Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Wichita: the harvest after the 'Summer of Mercy'?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 16, 2011

Since 1998, four natives of Wichita, Kansas, have been ordained as Catholic bishops. As the Wichita Eagle points out, that figure is remarkable for a city of modest size (population a bit under 1 million), where Catholics form a distinct minority (a bit over 100,000), and the local diocese has only one bishop with no auxiliaries. 

"Is there something in the soil, in the water, in the air?" asks Bishop Ronald Gilmore, the Wichita native who retired last year from his post as Bishop of Dodge City-- and was replaced by another Wichita native, Bishop John Brungardt. 

No, it's  not the soil or the water or the air. But suppose I told you that something extraordinary happened in Wichita, just a few years before this remarkable string of episcopal ordinations began. Suppose I told you that in 1991, the city of Wichita saw a spectacular burst of civil-rights activism-- in fact, the most impressive display of massive civil disobedience in American history? Would you entertain the possibility that that could be a factor?

In 1991, the pro-life activists of Operation Rescue announced plans for a "Summer of Mercy" campaign in Wichita. Hundreds of activists drove or flew to Kansas; thousands of local pro-lifers joined in the effort. Day after day, scores of pro-lifers blocked the entry to the abortion clinic run by the late George Tiller, risking arrest in an effort to save unborn babies from destruction. Over the course of an intensive 6-week campaign, before a stern federal injunction brought an end to the daily clinic blockades, more than 2,700 people were arrested-- including all four of the future bishops! Then-Bishop Eugene Gerber said that he was "completely in solidarity" with those risking arrest.

The mass media generally downplayed the events in Wichita that year, because the mass media always downplay pro-life activism. But in terms of its length, the number of participants, and especially the number of arrests, the "Summer of Mercy" effort dwarfs any other civil-rights campaign in our country's history.

I was in Wichita that memorable summer. I saw the prayerful sacrifices made by thousands of good people. Afterward, when the whole Operation Rescue movement gradually slipped into history, I felt certain that the pro-life initiative would appear again, perhaps in some other form. All those sacrifices, I felt certain, must have planted seeds; who could predict when and where they would sprout? Now, nearly 20 years later, the Wichita Eagle calls my attention to a bumper-crop of Catholic bishops from Wichita. And I wonder... 

Two afterthoughts:

For the record, the four Wichita natives who have been consecrated as bishops since 1998 are: Archbishop-elect Paul Coakley, who will be installed in Oklahoma City this week; Bishop Ronald Gilmore, now retired, of Dodge City; Bishop John Brungardt, now active in Dodge City; and Bishop James Conley, a Denver auxiliary.

For anyone interested in learning more about the Operation Rescue movement, I will shamelessly recommend my own book: Operation Rescue: A Challenge to the Nation's Conscience. It's unfortunately out of print now, but if you send me an email with your name and address (just hit "email the editor" below), I'll happily send you a paperbook copy from my own supply for just $5, shipping included.

Update/Correction #1: Father Richard McDonald writes with an important correction. When I referred to “"four Wichita natives who are bishops,” I was in error. Only one of the four new bishops from Wichita is actually a native of the diocese. Bishops Brungardt, Coakley, and Conley were born in other nearby dioceses, but eventually ordained as priests of the Wichita diocese. Father McDonald observes: “The real story is that three of the four chose to study for Wichita, not having been native sons even of the diocese as it is.” The lesson of the story, he points out, is that “seminarian candidates flock to dioceses that are good. Wichita has been one of these dioceses.”

Point taken. In a way the correction only heightens my suspicion that something extraordinary may be happening in Wichita. In time, I feel sure, we’ll be able to see that the emergence of these four bishops is only a sign of a wider groundswell. 

Update/Correction #2: Another interested reader informs me that all four of the future bishops were arrested during the "Summer of Mercy" campaign. (I have corrected the story above to reflect that fact.) Again the correction only heightens my suspicion-- which is now hardening into a certainty-- that something special is going on there. 


Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: John Holecek - Feb. 17, 2011 6:51 PM ET USA

    I live in the Diocese of Wichita, McPherson to be exact. Not only does the Diocese churn out vocations, but the priests are high quality. Our current pastor at St. Joseph Parish, Rev. David Lies, is extraordinarily good. As time goes by, Kansas will be much in the news as our legislature is overwhelmingly pro-life, and we now have a pro-life governor, Sam Brownback, unlike Kathleen Sebelius who vetoed all pro-life legislation.

  • Posted by: - Feb. 17, 2011 10:42 AM ET USA

    Sorry to nitpick, but I do not believe Wichita's population is anywhere near 1 million, which makes it all the more impressive. I spent about a year living in Eastern Kansas, and I can attest to the faith of Kansans. There are some mighty strong Catholics there. A huge pro-life movement has started recently in Kansas City, MO and KS, and the war against pornography and sex trafficking is winning big battles also.

  • Posted by: KC627 - Feb. 17, 2011 12:22 AM ET USA

    Just thought I would add that Bishop Thomas Olmstead was the Bishop of Wichita before he was moved to Phoenix to clean up the mess there. Bishop Olmstead is a Kansas native, served under Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska as did his successor now in Wichita Bishop Michael Jackels.