My hike across the snowy parking lot toward Kansas City’s Visitation Church was hardly a trek through the hill country of the Holy Land. However, I still felt a kinship to the Blessed Mother as she arrived for her three-month stay at the home of her cousin Elizabeth, which the Church commemorates on May 31 as the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Beyond the heavy wooden mission-style doors, I found a refuge for both body and soul. As I stomped the snow from my boots, a young girl and her father immediately offered me a warm smile and an attractive card outlining the readings and hymns for that Sunday’s Mass.
Off to the left, a large stone hearth beckoned me to thaw my hands by the fire. Although I didn’t have time to linger, a few chairs there provided an inviting spot to return after Mass.
I then passed under one of the structure’s signature arches to enter the sanctuary — breathtaking and expansive, yet full of warmth. The decoratively tiled center aisle directed my attention to the turquoise and lime-green colored altar, flanked by a carving of light pink angels displaying “IHS,” the Latin monogram for Jesus’ name.
I later learned that although the current church and many of its components were new, following a major renovation in 2004, the vibrant colors remained in keeping with the Spanish Colonial style chosen by Visitation’s first pastor, Father Thomas McDonald, more than 100 years ago.
I settled into a pew on the left side, before which a curved wrought-iron staircase rose, leading up to a commanding lectern painted to match the altar.
At its back towered a 12-foot crucifix that then turned my gaze to a beautiful pipe organ in the 360-degree balcony, along with a series of massive chandeliers dotting the delicately painted ceiling. Directly above the altar loomed a dome with the image of a dove at the top and a Latin translation of the prayer “O Sacred Banquet” inscribed on all sides.
After Mass, I set out to investigate the various nooks and crannies scattered throughout the church and the treasures they contained: statues, stained-glass windows and other beautiful works of art.
Before I could do so, however, a gentleman in my pew surprised me by recognizing a new face and welcoming me to the community. Despite its size, I felt that “Vis” — as it is affectionately called — offered a cozy sense of belonging.
This impression grew as I wandered over to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, where the stucco walls and ornate wrought-iron gates gave the sensation of entering an old castle. A closer look revealed a set of high-backed monastic-style benches in front of the tabernacle: the ideal setting for a private audience with the King!
After a few moments in prayer, I bade Jesus farewell and continued to explore, coming to my favorite part of my tour: the St. Joseph Chapel. Built in honor of the Sisters of St. Joseph who served Visitation Parish for decades, the intimate room displayed architecture and art common to the mission churches of New Mexico.
The hand-carved wooden ceiling beams, chandelier, altar and pews gave the space a rustic feel. Behind the altar, an 18-foot piece featured paintings of Sts. Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avila, Rose Philippine Duchesne and others in bold blues, reds, browns and yellows. A statue of St. Joseph and the Child Jesus stood in the center.
Primitive statues filled several niches along the straw and plaster walls. One spot, however, remained empty. In tribute to a sister parish in El Salvador, the Visitation community prays often for the beatification of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was murdered while celebrating Mass in that Central American country 30 years ago.
If and when their prayers are answered, Archbishop Romero’s image will join the others in this spot.
As I turned to leave the chapel, I noticed an unusual work of art above the door. An animal hide — furry tail still intact — served as the canvas for a painting of “The Pieta.” I learned that early missionaries on the American frontier often communicated Bible stories to their native congregations in this way.
This practice of making the faith accessible and “user-friendly” reminded me that the most successful evangelization initiatives are often the most incarnational — like Mary’s appearance in Mexico as Our Lady of Guadalupe, for example.
Visitation Parish is no exception.
A fledgling community of 12 families began celebrating the sacraments in 1909 by adding a roof to an unused stone foundation at the first pastor’s family farm. They called it “the catacombs.”
The current church — just a few blocks over — is now nestled in the heart of urban Kansas City, where it serves more than 1,000 families.
Also interesting: The church’s Spanish architecture influenced the design of the nearby Country Club Plaza. I was impressed to discover that Visitation served as the inspiration for this historic, upscale shopping district rather than the other way around. According to a parish brochure, the mission of Visitation is twofold: “to serve both as a home to a Roman Catholic parish and as a cornerstone to its midtown Kansas City neighborhood.”
As I perused the Sunday bulletin, I noticed a plethora of opportunities to grow in love for Jesus and for his Church, including “Visiversity” faith-formation classes, online prayer resources, political activism and community service.
Based on my morning at “Vis,” I’d guess they’re on track to fulfill their mission.
Kimberly Jansen writes from Lincoln, Nebraska.
Visitation Catholic Church
5141 Main St.
Kansas City, MO 64112
Planning Your Visit
Weekend Masses: Saturday 4 p.m., Sunday 7:30, 9 and 11 a.m.
Weekday Masses in St. Joseph Chapel: Monday-Friday 6:45 and 8:15 a.m.; Saturday 8:15 a.m.
For a self-guided tour, look for a pamphlet in the rectory adjacent to the church. It includes some additional full-color photographs, historical facts and artistic details not described here.
Visitation is at the corner of East 51st Terrace and Main Street, just a few minutes from the Country Club Plaza shopping district and about 15 minutes south of downtown Kansas City.