At first, they couldn’t explain the voices.
Barely audible, the murmurs began while contractors, not long ago, were installing new microphone wire in the former Westwood Lutheran Church in Westwood Hills, down the street from the University of Kansas Medical Center.
For 18 months, members of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne have been working to turn the 1940s-era Protestant church into a new home for what sometimes is called the “old” Catholic Latin Mass.
American Catholics of a certain age still recall the Latin ritual used before the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s led to, among other things, an authorization by church leaders to use vernacular language while celebrating Mass.
But many Catholics still prefer the Latin liturgy.
And members of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, who had been meeting in leased space for about 10 years in a separate Kansas City, Kan., Catholic church, long had imagined a permanent home.
So they bought the old Lutheran church. Among their many improvements: an updated sound system.
While testing it, technicians kept getting a hum. They turned up the volume.
That’s when they heard the voices. But it proved to be nothing other-worldly.
They were picking up CNN. The Cable News Network.
The contractors believed it had to do with the length of the microphone wire and the radio tower that stands a few blocks west, near West 50th Street and Belinder Road.
“They put noise-limiting filters on both ends of the wire, and that fixed it,” said John Watkins, church secretary.
Nothing against cable news.
But that’s not what the members of St. Rose Philippine Duschesne gather for, no matter how handsomely appointed and outfitted their renovated church now is.
“They come for silence,” said the Rev. John Fongemie, church chaplain.
“When you come to church it is about prayer,” he added. “We try to leave out worldly, secular affairs. We try to imitate the saints in leaving those things at the church door and entering into the mystery of the Mass in a way that you sometimes don’t always see in evidence at other parishes.”
Parishioners echo that belief in the appeal of the Latin Mass.
“The most paramount aspect for me personally is the reverence,” said John Lewis, 58, of Lenexa.
“The Latin Mass is respectful, it’s beautiful, it’s holy. It allows me to worship without distraction. The focus is on the priest’s actions instead of the activity of the laity.
“Also, the sermons are serious. They address the salvation of one’s immortal soul, and they don’t avoid talking about the true doctrine of the faith, such as the reality of hell and the joys of heaven.”
Lewis often is asked to explain the appeal of the ritual:
“I even ask myself, ‘What is it that is so wonderful?’ But it is just so darn serious. This is not frivolous; this is about one’s immortal soul and, if you believe in the hereafter, is there anything else more serious?”
New home for old Mass
The “old” Latin Mass has a new home in Johnson County.
Members of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne filled the renovated Spanish Mission structure one Saturday in January to witness the building’s formal blessing by Archbishop Joseph Naumann of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.
The outfitting of the older building with new technology had continued to be challenging. “We just finished putting in the sound 10 minutes ago,” Dan Himmelberg, project architect, said about 20 minutes before the 9 a.m. ceremony.
“The pulpit arrived at 12:30 last night.”
The approximately two-hour ceremony began with a procession entirely around the building led by Naumann and followed by a long line of parish members, all of whom then followed the archbishop inside. There, church members participated in the ceremony, holding programs that printed the Latin liturgy in one column with the corresponding English translation in another.
They sat amid warm polished wood and traditional church furnishings such as an high center altar and new statuary.
The principal statue, positioned at the top of the center altar, depicts the church’s patron saint. A member of the Society of the Sacred Heart religious order in France, Rose Philippine Duchesne came to North America in the early 19th century and served years as a missionary, including one spent among members of the Potawatomi tribe in eastern Kansas.
Naumann, in his homily, praised the renovated church and added that its fine furnishings “represent our striving to give God our very best.”
Latin Mass more visible
The amber-lit ritual now available at 5035 Rainbow Blvd. was a common experience among Catholics up until the 1960s before largely disappearing. Today, however, the Latin Mass may be more visible across the Kansas City area than it ever has been over the past 50 years.
Two churches in Kansas City already offer traditional Latin Masses: Old St. Patrick Oratory, at 806 Cherry St., and St. Vincent de Paul, at 3106 Flora Ave.
The first community is recognized by the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
In 2005 Bishop Robert Finn designated Old St. Patrick, one of Kansas City’s oldest Catholic churches, as the specific Latin Mass church for the diocese. Previously worshippers had been attending Latin Mass at Our Lady of Sorrows Parish, near Crown Center.
St. Vincent de Paul, meanwhile, is not recognized by the diocese.
Nevertheless, St. Vincent members in 2011 celebrated the 30th anniversary of the building’s 1981 re-dedication by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, a prelate who opposed changes brought by the Second Vatican Council. In 1969 Lefebvre organized a religious order in Switzerland and soon established a seminary to train priests.
In 1975 the Vatican withdrew approval of the order, and the following year Pope Paul VI suspended Lefebvre.
In 1988, after Levebvre consecrated four bishops, he was excommunicated. He died in 1991. Today the Society of St. Pius X continues to operate St. Vincent de Paul, which has a membership of about 1,300.
Admirers of the Latin Mass, meanwhile, took encouragement from a 2007 apostolic letter issued by Pope Benedict XVI.
In the document Benedict articulated that while the Second Vatican Council had been driven by a desire that some church practices “should be renewed and adapted to the needs of our time,” he also noted that “in some regions, no small numbers of faithful adhered and continue to adhere with great love and affection to the earlier liturgical forms.”
He also mentioned how, in 1984, Pope John Paul II had granted permission to use the Roman Missal — the book containing the prayers and rites used by Catholic priests in celebrating Mass — published in 1962.
Naumann, in his church-blessing homily, referenced Benedict’s “desire that as a church we always know our roots.”
Parishioner Steve Fitzgerald, 68, newly elected Kansas state senator from Leavenworth, said he appreciates that the ritual has origins going back perhaps 1,500 years or more.
“It’s beautiful, reliable, historic, ancient and mysterious,” Fitzgerald said. “What more could you want?”
The Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, the Pennsylvania-based religious community to which Fongemie belongs, was invited by Archbishop James Patrick Keleher to provide traditional Mass for Catholics in the Kansas City, Kan., area. That community, under the name of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, in 2011 bought the former Westwood Lutheran Church, dedicated in 1947.
Some, such as church secretary Watkins, cited possible divine intervention, given that a church member saw the “For Sale” sign posted outside the church while driving by on Easter Sunday.
The community paid $600,000 for the building and invested $177,000 in exterior renovations.
Last March a bell-blessing ceremony marked the completion of the church’s exterior restoration work, which includes new flashing around the bell tower and a new wooden cross atop it.
The 45-minute ceremony proved a mixture of traditional and contemporary, with some 20 minutes of psalms in Latin followed by James Patrick Keleher, today archbishop emeritus of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, ascending with others up to the bell tower in a scissor lift. The bell was the same 550-pound bell, manufactured in England, that Westwood Lutheran Church members had installed in 1950.
But through the ceremony, the bell became a sacramental, or sacred, object.
At the time church officials anticipated needing $390,000 to renovate the interior of the church and another $150,000 to furnish it.
Watkins last week estimated that the final investment, including the church’s acquisition, was just more than $2 million.
While much of the renovated church today retains its Spanish Mission style, given its red-tile roof and new interior floor of Spanish-style pavers, it also emphasizes a Romanesque design, especially in its tall center altar.
“It’s a mixture of styles not unknown in the Catholic Church, as many churches were built over periods of centuries,” Fongemie said.
Parish officials, striving to renovate a church that might have been built in 1940, also have relied upon 21st-century technology to outfit it.
A sanctuary lamp, for instance, was found on eBay.
A long list of contractors contributed to the church’s renovation, among them representatives of Sacred Heart Church Art of Beatrice, Neb., which specializes in the restoration of altars and statuary.
The main altar, located in a Pennsylvania church, was taken apart, shipped to Johnson County and then reassembled after various sections had been stripped, primed, painted and then highlighted with gold leaf.
That was in October. The next month representatives of Quimby Pipe Organs in Warrensburg, Mo., assisted in moving the organ (which the previous owners had left) from the sanctuary area to the newly expanded choir loft.
Today, just next to the organ, a single handle hangs from a single strong wire.
That’s the bell-ringer.
For three weeks in November, crews cut and placed a combination of marble, stone and terracotta tiles in the church sanctuary.
By early December, communion and baptistry rails had been installed.
“There has been a renaissance of traditional church architecture, with artisans and purveyors of goods who understand what we are trying to accomplish,” said Fongemie.
But beyond architecture and furnishings, the heart of the parish is the profound personal experience found there, several parishioners said.
“I love the reverence I see with the parishioners and the priests,” said Kristen Wurtz, 31, of Overland Park. She grew up with the English Mass but was drawn to the Latin ritual after an older brother introduced her to it.
Marc Weishaar, 51, a Leawood banker, is heartened that that he sees many younger families among the church’s members. “It’s not just for elderly people who may have nostalgic feelings,” he said.
The parishioners’ sentiments, Fongemie said, suggest the appeal of the ritual’s emphasis upon personal reflection.
“There are prolonged periods of silence, periods during which the faithful are free to pray while observing the actions of the priest and servers on the altar,” Fongemie said. Church members “don’t need to feel engaged at each and every moment.
“The Mass allows the faithful a certain liberty to approach God in the silence of their hearts.”
The one hiccup in the church’s blessing ceremony involved — again — modern technology.
The amount of sacramental incense burned produced enough smoke to trigger the church’s smoke alarms.
The solemn high Mass continued regardless.
“It was my first three-alarm Mass,” said Watkins.
Attendants and altar boys who had been responsible for the incense had, Watkins said, loaded up with enough charcoal to see them through the brisk and breezy outdoor portion of the ceremony.
“So we still had plenty of smoke when we got inside,” said Watkins, who promised adjustment of the church’s smoke-alarm system.
“If you noticed,” Watkins added, “that smoke alarm went off in Latin.”