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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — St. Monica’s Church, located in the historic 18th and Vine District, is the first and oldest African American Catholic church in Kansas City.

It was first established 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, St. Monica’s Church is still impacting the community.

“I just feel this is where I belong,” parishioner Rose Palmer said. “I don’t think I belong anyplace else.”

The small church on 17th and Paseo is a symbol of belonging for hundreds of Black Catholics like Palmer.

“When I’ve gone through some really, really bad times, the church was here for me and not just the church, but my church family,” Palmer said.

There hasn’t always been a safe haven for Black Catholics to worship freely in Kansas City. That is until 1909. A man named Father Cyprian Sauer walked the streets of predominantly Black neighborhoods in Kansas City.

“They started with 30 families,” Father Leonard Gicheru said.

It was a humble beginning for what would be St. Monica Church, where today hundreds of parishioners say they feel a sense of belonging, shared experience and community.

“I think of us as a family,” parishioner Mjenise Comer said. “You know, one family that come together to celebrate our faith.”

“We’re unique in so many ways, in terms of our music, in terms of the dance … You can see the multiculturalism that’s here within the faith that’s not throughout the diocese,” parishioner Alvin Brooks said.

The theme at St. Monica is “a church alive is worth the drive.” Very few parishioners actually live within walking distance of the church. Some drive as far as St. Joseph, Atchison or Blue Springs.

Gicheru has been the priest at St. Monica for nearly a decade. He’s seen the church go through many changes during that time. But the one constant is members’ love for the community and appreciation for what sets them apart.

“Having an African American Catholic church is not only celebrating our Catholic-ness, so to say, but also the African-ness that we have, so that is something that we celebrate and love,” Gicheru said.

“My father is from the Gambia, and so like 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 to keep the doors open.

But Gicheru and his members who call this church home said the continuing story of St. Monica is so important, not just for them but also for future generations of Black Catholics.

“It’s just the most welcoming place,” parishioner Angela Curry said. “It’s home for us now. I’m here until they kick me out.”