Feast of the Dedication
June 18, 2023
The Rev’d Charles W. Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
Friday afternoon, I jumped in my little Honda Civic and drove almost 3 hours southeast of here for the installation of Fr. Isaac Petty as rector of St. James Episcopal Church in Springfield. Many of you know Fr. Isaac as St. Mary’s was his sponsoring parish. I got settled at the hotel, and then Fr. Chas Marks and I headed over to St. James.
When I have the rare treat of attending a church service with music other than at St. Mary’s, the very first thing I do is grab the bulletin and look at the hymns. Yes, the liturgy and the Scripture readings and the names of the ministers are arguably more important, but I’m just being honest with you – the first thing I look at are the hymns. And I immediately noticed that the hymns Fr. Isaac chose for the service were all hymns we sing regularly at St. Mary’s (with one unfortunate exception – he had to throw in a Nazarene tune from his upbringing!).
The preacher was Deacon David Wilcox, also a son of St. Mary’s, and it wasn’t even a minute into the sermon that he got teary-eyed and choked up, something Isaac did later when he knelt down in the middle of the church and devoted himself to God and to God’s service as rector of St. James. I, of course, had been crying off and on throughout the service, and as I surreptitiously tried to wipe tears away at one point, it hit me – good God, they learned to be teary-eyed during the liturgy from their rector.
Later in the service, we finished singing the rousing hymn at the Offertory. I put my leaflet down, and looked up to behold Bishop Diane flanked by Fr. Isaac and Deacon David and a few others, and I became overwhelmed with the gravity of what I was witnessing, particularly in light of the recent actions of my former denomination the Southern Baptist Convention in which they expelled churches with female pastors: a female successor of the apostles, flanked by two openly gay clerics, in the Bible Belt in a church full of Christians singing the praises of Jesus Christ. Not just any female bishop, but my bishop with whom I have grown quite close; not just any gay clerics, but two that were raised up by St. Mary’s – in this building – in this community of faith – my friends.
St. Mary’s has raised up a proportionally large numbers of folks for ordained ministry in its 169 years of existence, but this phenomenon is even more acute with the laity. I informally went through the list of those who have joined St. Mary’s since I arrived nearly six years ago and counted those I knew had moved away from Kansas City: 17 just off the top of my head – there are probably more. Like Isaac and David, they too were formed in this place, in this community of faith. Like us, they experienced the breathtaking beauty of this building, and the breathtaking love and welcome of this congregation. They saw that, as the book of Genesis reads and as the cantor sang earlier, “O, how awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!”
During the reception after Isaac’s installation, I had a chance to talk with Fr. John Biggs. Fr. Biggs is 86 years old and recently celebrated the 60th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. He immediately asked me about St. Mary’s is doing, and after awhile, he told me of a memory of a conversation he had with Fr. David McCallum, 11th rector of St. Mary’s from 1962-1967. He giggled and said that Fr. McCallum called this place “Mad Mary’s” because there was always so much going on around here, though I suspect he also meant to say what I’ve said about this place for years: you have to be a little crazy to be a part of St. Mary’s (me included!).
It was during Fr. McCallum’s tenure that we came close to being razed to the ground. In 1963, the city plans for what is now I-670 placed St. Mary’s right in the middle of the freeway. Fr. McCallum and Bishop Welles began negotiations with the Missouri Department of Transportation, but they had a hard time convincing them to spare the building given that it was, well, falling apart. Like St. Mary’s has been throughout most of its history, the congregation lived hand-to-mouth and couldn’t begin to afford the necessary repairs. Two prominent parishioners from Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral - James M. Kemper, Sr., and James M. Kemper, Junior, of Commerce Bank – stepped in and helped. The Kemper family and the diocese worked out an arrangement with MDOT that changed the route of the new freeway past the church rather than through it, provided that the entire exterior of the church be tuck pointed, and the ridiculously expensive slate roof of both the church and the bell tower be replaced, all of which happened due to the generosity of the Kemper family, primarily from the David Woods Kemper Foundation.
Like me and you, and the myriad upon myriad of those who have encountered this building and this community of faith, Fr. McCallum, Bishop Welles, and Kemper family saw it for what it is: “O, how awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!”
It seems that I wasn’t the first rector of St. Mary’s to be afflicted with becoming emotionally overwhelmed from time to time. Fr. McCallum apparently wanted nothing other to serve as a missionary in Nicaragua with the Order of the Holy Cross, but was prevented from doing so due to concerns about his ill health. After serving as rector of St. Mary’s for five years, the superior of the order finally relented and allowed him to serve as a missionary to the indigenous peoples of Nicaragua. While en route, Fr. McCallum wrote a love letter of sorts to the people of St. Mary’s, which Fr. Brinkman, his successor, read out loud at all the masses during the week in which it arrived. In it, he says, “My years with you have been happy and delightful ones. To avoid virtually breaking down, I have not been able to say all that is in my heart. I hope this note…can somehow express the depth of my caring and gratitude…for having had the privilege of serving with what will always be the finest congregation in the Church. The most precious thing of all to me – a single person starting on a new and unknown venture – is the certain knowledge that in such friends, I do indeed have a home and family. One could not even ask for as much as you have given. I pray the best for “Mad Mary’s” as I know will be the case. Fondly and gratefully, David McCallum.”
Fr. McCallum served as a missionary in Nicaragua for the next 26 years before retiring to his native Wisconsin.
As I realized anew on Friday evening at Fr. Isaac’s installation, the influence of St. Mary’s Church goes far beyond these four old walls.
Today’s feast recalls the dedication and consecration of this glorious building… the building which houses…all of us. Today is not really about the building, it’s about each and every one of us and the mission of the Church in this place. We give our heartfelt thanks to God for this gem of a building in the heart of Kansas City, but even more than this building, we give thanks to God for giving us his son Jesus Christ for our redemption; for grafting us into his body through the waters of baptism; for bringing us to this beautiful community of faith; and for continuing to feed us with his Christ’s body and blood at this altar. May this holy food and drink give us the strength and courage to take the love we’ve experienced at Mad Mary’s out into world, and tell all who listen, “O, how awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!”
 Genesis 22:17, 22; this is the Introit for the Feast of the Dedication.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!
To the Glory of God and in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary
St. Mary's is a parish of the Diocese of West Missouri, The Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion.