Wyandotte & Leavenworth

Fate of former Hispanic church in KCK prompts divide

Updated: 2013-09-13T04:26:27Z

By MATT CAMPBELL

The Kansas City Star

A stained glass image of Our Lady of Guadalupe looks in upon the crumbling remains of what once was the epicenter of community life for Mexican-Americans in Kansas City, Kan.

Framed in a Gothic arch, her face also looks out on today’s Argentine neighborhood, where the Hispanic community is sharply divided over the fate of the former St. John the Divine Catholic Church at 2511 Metropolitan Ave.

Some say it is an eyesore — and a reminder of past discrimination — that should be torn down.

“While this building served the community well for many years, its historic value to the Argentine neighborhood is questionable,” wrote Unified Government Commissioner Ann Murguia in opposing historic status for the church.

Others say it is too precious to lose.

“We can wash the history away in a blink,” wrote former parishioner Solomen Rangel in support of the church, “but we must remember how fragile our history is and can never be brought back.”

The matter will be debated at a public meeting at 7 p.m. today three blocks down the street at the Argentine Community Center.

“It was the Mexican-American parish,” said Daniel Serda, a student of the area’s Latino history.

In a time when Hispanics were kept out of the Anglo world, people made their own community at St. John the Divine.

But the old church, with a partly collapsed roof and an ominous bulge in the sanctuary wall, is for some more of a wound than a comfort.

“Far from honoring the vibrant Latino community that once brought life to the building and the neighborhood, in its current state it reminds our community (still largely Latino) we can be ignored and live with substandard structures indefinitely,” read a letter to the Unified Government from the Villa Argentine Neighborhood Association.

Murguia, in a message to her 3rd District constituents, supported the neighborhood association’s desire to have the building demolished.

“This is important ... as this old church brings back memories of ethnic discrimination as well as years of blight in this community,” she wrote.

After neighborhood complaints, the Unified Government posted the building as “unfit” in 2009. A year ago, it filed a demolition order in district court.

But this summer, the Kansas Historical Society approved the building’s nomination for the National Register of Historic Places. That triggered a legal review process in which alternatives to demolition must be explored.

And that has raised the level of exasperation that is expected to be vented at tonight’s meeting.

“How long is it going to take?” asked Mario Escobar, executive director of the Argentine Betterment Corp. “Five, 10, 15 years before they get something done?”

The structure began as a wood-frame Methodist church in 1887. It survived the flood of 1903, was enclosed in brick around 1909 and sold to the Catholic diocese in 1937.

It served Mexican laborers who were attracted to the area by the railroads and meat-packing plants in the early decades of the 20th century.

As a Catholic church, St. John the Divine initially was a mission of the Mount Carmel parish in Armourdale. When that church was destroyed in the flood of 1951, the St. John church was expanded and the two congregations consolidated.

St. John the Divine became home to the Hispanic community — which was not welcomed at the nearby Anglo parish of St. John the Evangelist — for four decades.

But displacement by the 18th Street Expressway and urban renewal contributed to a dwindling membership, and the archdiocese closed St. John the Divine in 1992.

Since then, the building has deteriorated to the point that some, including the Unified Government, call it a safety hazard.

A nonprofit group called St. John the Divine Community Art and Education Center Inc. acquired the structure earlier this year from the previous private owner. The group, of which Serda is a member, says an inspector’s report found the building was not in imminent danger of collapse even with the bulging wall that dates to the 1951 flood.

Serda’s group wants to be allowed to correct the immediate problems and eventually restore the building as a nonreligious community art center. First, they need to pay more than $2,400 in delinquent taxes.

The effort to get the building listed on the National Register was supported by Historic Kansas City, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Latino Coalition of Kansas City and other organizations.

Those, like Escobar, who want the building razed say they have seen no progress for years and are skeptical it can be done at this stage.

The nonprofit group, which has a five-member board of directors, hopes to tap historic-preservation grants and tax credits. But it says having to fight opposition from the Villa Argentine neighborhood and from the Unified Government has impeded its efforts.

“We’re a year behind where we could have been,” said board member Lisa Hernandez.

She and Serda suspect there is an underlying desire to clear the church lot to make way for new development, perhaps housing.

Murguia is also executive director of the Argentine Neighborhood Development Association, a nonprofit group that promotes economic revitalization in the area. But she said her organization has “no interest” in the church property.

Serda, who grew up in Armourdale, said his interest in St. John the Divine is not just “as a pile of rocks.”

“It’s the lived experience and the symbolic importance the building has for the community,” he said.

The president of the Villa Argentine Neighborhood Association is Sally Murguia, who is a sister-in-law to Ann Murguia. She said the church, physically or not, survives in the people who remain in the neighborhood.

“While they have fond memories of St. John the Divine as a church, the church is the people,” Sally Murguia said. “The people are here, and the same spirit is driving them and us to improve the neighborhood.”

To reach Matt Campbell, call 816-234-4902 or send email to mcampbell@kcstar.com.

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