Two weeks before the archbishop was to come dedicate the new St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Parish, a marble slab for the altar somehow broke.
It had come all the way from Italy. No way, the Rev. Bill Porter told the congregation, could a replacement arrive in time. They would have to have the dedication without the altar.
“How about air freight?” someone asked.
Porter shook his head, “We can’t afford air freight.”
“How much?” someone else asked.
A little checking put the cost at around $25,000.
“Do it,” the members told their pastor. “We’ll pay.”
Wow. That wouldn’t happen in Iola, Kan., where Porter grew up, tossing the newspaper and sacking groceries. Things are different in Leawood.
Yes, they are. Stand at the back of the St. Michael sanctuary and look past the altar toward the mural showing a group of saints standing before a skyline of ancient Jerusalem. See the rooftops … against a blue, star-speckled night sky…
Wait — that one on the right, just above St. Theodora, looks like the Kansas City Power & Light building. No, surely not. Must be the light.
No, it surely is.
“The kingdom of heaven is here, too,” Porter says with a smile.
Now back to the broken marble. And so it went that the congregation passed the hat back then, got the dough and the new altar was in place for the dedication on June 13, 2009.
Today, about 2,100 families attend St. Michael the Archangel at 14251 Nall Ave. Could probably be more. But the Great Recession slowed residential development within the parish boundaries.
“We thought we would have 2,600 families by now,” Porter said.
But it could also have fewer. It’s been a difficult, challenging decade for the Catholic Church as a whole, and specifically for the startup St. Michael, having to ask families to leave their old parish for a new one in hard economic times.
That’s where praise for Porter starts. A priest is many things. Salesman being one.
He knew people wouldn’t like leaving one church for another. It’s disruptive. They may have children in a parish school. A fear of layoffs and foreclosures was spreading across the land.
But at town hall meetings before ground was even broken for the new church, Porter convinced people that something special awaited them. Come be part of this new church, he told them. He laid out a plan for a vibrant church, one of work and service, to nurture faith in old and young and to help change the world.
Early on, when St. Michael was still holding Mass in a nearby elementary school, the 500 or so founding families took on the mission of committees, ministries and outreach programs. Mission trips to Honduras took place before bulldozers even arrived at the vacant land on Nall.
“We’ve seen parishes all over the country, but nothing this vibrant,” said Jim Hyatt, who helped lead the capital campaign.
“It started Day One and hasn’t let up. He’s (Porter) obviously a big part of that energy.”
Look at the town of Iola and then Leawood. Quite a difference. Except to the pastor. Then the job is much the same.
“I bring people to Jesus,” Porter said.
It was March 1999 when Archbishop James Keleher announced the founding of a new Catholic parish in southern Johnson County.
The diocese had bought the 20 acres on Nall Avenue years earlier, essentially saying to residential developers, “Build it, and we will build it.”
The houses came. Then it was time for the church.
Boundaries for the new parish would be set at 135th Street on the north, 167th on the south, Missouri to the east and U.S. 69 to the west.
The diocese named Porter to be founding pastor. The son of a nurse and a funeral home director, and the middle of three children, he’d graduated from Iola High School in 1972.
“He hadn’t said anything about becoming a priest until his senior year,” said his mother, Mary Osborn. “You know how it is — you don’t really know what to think of that the first time somebody says it.
“But I know now that he’d been called. I know that because he’s so good at it.
“This is what he was supposed to do.”
She attends Mass at St. Michael’s when able.
Out of high school, Porter went to Washburn University on an academic scholarship and studied philosophy. He was later ordained in Denver in 1980 and got his first assignment at Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park.
At the time of his appointment to St. Michael, he was pastor at St. Agnes in Roeland Park.
His new flock, in theory, would be the Catholics within the parish boundaries. But it doesn’t always work that way. Families are encouraged to attend their assigned church, but not forced. Some don’t want to leave their old church.
Most in the new St. Michael area were attending Church of the Nativity to the north. Others were to come from Queen of the Holy Rosary and Church of the Ascension.
“He had to convince all these people to come be part of something new,” said Ken Mellard, who also helped with the capital campaign. “He was asked to build a new church community from the ground up, and that’s not an easy thing to do in tough times.
“Without his charisma, it may not have happened. Father Bill won them over,” Mellard said.
The Rev. Thomas Tank, at the time the chancellor at the diocese, knew Porter was up to the challenge. As for the new members: “You have got to have some pioneer spirit.”
Porter gives all the credit to his early congregants. At a town hall meeting, he remembers asking for a volunteer to take minutes.
“Five hands went up,” Porter said.
St. Michael was on its way.
Rob and Marge Lemkuhl, a retired couple from Michigan, had moved to the Kansas City area to be near their daughter.
Church-wise, that made them free agents.
They tried their daughter’s church, a new one getting started. Called St. Michael the Archangel, it was temporarily holding services in the cafeteria of an elementary school.
What they saw amazed them.
“So much energy,” Rob Lemkuhl said recently.
“If all these people could come week after week to the starkness of this school, this is going to be a great place to be,” Marge remembered thinking at the time.
But more than energy would be needed to pay for bricks and lumber.
This is where Mellard, who helped lead the capital campaign, points out what he calls a misperception about southern Johnson County.
“We didn’t have millionaires coming forward offering to give a million dollars to build this church,” Mellard said.
But some pledges in the $30,000 to $50,000 range came, to be spread over years.
The school would be built first. Simple strategy — if the church came first, members without children may then “pull back” because the church is all they need.
When construction started, houses were still being built in the many subdivisions in south Leawood, but then the economy hit the wall. Housing construction slowed. People lost jobs and homes. The real estate market fell off the table. Spec homes set empty.
“But people kept up their pledges and without Father Bill’s charisma, that might not have happened,” Mellard said. “It was a trying time for what we were attempting to do, and he clearly led.”
New members kept arriving. Jane Rall, along with her husband and children, came from Nativity.
“Sure, it was hard to leave,” she said. “Nativity was great and I know some families who stayed. But my kids were still young, elementary age, and we were excited to be part of something new.”
Porter surprised her: In the midst of construction, he asked that she be part of a project to help orphan girls and senior citizens in Honduras. He wanted the church to get off the ground with its outreach. So, as evidence of Porter’s inspiration, Rall and a few others soon headed to Honduras.
Remaining members helped with other projects.
“Everybody did something,” Rall said. “I think that was really part of Father Bill’s plan — to bring everyone, get them involved and give them a sense of what this church would be. And it worked. He knew how to lead and how to connect with young families.
“We didn’t have time to think it wouldn’t work.”
On a recent cool morning, a hazy sun climbing to the east, a steady stream of SUVs rolled off Nall and into the circular drive to drop off kids at St. Michael’s.
Chimes rang out.
This was a Wednesday, the day of the all-school Mass. Soon, the 600 or so students would quietly walk into the sanctuary.
“Boys and girls, it is wonderful to see you and to celebrate Mass with you,” Porter greeted the young worshipers.
He told them about someone telling Jesus that he would follow him wherever he went. That’s what they, too, must do, Porter told the students.
“To open up your hearts and minds to Jesus — that’s what puts life in perspective,” Porter said. “And gives us a life bigger and wider than anything we can do by ourselves.”
The children listened. They sang. They prayed.
When Porter walks into a classroom, the children stand.
Yes, because he is their pastor.
“But I’d like to think they would do it when any adult walks in,” Porter said.
That’s how he was raised in Iola.
For the grownups, it was adult education, family worship, All-Pro Dads, Honduras, Olathe Food Pantry, St. Mary’s Food Kitchen, Christmas in October and other service projects that Porter pushed to get St. Michael off to a running start, even as the economy pushed back the other way.
But ask anyone at this church and they will say who won that one.
Porter graciously accepts any praise.
“I think God has given me talents, and for that I am grateful.
“This is where I’m supposed to be.”
To reach Donald Bradley, call 816-234-4182 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.