Published March 28th, 2022 at 11:00 AM
Few events can be more wrenching for a neighborhood than the closure of a church, which serves as a social, cultural and spiritual hub of a community.
That was particularly so in 1990, when the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph announced it would close Our Lady of Guadalupe parish, located in the Westside neighborhood of Kansas City, and consolidate it with nearby Sacred Heart.
Since the merger in early 1991, the parish — now known as Sacred Heart Guadalupe Church — has continued to serve a large population of Kansas City’s Latinx population and remained a cultural tie to the neighborhood’s Mexican roots.
A lot led up to the consolidation of the two parishes at the end of the 20th century. Younger generations moved from their ancestral neighborhood to the suburbs. The construction of major highways and roads carved up the barrio, and affordable property became hard to come by for those who wanted to stay.
Perhaps that’s what led one curiousKC reader, Gwen, to ask: “Do you have a photo of the old Sacred Heart Church? As a child I lived in a house across the street.”
Flatland reached out to Gwen, who said she just wanted to know a little bit more about her old neighborhood. Even though she wasn’t Catholic, the Sacred Heart church was an architectural landmark for her. Though it has a new name, the same building is still there at 2544 Madison Ave.
According to a Kansas City Star article from 2016, the limestone chapel was built by Irish Catholic immigrants in the late 1800s.
Parishioners remained primarily Irish until after World War II, when the Latinx population became the majority.
At the turn of the century, nearby Santa Fe railroad lines began to bring Mexican immigrants to the neighborhood to help build the lines and Union Station.
While they shared Catholic beliefs, the Mexican immigrants weren’t welcomed by the Irish parish.
Theresa Torres, a professor at University of Missouri-Kansas City and author of “The Paradox of Latina Religious Leadership in the Catholic Church; Las Guadalupanas of Kansas City,” said part of this had to do with cultural differences in their church practices.
“Not only was it traditionally an Irish church, but then you (also) have this tithing system,” Torres explained. “So that combined effect meant that even the Mexican families that had been moving into that neighborhood and expanding, they didn’t feel welcome when they went to that church.”
The tithing system, which lasted through the 1960s, meant parishioners essentially paid for their seats in the church. The newly immigrated families were culturally unfamiliar with the process, and also had lower incomes, so they were made to sit in the back of the church.
Our Lady Guadalupe was established at 901 Avenida Cesar E. Chavez in 1922. The building was formerly the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Immanuel Church. Torres said it became an “ethnic church” for Spanish speaking Kansas Citians, regardless of their proximity to the church.
“There was a natural division between the two (churches). And so it would be easier for families just to go to the one right there, Sacred Heart, but they felt excluded,” Torres said.
This persisted through World War II and then as cars and major road systems became the norm, more and more of the Westside population moved to suburbs or different neighborhoods.
Local residents fought and redirected construction of Southwest Trafficway, which would have cut through the Westside and displaced over 500 houses and Sacred Heart itself.
Nonetheless, Interstate 35 and Interstate 670 shrunk the neighborhood and made it harder for folks to stay in the area, though many wanted to.
The churches, however, continued to be the tie that brought folks back to “La Colonia.”
Integration policies meant children would often be bussed from their neighborhood to schools across town, so more turned to the low-tuition Catholic schools (Our Lady of Guadalupe and Redemptorist High School).
The already established Guadalupe Centers provided social services and community events that continued to draw folks back to the area, even as its residential population of Latinx families declined.
The diocese faced a shortage of priests in 1990 that resulted in the closure and consolidation of eight churches in Kansas City, including Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The Guadalupanas felt betrayed, unheard and overlooked by the decision. They formed groups of protest and got petitions signed, but to no avail.
Eventually, they convinced the diocese to allow the church to remain as a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe, which persists today.
Torres worked in the parish following the consolidation. The transition was difficult, in particular for Guadalupanas who remember being forced to the back of the sanctuary in their youth when it was still an Irish parish.
But life went on, and the church became the hub parishioners needed.
“When I was working in the church we had people coming (from) an hour away to go to church there because they liked the pastor, and liked the community, they liked the music, and they felt at home there,” Torres said.
Torres reports that the Latinx population in the Westside dropped almost 15% from 1990 to 2000, and again from 2000 to 2010 by over 6%, according to U.S. Census data.
Today, the neighborhood’s homes are mostly filled by elderly folks, and she estimates an even lower percentage are Latinx.
Despite it all, Sacred Heart Guadalupe Church is still thriving. So is the Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine just down the road.
Cris Medina, a longtime resident of the Westside and former CEO of Guadalupe Centers, said the church is far from aging out, even while other parishes across the city face the possibility of closure.
“They’re not going to close Guadalupe or Sacred Heart together because they have a lot of immigrants,” Medina said. “They might not live here, but they come to church here, and they participate.”
Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. The work of our Report for America corps members is made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.