The Rev. Ernie Davis didn’t imagine he would revive a lapsed parish tradition when he handed an old chalice to a couple of volunteers about five years ago.
The chalice seemed too nice to sit on a shelf at Kansas City’s St. Therese Little Flower Catholic church, so Davis simply asked them to clean it.
But a faint inscription on the bottom of the chalice led the parish to revive a decades-old custom that had died out in the 1960s. After 9/11, that tradition seems just as relevant today: an annual New Year’s Day Mass to honor police officers and other first responders who have died in the line of duty.
The congregation will celebrate the service of those who have fallen with a festive Mass, complete with bagpipes and a gospel choir, at 10 a.m. on New Year’s Day. The church is at 5814 Euclid Ave.
The inscription on the chalice — “In loving memory of Dennis Whalen, by his wife Anna Whalen.” — was the key to rediscovering the long-lost tradition.
“If it was given to remember someone, then who was that person?” said Davis, who now serves as a chaplain at St. Mary’s Medical Center in Blue Springs.
After some sleuthing, church members learned that Dennis Whalen was a Kansas City police officer shot on New Year’s Eve 1923 while answering a report of stolen property at an 18th Street pawnshop.
He died the next day.
And beginning the next year, the founding priest of St. Therese Little Flower, Maurice Coates, marked the anniversary of Whalen’s death with a special New Year’s Day Mass until his own death in 1962.
According to parish lore, Anna Whalen had all of the gold and silver jewelry that her husband had given her over the years melted into the chalice, which she donated to the church.
The tradition of a New Year’s Day Mass marking Whalen’s sacrifice appears to have ended with Coates’ death.
When Davis revived the tradition in 2010, he expanded the celebration, he said.
“9/11 is still very fresh with the memories of those police officers and firefighters who rushed in while others rushed out,” Davis said. “It made me much more grateful and aware.”
The issue also has particular resonance for the parish, which has been involved in community policing for years. Until recently, two officers worked out of the church.
And this time of year, off-duty officers also come by to help the church distribute Christmas baskets to the needy and to neighbors who can’t get out, Davis said.
At this year’s Mass, worshippers will pray for first responders and remember rougher times in Kansas City’s history when as many as five police officers died in a year.
That doesn’t happen anymore, Davis noted.
“We’ve learned how to do policing better,” he said. “And that’s hopeful.”