Amy Bickel’s account of the Willowdale story on Sunday triggered a memory that remains fresh in my mind after 61 years.
In the summer of 1956, just graduated from college, I answered an ad seeking a teacher/coach at Wea Rural High School in Miami County. I traveled south through Overland Park and through the corn fields to the school three miles south of the Johnson County line. The principal of the high school, Sister Gertrude, an Ursuline nun, directed me to the farms of the three school board members. Two, John Keenan and Leonard Vohs, I found at their respective homes where an informal interview was conducted. One, Peter Miller, was cultivating corn and I walked into the field to visit with him as he sat on his tractor. Somehow, after this unusual interview process, I got the job. I would soon learn the history of the community I was joining.
In 1858 a sawmill owner in Kansas City offered William Schwartz and Anthony Vohs a tract of land in northeast Miami County as part payment for past wages. With a borrowed yoke of oxen and wagon, these two men ventured to the property which occupied land that only a short time ago had been occupied by the Wea Indians. Wea township, Wea Creek and the new settlement all received their name from this peaceful tribe.
A modest structure, to be known as the Holy Rosary Church, was erected in 1869. A group of new families, including brothers of Schwartz and Vohs, formed the nucleus of the Catholic community at Wea. A French priest, Father Sebastian Favre, traveled from Lawrence to serve the new parish.
By 1881 there were 60 families in the parish, nearly all living on farms. Unlike Willowdale, Wea never developed into a town. A resident priest was named in 1881 and, in 1896, a brick church was erected only to be destroyed nine years later by a fire resulting from a lightning bolt. A contractor, Q.V. McAfee, from Garnett began the building of a replacement church and had begun constructing the roof when a tornado in September of 1905 reduced the unfinished building to rubble. A discouraged McAfee agreed to continue the project only after William Schwartz offered a personal guarantee of complete backing. Construction continued and the new structure was dedicated on May 29, 1906. It still stands and is in daily use. It was rather large for a country church with a Gothic design and a 110’ bell tower.
1905 was also the year that the first Ursuline Sisters of Paola arrived to start an elementary school. Sometime prior to 1930 a new two-story, brick school was constructed which would house both a high school and an elementary school.
By the time I arrived in 1956, the school had become public with both a common school district and a rural high school district being formed. Although a public school, it was staffed by Ursuline Sisters, a situation not uncommon in Kansas during those years. Sister Anna, Sister Aurelia and I comprised the high school faculty which was housed on the second floor. Three Sisters taught the grade schoolers on the first floor. A kitchen in the basement provided hot lunches. A gymnasium had been attached to the rear of the building.
My job involved teaching English, Government and American History as well as coaching both elementary and high school, both boys and girls. As the only layperson on the teaching staff, it became my job to supervise all school activities, games, plays, dances, etc. which occurred outside of the regular school day. We were members of the Johnson County League. Member schools were Stanley, Stilwell, Edgerton, Fontana, Wea and the Kansas School of the Deaf in Olathe. Stanley was the largest high school in the league with 60 students. Stilwell enrolled 40. The two now comprise Blue Valley.
Three years into my teaching tenure at Wea, Vicky and I were married in that 1905 Holy Rosary Church. Vicky is the great-granddaughter of William Schwartz, one of the Wea founders. The Wea school fell victim to unification in 1966 but has now been replaced with a thriving parochial elementary school.
Although the beginning of the Wea community seems very similar to that of Willowdale, the situation after 130 plus years is exceedingly different. Willowdale is located in a part of the state, like Rice County where I now reside, which struggles to maintain itself. Wea, on the other hand, aided by the Johnson County economy and the advent of rural water availability, has become virtually suburban. On every road, interspersed among the corn and soybean fields, are beautiful homes with manicured lawns on small acreages where gentlemen farmers can enjoy their horses and their Kubotas.
Time has transformed the Holy Rosary Parish. The placid farm community I found in 1956 is gone, but the venerable old church remains. And the descendants of those original Wea families still form the community backbone.
Jack Wempe grew up in the Hutchinson area and is a former educator, state legislator and member of the Kansas Board of Regents now living in Lyons. E-mail: email@example.com.