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St. John the Divine church part of rich, deep history of KCK's Argentine neighborhood

KCK Church Fire.jpg
Posted at 6:33 PM, Mar 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-04 20:06:26-05

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — A fire at St. John the Divine Catholic Church had many recalling memories and its history in the community.

The mural on Metropolitan Avenue in Argentine details the deep history of the neighborhood.

It starts with the Shawnee Native American tribe relocating to the area in the early 1800s. As the mural continues, you see the industrialization of the community.

Argentine was founded as its own town in 1880 as a silver-smelting community, lending way for the nickname "Silver City."

The mural goes through devastating floods in 1903 and 1951, rebuilding, and change. It goes through segregation of the Mexican Community. Through all the changes, the mural depicts families, mainly Mexican, withstanding it all.

"I think Argentine as a Mexican-American community is really still quite vital," said Gene Chavez, a metro historian.

St. John the Divine church, just down the street, is woven into the mural's story and the generations of memories.

Most of the church burned to the ground in a fire on Tuesday night.

"This church was originally built in 1887. Over the years, there were several additions and renovations, but the really amazing thing is it survived the 1903 flood, it survived the 1951 flood," said Amy Loch with the Wyandotte County Historical Museum. "It maintained a key cultural institution in Argentine for all those years up until it closed in the early 1990s."

According to the National Register of Historic Places, St. John is one of the few buildings of cultural significance to the Mexican American community that remains.

"It was its own town. It was eventually annexed into Kansas City, but it’s always maintained its own identity as its own community," said Loch. "There have been a lot of Mexican-Americans that moved here as part of the railroad and other industries early on. This [church] was really a key institution for many of them."

Mexican families started moving to Argentine and neighboring Armourdale in the early 1900s, many recruited to work for the railroad, meat-packing plants, and silver-smelting companies.

Chavez said when the thousands, some estimates say a million, Mexican families migrated north, they were met with an anti-immigrant sentiment. The sentiment was alive in Kansas City, which forced Mexican families to certain streets in Argentine.

St. John the Divine was first the Metropolitan Methodist Church, but was changed to fit the growing need of the Mexican community.

"The diocese purchased the building and made it a Mexican church and that’s where the majority of Mexican population attended church, again, because of that segregation in the community," Chavez said.

The Clara Barton school was established in 1910 for Mexican kids. It was destroyed in the 1951 flood and was never rebuilt.

Chavez said St. John the Divine also had a school attached in its earlier years for Mexican kids.

Over the years, the church was the place for annual fiestas; for baptisms, weddings, quinceaneras, and birthdays.

"This became a focal point for the Mexican community," Chavez said.

Mario Escobar, a community leader, has lived across the street from the church since 1984.

"We’ve lived here a long time. This was our church. We went to it. My son was an altar boy here, so you know, we understand the sentimental value," Escobar said.

The church has sat vacant since 1992, and all those memories are far off.

"As much as you hate to say it, it ended up being an eyesore to the community, especially to the people who live around here," Escobar said.

If someone wanted to do something with the building, he said, it should have been done already.

The Unified Government received $30,000 of federal and state funding and matched that with $20,000 to secure the deteriorating structure in 2016.

A neighborhood group wanted to revitalize the church into a cultural center, but the plans didn't go far.

Calls to the owner of the building, who is also behind the effort to revitalize it, were not returned.

"I think there would be opportunities for that rebuilding, into something beautiful," Chavez said.