When Westport Presbyterian Church celebrated its 125th Anniversary, Emma Lyman wrote a detailed history of the church titled A Goodly Heritage. The following account is a summary by Marian M. Thomas of her work and of additions for September, 1960 through November, 1985 by an unknown author. Mrs. Thomas has written new material for 1986-September, 2010. Rev. Myers has added some material from September, 2010 to mid-summer, 2014.
Early History (1835- Mid 1900’s)
In 1835, the same year John Calvin McCoy filed the plot of his “dream town” called West Port in Independence, Missouri, the Rev. Mr. Robert Sloan organized the Westport Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Tradition says the congregation was organized in a log school house at what is now 42nd Street and Pennsylvania. The young church struggled through the next fifty-eight years with various meeting places and itinerant supply preachers. The first building was completed just after the Civil War at 706 Westport Road, one of the highest points in the area.
In 1891, the congregation was again without a pastor. The Rev. Dr. George P. Baity, age 32, had just completed his seminary education at the Cumberland Presbyterian Seminary in Lebanon, Tennessee, after graduating from Missouri Valley College in Marshall, Missouri. He heard about the need for pastoral leadership and contacted Elder L. A. Goodman. Dr. Baity’s first sermon was preached to an apathetic congregation of only forty-six people on July 2, 1893. Under his leadership, the church membership grew so much that a new building was needed. In March, 1896, a brick building was erected and dedicated on the present site. On January 11, 1903, in the middle of the night, the building burned to the ground. As a crowd of neighbors and church members gathered to watch, Brother Baity passed the hat and the building fund for a new church was started. During his tenure he worked energetically to close Westport saloons. He helped to establish Boy Scout Troop 60, which was founded in 1914.
The present stone building, including the sanctuary, chapel, and rooms upstairs above these paces was dedicated on October 2, 1904. In 1916 an educational building was added to provide more classrooms and a gymnasium. Until recently, this addition, named for L. A. Goodman, housed the Scout room, office suite, library, Fellowship Class room and Peace Quest program. In 1927 a Reuter pipe organ was installed, and Louis Vierne of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France, played the dedicatory recital. In 1942, the congregation supported a Japanese student at Park College despite general anti-Japanese sentiment.
Growth & Expanded Mission (1940’s – 1980’s)
When Dr. Baity retired in 1942, The Rev. Dr. Stuart Paterson, age 32, came to the church as pastor. The congregation grew rapidly, and purchased a manse and made major building improvements without incurring debt. In 1952 the Baity Memorial Building was added on the south side of the original buildings. During the years of Dr. Patterson’s leadership, a graded choir program was led by Ernest J. and Lucy Remley, and the pipe organ was renovated in 1963 by the Wicks Organ Company. Westport Cooperative Mission, Inc. was founded in 1971 to tackle problems facing the aging in the nearby community. This was at a time when some churches decided to move to the suburbs rather than stay in urban locations. The fact that Westport Presbyterian stayed where it was helped to revitalize the Westport area. From 1968 to 1972 the church joined with Roanoke Presbyterian and Calvary Baptist to operate “The Sign” coffee house, in an effort to reach out to area young people who were considered part of the “counter culture,” although some church members worried about possible negative effects on their teens.
In March, 1973, The Rev. Ronald L. Patton, age 32, came to lead Westport Presbyterian Church. He continued the strong emphasis on service to the Westport Community. For eight years, Baity Hall was host to a senior citizen nutrition program that served more than 150 meals a day on-site and to the home-bound. That program continues today as “Meals on Wheels.” In 1975 the congregation was the first in Kansas City to adopt a Vietnamese refugee family. That family of five, formerly Buddhists, joined the congregation in a bi-lingual baptism service. Westport Ministry in Housing was founded by Westport Presbyterian, St. Paul’s Episcopal, and Immanuel Lutheran churches in order to accept a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grant to build Westport House, an apartment building of 90 units which provides quality affordable housing for senior citizens in the Westport community. It was dedicated in April, 1983. Concern for the influence of the media led the church to house ECUMEDIA, an ecumenical group dedicated to using the media for education and advocacy for faith groups. In 1983 the Baity Building was made available to the Willow Woods Child Development Center because of the need for quality child care in the Westport community. The church also got community leaders and the police together to work on a plan to combat increasing crime in the area. It monitored how the area was zoned, so that the quality of life for residents would be maintained. The church continued its sponsorship of Boy Scout Troop 60, which is still active and has the oldest active charter in the Heart of America Council.
Rev. Patton was active in the Presbytery and at the national level in working for the reunion of the “northern” and “southern” bodies of Presbyterians. Westport Presbyterian, originally part of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, had been a leader in the union of that church with the Presbyterian Church in the USA, in 1906. A 1958 merger between that group and the Presbyterian Church in North America created The United Presbyterian Church in the USA. In 1972 Westport Presbyterian encouraged the first meeting of the “northern” and “southern” General Assemblies in the same place at the same time. Rev. Patton was on the national committee which worked toward reunion of these two main bodies, which was achieved in 1983 to create The Presbyterian Church, USA. In 1983 the Session adopted “The Westport Declaration:” “We intend to use all resources available, without reservation, to minister to, with, and in the community defined as Westport (31st Street to Brush Creek, Troost to State Line).” This decision launched a $50K capital campaign. New hymnals (The Worshipbook) were purchased and dedicated in April, 1984, and building repairs ensued. While serving Westport, Rev. Patton completed his Doctor in Ministry degree from San Francisco Theological Seminary, thus becoming The Rev. Dr. Patton on May 25, 1985.
The 150th Anniversary of the church was celebrated for one full year (1985), and included many guest preachers, special events, and the purchase of the Kimball grand piano. At that time, the church supported many services through the Westport Allen Center: Westport Cooperative Services (Meals on Wheels and Senior Companions), a Chemical Abuse Group, Westport School Age Child Care, the Center for All Men (anger management), the offices and studios of the Kansas City Ballet, Hospice Care of Mid-America, and the Movement Coalition (6 dance groups, including Sufi and Yoga). The Session created a committee on Ministry to work with the congregation to bring about “spiritual rejuvenation in the life of the church.”
Modern History (1980’s – Now)
Dr. Patton left in September, 1986, after thirteen years and six months of service, and The Rev. Dr. Henry C. Barnett became interim pastor for eleven months. The next pastor, The Rev. Dr. David Winters, focused on Central America, and encouraged the congregation to educate themselves about issues there. He made several mission trips to Guatemala in the course of his 6 year tenure. During his leadership, a Young Adult Class grew in numbers, but there were 30 deaths during his first year, and new members were not sufficient to maintain membership growth. Rev. Winters initiated a ritual Seder service on Maundy Thursdays, which was followed by a Christian communion service. He sensed a “survival mode” in the church, and worked to change that to a focus on “mission here and everywhere.” A new evening circle was established for working women, and Westport Presbyterian helped in the founding of The Urban Network ~ 16 churches in the city who banded together for mutual encouragement, sharing ideas and working to maintain membership. “White flight” to the Missouri suburbs or to Kansas, as well as the deaths of older members, meant a dwindling number of members. There were encouraging signs, though: the Young Adult Class had 15 members, and a new Sunday School for preschool children had 5 in attendance. The traditional Turkey Dinner on the Sunday before Thanksgiving had 140 diners in 1989. The choir grew to 19 members, and gave an annual “Choir Sunday” program each year.
1990 brought better handicap access to the church, when a power door was installed at the entrance from the parking lot. Dr. Winters convinced the church to hire a half-time minister to work with youth and the home-bound, and Susan Hartley joined the staff. (Money was borrowed from the Endowment Fund to pay her salary.) Charles Bruffy, the choir’s tenor soloist, became Choir Director in 1990, and remained for 4 years and 4 months. The church was proud of the fact that he was the successful director of The Kansas City Chorale, whose office was at the church. A prayer group concerned itself with the war in the Persian Gulf (“Desert Storm”), and feminism was studied as efforts were made to expand ministry to women. Renovations were made to the Goodman wing to include handicap accessible bathrooms for men and women as well as a new modern kitchen. Needs of the elderly continued to be important, and when HIV/AIDS became an area of concern, the church educated people and supported efforts to help those affected by the disease: the Session signed a “Covenant to Care,” and made space available for meetings of Parents & Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). A new tenant at the church, the Rev. Dr. Vern Barnet, led his new organization, the Center for Religious Experience and Study (CRES) in work on interfaith issues. During these years, Scout Troop 60 remained active, producing Eagle Scouts. The Scout/Youth Room boasted a wooden floor, and the space was rented by dance groups: Irish, Welsh, English, Lithuanian, and Dutch. Another tenant was the Heartland All-Species Project, a group teaching care for the earth and ecology.
The church experienced financial difficulties in 1991 and 1992, as many people who made large pledges died, and their pledges were not fulfilled. Salaries of staff had to be frozen, and newsletters were produced only every other week to save money. Main line churches across the country were experiencing similar loss of members and extremely tight budgets. Two years after she came, Rev. Susan Hartley left for a full-time ministerial position, and Westport decided it could not afford two pastors. Soon after that, Dr. Winters resigned to go work in Guatemala.
Interim pastor Rev. Terry Hamilton-Poore began work in September, 1993, and served for fourteen and a half months. She was the first full-time female minister the church had hired. During her tenure, the church continued its work in the community. In July, 1994, Marian Thomas, the Choir Director and Organist and an adjunct faculty member at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri, was hired as organist. Three months later, in November, 1994, The Rev. Scott Myers became the pastor of Westport Presbyterian Church.
Rev. Myers continued the church’s active role in the Westport Community and also strengthened the congregation’s awareness of the arts as integral to spiritual growth. He launched many new programs including an authentic Passover Seder followed by a dinner, a Neighborhood Learning Center at which students learned to use computers, an investment club called Westport Investors, two film series featuring a discussion of issues raised in the films, a Christian meditation group, live staged readings with professional actors of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, an “Inquiry Service” on Saturday afternoons, a “Spectrum of the Arts” Sunday School class, a chess club for kids, a peacemaking program for elementary school children which came to be called “Peace Quest,” Native American Celebration Weekends with Dennis Yerry, and a group called “Friends of Children Learning” which encouraged the Kansas City Missouri School District to make How Children Learn their focus.
Rev. Myers oversaw major renovations to the church property: the remodeling of the sanctuary and creation of a parlor; a new boiler heating system; a lighted front yard sign; handicap access to the choir loft (a lift); pipe organ renovation; new heating and air conditioning in the Day Care Center; new carpet and tile on the first floor; chapel remodeling; new air conditioning for the sanctuary and upstairs offices; remodeling of the Scout/Youth room, including a new wooden floor; 100 windows and siding; remodeling of main church entry and Fellowship room and more.
Locally, in 1998 he encouraged the church to participate in a “Back to School Project” to provide supply-filled back packs for needy school children. Globally, he spurred an effort to educate the congregation and raise money for Greg Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute, to help build schools for girls in Afghanistan and aid women through microfinacing. He encouraged Westport Cooperative Services to move their offices to the church and to provide “Meals-on-Wheels” daily to neighborhood shut-ins, using the church’s kitchen to prepare the meals. Rev. Myers strongly supported a community effort to force a nearby nightclub, which broke city ordinances, to close, and worked with police to improve security in the area.
He encouraged Marian Thomas to begin noon-time Brown Bag Concerts by local performers, and together they produced a booklet called “Invite the Spirit.” They co-taught a Sunday School class which incorporates visual, literary and musical arts in the curriculum. In 2005 Rev. Myers won a coveted Lilly Endowment Sabbatical grant to study “Arts and Spirituality” for three months. During those months he traveled to Europe and to art centers in the USA, read a great deal, and returned eager to share his passion for art with the congregation. During his absence, Rev. Hubert Neth, a retired United Methodist minister, led the congregation and frequently shared his own poetry. Rev. Myers and Mrs. Thomas created ten different “Illuminated Insights” which project paintings, sculpture, and photographs to enhance scripture, for which Mrs. Thomas wrote interpretations. For Christmas Eve and Good Friday services, these presentations were combined with music sung by the congregation and soloists. The church choir presented numerous Christmas concerts and “Choir Sunday” programs, and in 2008 presented the Kansas City premiere of “A Sermon From the Mountain,” a tribute in song and spoken word to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by American composer Alice Parker. During Rev. Myers’ tenure the church purchased the 1990 Presbyterian Hymnal as well as the supplement Sing the Faith. Mrs. Thomas taught a class on the new hymnal and created “hymn notes” for worship bulletins; Rev. Myers chose a wide variety of hymns for worship, so the congregation increased their hymn repertoire.
Wanting to expand arts programming, Rev. Myers and members of the church’s Arts Committee created the Westport Center for the Arts (WCA) in 2006, a non-profit organization which uses the church’s facilities, in order to seek funding from foundations, arts organizations, and individuals. The WCA is now independent of the church, but was born from the commitment of church members and friends to making the church a place where community arts are honored and encouraged. Programs include live staged readings of great literature, monthly Brown Bag noon concerts, a film series, dance groups, art shows, and special events such as virtual tours of great art museums through internet resources. Two CD’s of African-American spirituals sung by tenor Robert Hughes have been produced. Deanna Capps, a graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute, serves as secretary of the church and uses her creative skills to manage the web page of WCA and to create artistic programs and flyers for WCA events.
In October, 2010, the church celebrated its 175th anniversary. A special weekend was set aside for the celebration. Re-enactors playing Dr. George Baity and Minnie Baity and Pony Express founder/Westport Presbyterian leader Alexander Majors, greeted people who came to the church. Boy Scout Troop 60 set up a camp on the front lawn and cooked food for guests. Folk singer Kelly Werts played his guitar and sang in front of the church. Members gave tours of the building. A special celebration worship service was held on Sunday. Three living pastors helped to lead the service: Dr. Ron Patton, Dr. David Winters and Rev. Myers. When you add Dr. Stuart Paterson and Dr. Baity to the list, an amazing story emerges: Only 5 pastors from 1893 until now, 2014. That is 5 pastors in 121 years!
From 2011 through 2013, the church continued to grow its Children’s Peace Quest ministry, further developed the Westport Center for the Arts with art exhibits by Stanley Brian Morgan, an experienced artist from Kansas City’s African-American community and an active church member, a Mostly Foreign Film and Discussion Series, continued development of the relationship between the church and Westport Cooperative Services, Willow Woods Child Development Center and Boy Scout Troop 60. Although we are jumping ahead a little, the church joined with the scout troop in 2013 to help the troop celebrate its 100th anniversary with a special homecoming reunion at Loose Park and then an amazing adventure for the boys and leaders to Rocky Mountain National Park. Two church leaders, Rev. Myers and Kelly Gregory, helped with the expedition. Everyone camped in the park and also stayed in cabins at the YMCA of the Rockies.
2011 Fire & Rebuilding (Now Completed)
A catastrophe struck the church on Dec. 28, 2011. A terrible fire! The fire completely destroyed the church, the sanctuary, chapel, and the large three level wing known as the Goodman Building. Fortunately, no one was killed or injured, and the fire department managed to keep the day care center from burning.
The congregation has grown stronger since the fire. We began worshipping at The Villa of Kansas City, a little over a block away. We established offices there, and that building, once a funeral home, has a serviceable chapel where we held worship services for 4 1/2 years.
With the assistance of BNIM Architects and AL Huber General Contractor, the church was rebuilt. The new building was dedicated on June 26, 2016 with a special “Westport Rising” Celebration Worship Service and an open house weekend full of activities.