Diocesan archivist looks back on 40 years as a priest
By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY - People in the know, or who want to be in the know, about the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph and its people, know whom to call for answers. Father Mike Coleman is a calmly quiet priest with a veritable goldmine of information and diocesan memories dating back more than 200 years at his fingertips.
Key file photo
Father Michael Coleman
The diocesan archivist is sharing memories of his own this year as he celebrates the 40th anniversary of his ordination.
Charles Michael Coleman lived on his grandparent's farm with his parents until his father's death when Mike was 8 years old. His mother, who was a registered nurse, moved her little family to Kansas City where she could find work to support them.
"I attended St. Vincent's Grade School," Father Coleman said. "Vincentian Father Oscar Huber was pastor back then, and he could relate to everyone. Even to a 10-year-old, it was clear that Father Huber worked hard. And when he said Mass . I knew when I was 10 that I wanted to say Mass just like he did."
There was never any question in his mind; he was going to be a priest.
He visited his grandparents on the family farm every chance he got, and while influenced by their devotion to the Catholic faith, he felt no pressure. The decision was to be his, and he made it. He graduated from St. John's Minor Seminary and entered Conception Seminary College in Conception. After completing his theology studies at Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis, Father Coleman was ordained at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in March 1967.
He expected to say his first Mass at the Cathedral, but the Monday after his ordination, he received an unexpected phone call from Bishop Charles Helmsing. Father John Hartigan, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish on Truman Road, had suffered a heart attack. Would Father Coleman take his place . for Masses and Holy Week services?
"My mother lived in the parish, so of course she was very proud. I was numb."
He was saved by the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth who at the time were in charge of the school.
"They knew the parish systems and made sure I had all the right books for Mass and Holy Week services." He said his first Mass at Immaculate Heart of Mary and survived, Father Coleman recalled with a smile.
His first assignment was assistant pastor at St. Louis Parish, where he stayed for five years, four of them assisting Father Donald Miller.
"I started at St. Louis Parish at a time of white flight and re-segregation. Serving there gave me opportunities to meet people in the context of their families and spiritual lives. It was sometimes difficult, but growth-giving."
In 1972, the young priest was assigned to campus ministry at then-Central Missouri State University and assistant pastor at Sacred Heart Parish in Warrensburg. The following year he took over as pastor at Sacred Heart.
"Working in campus ministry in the 1970s was another growth experience," Father Coleman said. "Hiring practices today make it possible to work side-by-side with people of different faiths, ethnicities and races. Back then, anyone who was different was to be avoided."
In the early spring of 1979, Father Coleman was immersed in paperwork in his office at Sacred Heart Church when his phone rang. The voice on the other end belonged to Kansas City-St. Joseph Bishop John Sullivan. Bishop Sullivan had decided that he wanted to beef up the marriage tribunal, and Father Coleman was to be sent to Rome to study canonical law.
"I had to leave right away for Rome so I could learn Italian. I spent two years studying in Rome and returned to Kansas City in 1981. I started working in the Tribunal right away, succeeding Father Carney. I received Bishop Sullivan's letter appointing me as judicial vicar soon after."
If he wasn't busy enough, the following year, Bishop Sullivan telephoned Father Coleman, saying, "You're in the tribunal offices every day so I want you to take over the archives, too." And the rest, as they say is history.
Some years earlier, Father Robert Deming had begun collecting memorabilia and archival stories about the diocese. Father Coleman began collecting and categorizing them.
"In the early 1990s, Sister Joan Markley was assisting me in the archives," he said. "The two of us started talking about publishing a two-volume history of the diocese going back to the earliest days of the Jesuit missionaries. We agreed that anything and everything that people have done to contribute to the life of the church should be recorded. We published "This Far by Faith" in 1992.
He continued to work both in the archives and at the diocesan Tribunal as judge of the marriage court. Then in 1995, he started suffering chest pains, and sought the advice of a cardiologist. A stress test was scheduled, but it was stopped almost as soon as it started and the cardiologist ordered open heart surgery immediately. A triple by-pass operation was performed the following Monday.
Father Coleman still follows doctor's orders for physical therapy and medication. He takes life a little easier these days, although the archive's offices and storage vaults are moving to diocesan-leased space in the Gillham-Plaza building next door to the chancery. Father Coleman expects the move to be mostly complete by July 1.
"Looking back over the years, Father Coleman said, "I can see that every assignment has required a major change in my life and I've learned so much. Working in campus ministry taught me that there are different ways to solve the same problem. We can't let ourselves get stuck in a rut.
"Marriage cases have taught me about the pain people suffer and their resilience. The archives gave me the opportunity to record history. It was a special gift, and I'm grateful.
"It has been a very satisfying life."