Nearly 200 years ago, a group of Jesuit priests from Maryland arrived in the area that is now Kansas and began a new life as missionaries to Native Americans. Fending off the immense dangers this untamed frontier held, these Jesuits were the creative architects of what would eventually become the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.
Thus humbly born, Catholicism in Kansas thrived, nourished by the Eucharistic blood and body of Christ in his pilgrim people and guided by the Spirit.
In 1823, a group of Jesuits from White Marsh, Maryland, established a seminary in Florissant, Missouri, and began missionary work in Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas. The first permanent mission established in Kansas in 1836 was among the Kickapoo located north of Leavenworth. A school was established there with government aid. The mission was short-lived. The Kickapoo clung to their ancient customs and religion. The Jesuits stuck with the mission but when the government cut off funding in 1840 due to a lack of students, the Jesuits gave up and abandoned the mission.
In the 1830s, a group of Potawatomi who survived the Trail of Death, a forced march from Indiana, settled in Sugar Creek near Mound City. The Potawatomi had been exposed to Christianity and were more receptive to the Jesuits, who wasted no time in opening a school for Native American boys in 1840. The Religious of the Sacred Heart opened a school for girls a year later.
Among the Religious of the Sacred Heart who evangelized the area was Mother Rose Philippine Duchesne, now a saint. She could not speak the Potawatomi language but made a lasting impression through her example of nursing the sick and praying. She was known among the Potawatomi as “the woman who prays always.”
In 1847 the government made a deal that forced the Potawatomi further west. They eventually settled on the banks of the Kansas River near Topeka and the religious missionaries followed.
In 1849, the Catholic Church decided that a more vigorous missionary effort was required and in 1850 Pope Pius IX established the Vicariate Apostolic East of the Rocky Mountains – more than one million square miles from the Missouri River to the Rockies and from Canada to Texas. Father John Baptist Miege, SJ, was assigned to lead the vicariate. He was consecrated a bishop on March 25, 1851, in St. Louis as the first bishop of the new vicariate.
When the federal government passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, it opened up the territory to white settlement. Bishop Miege moved his residence to Leavenworth. He formally established the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on August 15, 1855. To serve the areas increasing population, Bishop Miege put of a call for more priests and religious to assist the area. The Benedictine Fathers first arrived in 1855 and established a monastery in Atchison in 1858. The Benedictine Sisters came to Atchison in 1863 and opened a school which would eventually become Benedictine College. Many of groups of religious followed and settled here.
In 1869, Bishop Miege requested that Benedictine Father Louis Fink be named his coadjutor and his request was granted, even though Bishop Fink was in poor health. Bishop Miege resigned in 1874 and Bishop Fink took over.
Bishop Fink succeeded in convincing the Holy See that Kansas should be a diocese and it was elevated to diocesan status on May 22, 1877. Ten years later, it was divided into three dioceses with sees in Leavenworth, Wichita and Concordia (now called Salina). The Diocese of Leavenworth continued to grow under Fink’s leadership until his death in 1904.
The Diocese of Leavenworth continued to grow in both population and Catholics. Bishop Thomas Lillis succeeded Bishop Fink in 1904 until he was named coadjutor bishop to the Kansas City, Missouri, diocese in 1910. Bishop John Ward, known for his commitment to education, was consecrated bishop of the Diocese of Leavenworth in 1911. He received a coadjutor bishop, Francis Johannes, in 1928 and he became the Ordinary when Bishop Ward died in 1929. Bishop Johannes died in 1937 and was succeeded by Bishop Paul Schulte from St. Louis. Bishop Schulte is remembered for establishing the CCD program for public school students and for initiating the diocesan newspaper.
Bishop Schulte served for nine years before being transferred to the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. An auxiliary bishop from St. Louis, Bishop George Donnelly, was installed on January 9, 1947. Shortly after Bishop Donnelly’s arrival, the see city of the diocese was transferred from Leavenworth to Kansas City, Kansas. St. Peter Church was designated as the new Cathedral. Bishop Donnelly will be known as the bishop who founded Donnelly College, providing low-cost higher education. He died in 1950.
Bishop Edward Hunkeler was a native Kansas who had been bishop of Grand Island, Neb. He was named as bishop in 1951. That same year, the two other dioceses in Kansas were restructured to create the formation of the Dodge City Diocese. In 1952, Kansas was made an ecclesiastical province with Kansas City, Kansas, as an archdiocese and Bishop Hunkeler as the first Archbishop. He participated in all the sessions of Vatican Council II and implemented the changes in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. After 18 years in the archdiocese, he retired in 1969 due to health reason and died the following year.
Succeeding him was Archbishop Ignatius J. Strecker, who had also participated in Vatican Council II while bishop of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Missouri. He continued the implementation of the council’s directives, especially in the area of lay participation in the church. He also reaffirmed the council’s call to serve the poor and oppressed by founding Catholic Charities in the archdiocese.
In 1976, the Archdiocese welcomed Bishop Marion Forst after he resigned as Bishop of Dodge City. He was named an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese and was most helpful in administering the sacrament of Confirmation and attending meetings and ceremonies. He also serve as vice chancellor for marriage dispensations from 1985-1998.
Archbishop Strecker submitted his retirement request at the mandatory age of 75 in 1992. A few months later, the Bishop of Belleville, Ill., was appointed to serve Kansas City in Kansas – Archbishop James P. Keleher. He ordered a study of the Chancery offices which resulted in reorganization and the formation of new offices for family life, stewardship, development, adult faith formation and more.
In 2003, an auxiliary Bishop of St. Louis, Bishop Joseph F. Naumann, was named as coadjutor bishop to the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. After 11 years, Archbishop Keleher requested retirement at the mandatory age of 75 and was granted it in 2005. As coadjutor, Bishop Naumann automatically became the Archbishop of Kansas City in Kansas, and continues to serve in that role today.