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The Story Behind Kansas City’s Oldest Church You Asked, We Sought Enlightenment

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Above image credit: An 1840 drawing by Friar Nicholas Point shows the first permanent Catholic church in Kansas City. (Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph | Contributed)
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2 minute read

When Mary Cheney moved to the Kansas City area, she traded farm life for the suburban life of Overland Park, Kansas, with her husband.

The move came more than 50 years ago, yet Cheney has never felt she has a great handle on the religious landscape in the area, so she asked curiousKC: “What is the oldest church in the Kansas City area?” She assumed French Jesuits might have formed one of the first congregations, but wasn’t sure.

So Flatland perused through a 155-page report by Kansas City’s Landmarks Commission for the City Planning and Development Department that detailed religious properties in Kansas City, Missouri. Then we spoke to the only full-time archivist for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Zachary Daughtrey.

Weeks of reporting resurrected decades-old paintings, photos and documents, which reveal the history – and people – behind Kansas City’s oldest church.

Fur and Religion

Catholicism is one of Kansas City’s most prominent religions. The first area church – a Catholic church – and early settlements of present-day Kansas City go hand in hand, Daughtrey said.

In the early 19th century, the first French Catholic family, François and Bérénice Chouteau, moved to the area. The Chouteaus posted up in Kansas City to expand their family business – fur trade – and to share Catholicism with the local Native American families.

The Chouteaus came to Kansas City from St. Louis in 1819 and settled along the Kansas and Missouri Rivers – close to present-day downtown Kansas City, Missouri. François Chouteau is commonly dubbed the “founder” of Kansas City, Missouri.

The migration of French immigrants to the Kansas City area 200 years ago was part of a larger movement called the “Age of Discovery,” whereby French and Spanish Catholics moved to the Americas in the early 16th century. The newcomers believed they needed to teach the Catholic faith to the indigenous communities because “most did not even consider that the peoples they encountered had cultural and religious traditions that were different from their own,” an excerpt of Harvard University’s Pluralism Project reads.

In Kansas City, the Chouteaus’ arrival led to the first iteration of the Catholic church, which would transform from cabin to cathedral.

Cheney was delighted with the answer. She gasped and uttered, “Oh, my!” when she learned that the first church began in a log cabin and how it evolved. She said: “I knew about the French Jesuits’ and that they brought fur trade,” but now she’s enlightened as to who built the first church in Kansas City, Missouri and how. “I’m impressed.”

Her instinct – though she was unsure about it – was on the money.

Fun Facts:

+ In the 1840s, the Catholic diocese in Kansas City grew and so did its funds, which funded the very first brick church in 1857.

+ Roughly 300 Irish laborers made the bricks used in the church’s original structure. The brick building is now used as the chapel for The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

+ The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception at 11th Street and Broadway Boulevard is located near the old log cabin where the first services were held.

+ When it opened, it was the tallest building in Kansas City.

+ Local artists create and install stained glass windows that depict the life of Jesus Christ and other biblical themes.

+ In 1903 to 1945, the cathedral owned and operated St. Christopher’s Inn at 534-536 Main Street an inn for homeless men.

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