A historic and beloved Black Catholic parish in Kansas City, Missouri has quietly closed its doors after more than a century.
St. Louis, King of France Catholic Church, a 103-year-old institution in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph held its final Sunday Mass on June 26th, the culmination of a parish reorganization process like many occurring at a rapid pace around the country.
The parish is now merged with St Therese Little Flower Catholic Church, located a mile west in the city’s Blue Hills neighborhood.
“It’s really devastating and caught a lot of people off guard," parishioner Darryl Norton told local NBC affiliate KSHB 41.
“It’s like I’m losing my family.”
In a statement, Bishop James V. Johnston Jr. noted that the decision to close St. Louis came after “many months” of analysis, beginning in July 2021. A diocesan-wide downsizing plan was initiated roughly three years ago.
Located in Swope Park—a majority-Black neighborhood—St. Louis was said to be unable to cover its expenses as of late, after losing a rental agreement with a local education nonprofit. The official merger announcement, released on July 1st, notes that the parish held a debt of $253,000.
It is the story of many African-American Catholic churches, where aging congregations have led to a decrease in vibrancy and income. A once-thriving (though compact) Black Catholic community in Kansas City, boasting of 4,800 individuals and three Black parishes in 1995, has now become a shell of its former self—a fate feared publicly even then.
Also common in the case of such closures, however, are conservative chanceries and bishops seen by many as neglectful of the concerns of certain minority groups—perhaps especially the Black community.
(Illustratively with St. Louis, neither the merger announcement nor the diocese’s story in the Catholic Key on St. Louis’ Centennial Mass made any mention of the parish’s connection to the African-American community.)
"I'm tired of them acting like they're doing us a favor," said Ramonda Doakes, a parishioner at St Monica Catholic Church, now one of three remaining Black parishes in the city.
Her parish was also involved in reorganization discussions, originally facing a similar fate as St. Louis’. However, the representatives from the church they were to be merged with—Our Lady of Sorrows, said to be a dwindling White parish with solid finances—did not show up to the relevant planning meetings.
“We have nothing in common,” she told BCM.
Doakes also noted her disappointment in the process leading to St. Louis’ closure, saying that parishioners—who had just celebrated their centennial in 2019—were led to believe for some time that their church might very well be staying open.
“They had a fundraiser and everything,” she said.
While it’s rare that a diocese faces any discipline for closing a parish unnecessarily, even in a poor or underserved community, questions remain about the handling of this most recent closure by Bishop Johnston.
His diocese is one of many still reeling from the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, and news of the local parish reorganization studies came shortly before news broke of lawsuits from various alleged victims in the region.
The diocese paid settlements ranging from $200,000 to $10M between 2008 and 2014, and the newer lawsuits were announced in July 2020. A number of victims from the diocese were recently featured in the award-winning Netflix documentary “Procession.”
Appointed by Pope Francis in 2015, Johnston is known as a hardline conservative and made headlines during the 2020 presidential election cycle for a controversial letter that all but instructed the members of his diocese to vote only for Republicans.
Following what seems to now be national protocol, his statement on the closure of St Louis, King of France noted that parishioners can still attend a number of nearby parishes—all but one of them predominantly White.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).