St Marys, Kansas is a small town. This small town may well be the capital of the Catholic English-speaking world as Kennedy Hall has called it. This town has undergone immense changes in the last 45 years as Catholics determined to give their children a traditional Catholic upbringing have flocked to the area. The main happening in the town is the work of the Society of St. Pius X, which has an outsized presence in the area. The SSPX priests offer multiple daily Masses and recitations of the Divine Office at which the faithful can assist.
St. Marys is a hub with spokes that go in far directions. Within a five hour drive of St. Marys are: an FSSP parish (10 miles away); several traditional parishes in the Kansas City area, including an ICKSP oratory and an SSPX priory (about an hour and a half away); the FSSP’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary (about two and a half hours away); Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey (5 hours away). St. Marys is the oldest and the largest of all these listed. There are an estimated 5,000 souls that attend Mass in the Tridentine Rite in St. Marys every Sunday. In both religious and secular media, the town made headlines as its enormous church, the Church of the Immaculata, was consecrated according to the traditional Catholic Rite of Consecration for a church. In early 2020, The Atlantic described St. Marys as an example of “the Catholic withdrawal experiment.” This experiment or “Benedict Option” is no stranger to being the subject of debate, especially in devoutly religious circles. However in St. Marys, you do not find a cult-like atmosphere or even an intentional community. The people of St. Marys engage with the world like people in a town of similar size. The church community allows the Flint Hills Shakespeare Festival to use their land every year for what has become a spectacle that draws people from all over.
In 1978 when Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre acquired St. Marys, there was no traditional Catholic community as there is today. Although the buildings had been empty for over a decade, Archbishop Lefebvre could not help but try to save such a storied place. The buildings were formerly home to a Jesuit mission for the Pottawamie Indians. The mission then became a Catholic school from which Charles Comiskey, owner of the Chicago White Sox, graduated. Finally the space was used by the Jesuits as a seminary where their seminarians completed their final years of study, which closed in the post-Vatican II years as many dioceses and religious orders brought their priestly formation closer to urban areas. No fewer than 1,000 priests were ordained in the original Church of the Immaculata, which tragically burned down shortly after the property was bought by the SSPX.
Seeing the way the culture was going and the relative rarity of the Traditional Latin Mass at the time, many families moved to St. Marys where the Traditional Latin Mass was offered every day. Already having the physical plant of an educational institution in the former seminary, the SSPX opened a school in St. Marys which was one of the only Catholic schools in the country that still offered its students the Catholic education their parents had received. Today the SSPX operates 22 schools in the USA. However, unique to St. Marys is that it is one of two traditional Catholic colleges in the USA. St. Marys had offered an Associates of Arts (AA) degree for several years until the fall semester of 2022 when college began offering a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree.
The question many traditional Catholics might be asking themselves is, “what would it take to build up a community like this where I live?” After all, St. Marys is a small town and the community that is there now has only been there for 45 years; yet, in 45 years, St. Marys has grown more than any other traditional Catholic community in the same time period. The simple answer is that any community can grow like this if it offers what St. Marys offers.
Finally, there is generosity. The community started with a chapel, which occupied the former seminary’s refectory after the original church burned down, and several buildings that are in use today for the academy and college. Starting with those resources gave the community a “head start,” but it still required a lot of generosity and volunteers to get them into usable condition after being left dormant for over a decade.
The generosity of the people of St. Marys has been seen in a unique way as they sought to rebuild their aforementioned church. Rebuilding the church ended up taking about 40 years. Although it was always a goal of the community to rebuild the Immaculata Church that alumni of the Jesuit-run school originally built from their own generosity, the need to expand the classrooms and other academic space at the growing academy always took precedence over building a new church. Nonetheless, the donations continued to pour in. Eventually with the growth and generosity of the community, the need could not be ignored. The renovated refectory, known as Assumption Chapel since it became the site for liturgies after the original church burned down, held 570 people. Even with the priests of St. Marys offering seven Sunday Masses, this was not enough. Sundays at St. Marys became quite chaotic.
Eventually some Sunday Masses were held in the less decorous, but larger school auditorium. In 2019, it was announced that the church project was moving forward. A fundraising effort was launched to fund the remaining costs for construction of the new church. The estimated cost was $30 million, of which $15 million had already been raised. The project was not immune to the coronavirus pandemic and its resultant financial consequences. While groundbreaking still took place at the height of the pandemic in June 2020, the cost increased to $43 million. Fundraising and construction continued undeterred. Donations from all over the world came in; more locally, employees of the academy offered to decrease their salaries so that more money could be used for the project. The end result was that on May 3, 2023, His Excellency Bernard Fellay consecrated the Church of the Immaculata, which, seating 1,550 and being the length of a football field, is the largest church ever built for or used regularly by the Society of St. Pius X.
As one can infer from above, in order to replicate the success and growth of St. Marys, a number of factors need to fall into place. There has to be buildings enough for a school, a church, there has to be a way for father to provide for their families. But these things don’t matter if the community is not generous. To boil it down further, God’s providence and our virtue is required. St. Marys has been blessed with large volumes of both. If you think your community lacks one of those two, remember these things: 1) St. Marys original church burned down and they made it work nonetheless. 2) You can pray. Prayer will increase your virtue and hopefully help those around you. This is the foundation of any Catholic community.