Our cultural history belongs to all of us, not the one who puts up the highest fence or boards the most windows.
That philosophy will always speak to the dark corners of churches, hospitals and workplaces where people worshiped, bled and toiled; places where a building’s footprint extends beyond the spatial and into memory. Holy Name Catholic Church was such a place—though it did not seem that way for a while, when its gothic stained glass were covered in plywood and only pigeons noticed the ever-widening gaps in the limestone walls.
Church is a Cultural Centrifuge
Holy Name is a third space where, in a time of racial animosity, two mutually hostile demographics met, worshipped, and eventually fought. Like other places I’ve documented that recall America’s overt and often violent prejudices, namely Armour Packing of East St. Louis, people tend to repress uncomfortable history. Unlike Armour, however, Holy Name wasn’t in one of the most dangerous cities in the country, as I was glad to remind myself of as I spotted the steeple at the end of the Kansas City, Missouri sidewalk.
I shielded my face as plaster and paint chips rained on my head when it grazed the ceiling of the choir loft stairs, but, finally emerging from the dusty aftermath onto a shaky wooden platform, I was at last able to take in the church’s cross-shaped layout.
The organ was still there although keys were missing and the interior looked somewhat soggy; its pipes seemingly in better condition, erect in their frames below one of the uncovered stained glass windows. An annex in the wing held the pipe organ’s air compressor, as well as some tattered sheet music ground into the floorboards by oblivious visitors.
Stained Glass Shadows
“Quite a church,” I thought, “for the poor side of town—although it probably wasn’t always so downtrodden.” I was right. When the church broke ground in 1911, its parish, called ‘Holy Name Parish,’ was already 25 years old. The name comes from the date the group was founded, January 1st, which in some theologies is designated as “The Feast of the Circumcision of our Lord.” Circumcision, in the Hebrew tradition is when a boy officially receives his name, thus, Holy Name. Holy Name Parish bought the site for their church on the outskirts of the city in 1907 for $13,000 and waited four years to start construction. Considering the history that followed, the delay was probably due a lack of funds.
Although the church began to take shape, at least in terms of its footprint, in 1911, money was too scarce to erect anything beyond a basement which had to have a roof built over it while the parish continued to acquire loans and solicit donations.
This bunker was not improved upon until 1924, when Holy Name sold its former church to help pay for construction to restart, which it did.
But the 9-year delay had its drawbacks; the firm that designed the first church had moved on, frustrated by the money shortage and a new firm opted to downsize the original plans to make the price tag more realistic. The new church would be modeled from a French Cathedral in Rouen—a classic gothic revival.
Limestone, concrete and steel rose from the ground, twisting and stacking itself into the shape of a church, and the doors finally opened for worship in 1928 as one of the largest churches in the Kansas City area. However solemnly the sermons from Holy Name echoed, it didn’t seem to change the political, emotional, or racial realities of the battlegrounds in the neighborhood surrounding it.
Even in 1910, when the church’s roofed basement wasn’t visible on the side of the boulevard, African Americans were moving into the middle-class white neighborhood, inspiring hate and violence: death threats, attempted bombings and vicious segregation. Nevertheless, the demographics of the surrounding neighborhoods changed from middle-class white to lower-class white and middle-class African American.
In 1951, financial problems finally compelled Holy Name to open its doors to Blacks by allowing the largely black “Holy Spirit” parish to use the building. Partly in response to this change, Holy Name began having officially “Whites Only” services.
Merging the white and Black parishes kept Holy Name afloat, although bigotry was far from neutralized in the hallowed halls. In the 1950s, a bowling alley was installed in the church basement to supplement income and hopefully pay-down the $70,000 debt in a way the $150 total weekly collections couldn’t. On the door to the bowling alley a sign reading “Whites Only” filtered-out those righteous pariahs who paid the mortgage. The building would soon become more active in the history of Civil Rights in Missouri than ever imagined, though, as Martin Luther King Junior’s assassination scarred the collective memory of everyone who had a stake in each other’s equality.
Riots, Attacks, Counterattacks
Kansas City was one of the cities in the country that refused to cancel school after the murder of MLK on April 4, 1968, leading thousands of students to march from classrooms to protests on the 9th. The police chief put officers on riot alert as the students vandalized storefronts on their way to city hall, where they were met by national guardsmen. Holy Name Catholic Church’s leadership decided to hold a dance in the basement for protestors who wanted a break from the violence at City Hall. That night, busses carried more than 200 Black teens from protests to the church where they were joined by 200 other students that walked in from the surrounding neighborhood.
The basement being crowded, some students were content to mill about outside. As police, suspicious of the gathering, inevitably began circling the building. Some students threw rocks at the authorities. Officers retaliated, firing tear gas canisters near the front of the church. When the rock-hurling students fled inside, the cops broke-out a basement window and shot tear gas into the crowd of almost 400, tightly-packed in the bowling alley, causing a nearly deadly stampede.
The actions taken by the Kansas City Police Department at Holy Name Church escalated rioting and protests, prolonging regional tension and confrontation for days to come.
After the Violence
Even having survived rioting, integration and a generation of financial crises, Holy Name Parish could no longer afford its church anymore and sold it to Church of Christ who used it between 1975 and the mid 1980s before too it was abandoned. Another church, New Day Missionary Baptist, acquired the aging shell in 2001 and began making renovations before declaring the building a lost cause.
Abandoned for a third time, Holy Name sat empty, boarded and uncared for, its only tenants nondenominational wildlife.
As daylight strengthened across the city and broken boards over windows let sunbeams set the stained glass alight, the pillars of fluorescing dust twinkled magically. “If church was like this,” I said to myself with a wry smile, “I might just go back.” Above the radiators sunk into the limestone lining the perimeter, small wooden crosses mark where images of Saints, Prophets and metaphorical scenes used to tell their story. Faint impressions depicting old men, presumably dead and holy, watched me from the high walls, out of context without altars of gold leaf, as I ambled out.
No Blacks, whites, or people for that matter, are allowed to attend these services anymore, but they occurred nevertheless every sunrise between its abandonment and demolition. In my opinion, they were a more archaic, natural celebration of life, and one that broadly celebrates the memory of the worshipers, students and time that make this building worth remembering.
Holy Name was demolished in 2011.