Guest Commentary

Jim White: The Rev. Norman Rotert was a man who battled for justice

The late Rev. Norman Rotert oversaw a renovation of Visitation Church in Kansas City, which included new stained glass windows in the sanctuary.
The late Rev. Norman Rotert oversaw a renovation of Visitation Church in Kansas City, which included new stained glass windows in the sanctuary. The Kansas City Star

The Rev. Norman Rotert lived his life as a warrior for justice. Beginning with his 1965 trip to Selma, Ala., to walk with the Rev. Martin Luther King seeking voting rights and the end of Jim Crow racism, Rotert, who died Dec. 17, never backed away from a just fight or a difficult assignment.

When he became pastor of St. Therese Little Flower in 1968, he found a community falling apart. Block busting was driving white residents away and ill-advised Department of Housing and Urban Development programs were causing widespread abandonment. He tried to get the city and HUD to do something and found no response. So he decided the people of the Blue Hills neighborhood and he needed to do something. He founded the Blue Hills Homes Corp. to work on the housing issues and as pastor he worked, successfully, to form a multi-racial congregation. Blue Hills Homes HHC successfully attacked the abandoned house problem over the next three decades, rehabbing more than 651 houses and developing 268 units of affordable rental housing.

Because of the organization’s growing impact, Rotert began to try to influence city policy toward neighborhoods on the East Side by becoming involved with the Rehabilitation Loan Corp. and two mayoral advisory committees on housing at City Hall. He was a trusted adviser to numerous mayors and councilpersons as well as senior staff.

Rotert recognized Blue Hills Homes was not enough, that there needed to be a strong neighborhood association to hold the corporation accountable. He helped organize the Blue Hills Community Association.

He brought in organizers from the Pacific Institute for Community Organizing in 1977 to help him form Communities Creating Opportunity, an organization which today works with 25 congregations in the metro area. He served on the institute’s national board for 20 years.

Rotert was appointed to lead the the Central City School Fund, a multi-million dollar effort to form an effective Diocesan-community fund to benefit Catholic schools in the central city. It helped support eight Diocesan schools serving students in poor neighborhoods. Over 70 percent of students were from minority families and 40 percent of students were not of the Catholic faith.

Bishop Raymond Boland asked Rotert, a man of compassion and empathy, to take on the exploding problem of priest abuse. He did this beginning in 1986 for three agonizing years. He listened and worked with heartbroken families, who were betrayed by an institution they trusted. Brokenhearted himself, he resigned from this job in 1989 and went on sabbatical to heal and renew himself.

When Rotert returned, the bishop appointed him to be Vicar General and in 1995 to be pastor at Visitation Parish. He is remembered as a skillful homilist, telling stories that brought laughter and sometimes tears to his congregation. Visitation at that time had outgrown its modest church and its school was in need of major investment. Rotert did not hesitate and began an inclusive planning process for an addition to the church and investment in upgrading the school. He headed a capital drive, raising $20 million.

Today, Visitation Church is a beautiful setting in which to pray and celebrate but which is also used for musical performances by groups from all over the city.

When Rotert saw a problem he attacked it, usually by forming organizations. He made an immense impact on this city and all who knew him are grateful for his life and work.

Jim White has long been involved in housing and community issues in Kansas City.