KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Santa Monica Church, located in the historic 18th and Vine District, is the first and oldest African-American Catholic church in Kansas City.
It was first founded in 1909 as a mission for black Catholics.
At the time, worship spaces — and even some schools specifically for black Catholics — were nonexistent in the area.
But more than a century later, Santa Monica Church still impacts the community.
“I just feel like this is where I belong,” parishioner Rose Palmer said. “I don’t think I belong to anyone else.”
The small church on 17th and Paseo is a symbol of belonging for hundreds of black Catholics like Palmer.
“When I went through some really, really bad times, the church was here for me and not just the church, but my church family,” Palmer said.
There has not always been a safe haven for black Catholics to worship freely in Kansas City. That was until 1909. A man named Father Cyprian Sauer walked the streets of Kansas City’s predominantly black neighborhoods.
“They started with 30 families,” said Father Leonard Gicheru.
It was a humble beginning for what would be Santa Monica Church, where today hundreds of parishioners say they feel a sense of belonging, shared experience and community.
“I think of us as family,” parishioner Mjenise Comer said. “You know, a family that gets together to celebrate our faith.”
“We are unique in so many ways, in terms of music, in terms of dance… You can see the multiculturalism that is here within the faith that is not across the entire diocese,” parishioner Alvin Brooks said.
St. Monica’s theme is “A Living Church Worth Driving”. Very few parishioners actually live within walking distance of the church. Some drive to St. Joseph, Atchison or Blue Springs.
Gicheru has been the priest of St. Monica for almost a decade. He has seen the church undergo many changes during that time. But the one constant is the members’ love for the community and appreciation for what sets them apart.
“Having an African-American Catholic church is not only celebrating our catholicity, so to speak, but also the Africanness that we have, so it’s something we celebrate and cherish,” Gicheru said.
“My father is from The Gambia, and so bringing all these different cultures together really creates a diverse community that comes together — and it works,” said John Mendy, a lifelong parishioner.
The parish, like many others, has faced several challenges since 1909 in keeping its doors open.
But Gicheru and the members who call this church home said the continuation of Santa Monica’s story is so important, not just to them but to future generations of Black Catholics as well.
“It’s just the coziest place,” said parishioner Angela Curry. “It’s home for us now. I’m here until they kick me out.”