregated near their workplaces in a poor and crowded neighborhood called "The patch" in the Kaw River bottoms along James Street. Unskilled, with minimal schooling and handicapped by the language barrier, they relied on each other and similarly situated Croatian, German and Irish neighbors to cope with a hard life. They worked long hours, six days a week, for as little as 5 or 10 cents an hour. Sunday was a day of rest, a time to attend the Latin Mass, nearby, at St. Bridget's Catholic Church, and to visit family and friends. Over the years they welcomed others from "Stari Kraj," the old country.
The great 1903 Kaw River flood uprooted them all, and they were forced to find new places to live on Strawberry Hill, the river bluff so called because wild berries grew there. Every day was a challenge, yet they managed through frugal living and careful saving to establish their homes and raise their families. Once a year they found a Slovenian priest to say mass and hear their confessions to fulfill their Easter duty. On one of these occasions, Father A. Podgorsek came from Frontenac, Kansas, and suggested they form their own ethnic parish, an idea they found most agreeable.
After many discussions with fellow Slovenci, as they called themselves, 66 wage earners managed to collect about $1,800 through a committee of five men to begin the process of establishing their own parish. They invited Rev. J. C. Smole of North Dakota to lead them. He came, found the situation too uninviting and left after a few weeks.
So a delegation called on Bishop Thomas Francis Lillis of the Leavenworth diocese, outlined their hopes and asked permission to establish their own parish. Bishop Lillis was said to be of "a warm heart," but he noted the poverty of the group, the meager sum they had raised and the small number of Slovenians in the city, and he felt it impractical to form another parish. He encouraged them to join one of the churches near where they lived; St. Joseph (Polish), St. Anthony (German), St. Mary (Irish), or the new St. John the Baptist (Croatian).
There were times, these men and women said, when they did not feel welcome, even in church, because the prejudices of old Europe still lingered among some people. The Slovenes yearned for a church where they could hear the Word of God in their mother tongue. They decided to go it alone, independent of the diocese.
This compilation of historic personalities and events is based on Holy Family Church records and the research and writings of Father Perse and Monsignor Mejak. It was written by Joseph A. Lastelic, a retired journalist and a 1943 graduate of Holy Family School, whose ancestors in the Mayerele and Lastelic families were parish pioneers.