May 10, 2013

Uncertain Future (and Contentious Past) for Kansas City Church

  • By: Lauren Walser

Elevation from street level of St. John the Divine Church in Kansas City, Kan. Credit: Daniel Serda
Elevation from street level of St. John the Divine Church in Kansas City, Kan.

Once the center of the Mexican-American Catholic community in the Argentine neighborhood of Kansas City, Kan., today, St. John the Divine Catholic Church faces possible demolition.

The building dates back to 1887, when it was built as the Metropolitan Methodist Church. After a flood caused significant damage to the modest clapboard structure in 1903, it underwent a major remodeling, when it was raised to add a basement and re-faced in brick.

After the Methodist congregation built a new church half a mile away, the late-Gothic Revival building was sold to the Catholic diocese in 1937. It was officially sanctified as St. John the Divine on Dec. 12 of that year, the day of the traditional Mexican religious feast honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe, and was a community mainstay for decades.

“This is where people went to school [at the nearby parish school], where they were baptized. For many people, this was their home church for many years,” says Daniel Serda, a city planner and an adviser to the National Trust for Historic Preservation who has long been involved in the preservation of the church.

But the church experienced declining attendance throughout the 1980s as parishioners moved to another, larger church in the neighborhood, and in 1992, the parish was closed. It sat largely vacant and boarded up for years, experiencing a brief period of activity after it was sold to a cabinetmaker and carpenter in 2000, who operated his business out of the building until his death a short while later.

Neglected for years, the building was cited with several code enforcement violations, starting with small exterior maintenance issues, like trash on the property and graffiti. But upon further inspection by the city, officials deemed the building a safety hazard, citing issues like the failing roof in an addition made in the 1950s.

Greg Talkin, director of the Neighborhood Resource Center, a department of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., says the city has been working with the property owners and other interested parties to come up with a solution for the building.

“But it’s all coming down to money right now,” Talkin says. “We’ve got a building that we’ve got to deal with, as a safety concern … We’ve tried to work with the owners to give them as much time as we can for them to try to find funding, but that time is running out as the building continues to decay.”

A demolition notice was issued late last year but is currently on hold, as the city is required to compete Section 106 review.

View from the choir loft of a Mass in progress, c. 1980s. Credit: Daniel Serda
View from the choir loft of a Mass in progress, c. 1980s.

With its future looking increasingly grim, an effort began in earnest a couple years ago to save the building.

“It became apparent pretty quickly that this project was never going to move forward unless we could build a strong base of community support,” Serda says.

While many community members have voiced their enthusiasm, Serda says others see little or no merit in saving a structure in such disrepair and that, for some, it is an upsetting reminder of a time when the neighborhood churches were segregated, with Argentine’s Mexican-American residents having essentially no choice but to attend St. John the Divine. Some residents have expressed indignation that the church never received the same level of funding and attention from the diocese as other local Catholic churches, despite various fundraising attempts back in the 1990s before the church was closed.

Despite these challenges, Serda says a recent petition drive yielded hundreds of signatures from community members and former parishioners asking the local government to make every effort to see the building be saved.

And the plight of this National Register-eligible building received additional attention when it was listed on the Kansas Preservation Alliance, Inc. 2012 Endangered List.

The current vision for the future of the building, Serda says, is to turn it into a community arts organization, highlighting Hispanic art and culture.

“There’s been a lot of support for that idea within the community, and we think it’s an opportune time to be looking at something like that. There’s a very large, growing base of Hispanic arts in Kansas City, especially in Kansas City, Mo.,” he says, citing local museums like the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, which is opening a major Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera exhibition this summer, and the Kansas City Museum, which recently launched an initiative to add items from the city’s Latino history to its collections.

And if the building does eventually meet the wrecking ball, he says the community will salvage the architecturally and socially significant elements of the church, like the stained glass windows containing memorials to former parishioners, and the chandeliers, which were imported from Mexico and Spain.

“But right now,” Serda says, “we’re in a holding pattern, waiting to see what happens.”

Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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