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Wichita, Diocese of


Comprising 25 counties in southeastern and south central Kansas, an area of 20,021 square miles, the Diocese of Wichita (Wichitensis) was erected Aug. 2, 1887. The diocese had originally occupied the southern half of the state, until the Diocese of Dodge City was created in 1951, and it was a suffragan see of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Missouri, until the creation of the new Metropolitan See of Kansas City in Kansas in 1952. At the beginning of the 21st century, Catholics comprised about 12% of the total population.

Franciscan Friar Juan de padilla (c14901542) was probably the first to bring the faith to this territory, making two journeys to evangelize the Quivira in 1541 and 1542. It is believed that he became the protomartyr of the United States near Saint Rose's Church, Council Grove. Fr. Charles de la Croix (17921869) made the next attempt to evangelize southeast Kansas, traveling to the Neosho River and converting many of the Osage (1822). In 1846, the Jesuits established a mission for soldiers at Fort Scott, and in 1847, Fathers John Schoenmakers, S.J. (18071883) and John Bax, S.J. (18171852), along with three lay brothers, established Osage Mission at St. Paul, with Saint Ann's Academy for girls, run by the Sisters of Loretto from Kentucky. Between 1851 and 1889, Fr. Paul Ponziglione, S.J. (18181900), expanded the mission to the Colorado border. In 1887, the Holy See divided the Diocese of Leavenworth, thus forming the dioceses of Concordia, in northwest Kansas, and Wichita. James O'Reilly (b. 1887), nominated the first bishop of Wichita, died before his installation and was replaced by John Joseph Hennessy (18881897). Saint Aloysius Church was designated the pro-cathedral until the dedication of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (1912). Vast territory and rapidly changing populations due to immigration made early evangelization difficult.

The airline industry radically reshaped the diocese. Beginning in 1916, the creation of assembly lines and the establishment of McConnell Air Force Base (1951) brought rapid growth to the city of Wichita, which peaked during World War II. Workers came from surrounding rural areas and other states, thus giving the diocese a stronger urban concentration.

It was during the episcopate of Bishop Carroll that Father Emil Kapaun (19161951), a native of Pilsen, Kans., brought the diocese national attention by his service and death in the Korean Conflict. Having already distinguished himself as an army chaplain in World War II, Kapaun petitioned Carroll to release him for service in Korea in 1948. After being sent to Japan in 1949, he was transferred to Korea in July 1950. He frequently risked his life to celebrate the sacraments and minister to men of all faiths, who referred to him simply as "Father," and to enemy soldiers as well. After his capture on Nov. 2, 1950 he continued leading the men in prayer despite harassment from the guards and would often sneak out of the prisoner of war camp at night and return with food for the starving men. Sick with dysentery and denied medication, he died May 23, 1951 in a hospital. The Archdiocese for Military Services opened his cause for canonization in 1993.

In 1991 the pro-life organization Operation Rescue organized the "Summer of Mercy," a six-week series of demonstrations, rallies, and protests, strengthening the pro-life movement in Wichita, throughout the state, and other parts of the country. The diocese has seen lasting effects as the pro-life issue has remained a source of unity, drawing adults, and especially youth, to greater participation in the life of the Church.

The Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother of the Third Order of Saint Francis, who started Saint Francis Hospital in Wichita in 1889, have been leaders in Catholic health care. By 1969, with 860 beds, Saint Francis had become the second largest Catholic hospital in the nation. In 1995, it merged with Saint Joseph's Hospital, for which the Sister's of Saint Joseph had assumed responsibility in 1925, forming the Via Christi Regional Medical Center.

Bishop Eugene J. Gerber (19832001), a native son of the diocese and bishop of Dodge City, was named bishop of Wichita in December of 1982 and served until his resignation in 2001. He led the diocese into the third Christian millennium by creating the Spiritual Life Center, which includes a retirement center for lay people and priests, a large retreat center, the Bishop's Residence, and plans for a Discalced Carmelite monastery; by fostering Eucharistic adoration, strengthening stewardship among the laity, and encouraging vocations to the priesthood and the religious life; and by preparing for the third diocesan synod (2002). Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, formerly a priest of the diocese of Lincoln and rector of the Pontifical College Josephinum, succeeded him as Bishop of Wichita Oct. 4, 2001, having been named coadjutor in 1999.

Bibliography: j. m. moeder, History of the Diocese of Wichita, 1963. i. j.. strecker, The Church in Kansas 1850-1905: "A Family Story," (Kansas 1990). a. tonne, The Story of Chaplain Kapaun: Patriot Priest of the Korean Conflict (Emporia, Kans.1954).

[d. marstall]

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