Kansas City bishop asks collar-wearing clergy to rally at city meeting

by Dennis Coday

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The bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., who hopes to raze a former parish school and build a faith-based dormitory on that ground, has invited all the priests and deacons of his diocese to appear at a city planning meeting to show support for his plan.

"If you attend it would certainly be appropriate for you to wear your collar," Bishop Robert Finn tells the clergy in a letter dated March 13 and sent as an attachment to emails on Friday.

The City Plan Commission meets at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Finn writes that he anticipates opposition to the plan to build the Bellarmino Catholic Student Center, which would include meeting and activity rooms for the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, a Catholic evangelical outreach ministry known as FOCUS, and dorm rooms for up to 237 area college students. The school building, which was closed several years ago, would have to be torn down.

In his March 13 letter to diocesan clergy, Finn writes: "This letter is a sincere request for your prayers and presence as we face a difficult challenge to our efforts to provide Campus Ministry and a Catholic Housing opportunity for students at University of Missouri, Kansas City."

"We have had many, many meetings with neighborhood groups and others who have their own designs on our property," the bishop's letter says. "Though we have modified our plan significantly in response to their suggestions, they remain vocal in their opposition."

"We ask for as many of our Priests and Deacons as possible to be present at the meeting and support the Diocese's plan. If you attend it would certainly be appropriate for you to wear your collar."

Members of St. Francis Xavier Parish tell a slightly different story. They had hoped to work with neighborhood groups to take advantage of the existing building and its location, seeing it as an opportunity to unite the east and west sides of Troost Avenue, a street considered a racial and economic dividing line in Kansas City's urban core.

Nearly two years ago, parishioners and a neighborhood group, the 49/63 Neighborhood Coalition, worked with an architectural firm, BNIM, to carry out a needs assessment of the area. The result was a 19-page plan that made several suggestions for the existing building, such as a parochial or charter school, space for adult education, a child development center, community gardens, assisted living housing, an event space, and more.

While all these ideas included financial planning and options for hosting FOCUS groups, the bishop shot down each proposal because, according to parishioner Ken Spare, Finn said the ideas did not meet the broader mission of the diocese.

Furthermore, the only changes the developer made to the plan, according to parishioners and neighborhood groups, has been to reduce the number of floors and dorm rooms.

"We met several times [to discuss proposals], and the bishop clearly said he was only interested in the Catholic student housing project," Spare said.

"For a project that is supposed to be about ministry, worship, and a refuge of light in a world of sin, it is surprising that there is so little consideration given to the needs of the church next door," said Les Cline, president of the 49/63 Neighborhood Coalition.

"What few people on the other side of this debate don't appreciate is that we community people have worked very seriously, earnestly and sincerely with the four criteria the bishop set about this project," he added. "We agreed to these principles. Now, I want to tell the bishop to live up to his own standards. We are holding fast to them."

The diocese's dormitory plan would cost about $15 million and would be funded through bonds.

[Dennis Coday is NCR editor. Soli Salgado, an NCR Bertelsen intern, contributed to this report.]

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