By Kirk Petersen
Salina, Kansas, population 47,000, is a historically Episcopal town.
In addition to having two Episcopal churches, including the cathedral of the Diocese of Western Kansas, it is home to two venerable institutions with strong Episcopal ties: Saint Francis Ministries, founded by an Episcopal priest in 1945, and St. John’s Military School, founded by an Episcopal bishop in 1887.
“There’s a rich Episcopal tradition in Salina,” the Rev. Robert N. Smith, dean and CEO of Saint Francis, told TLC.
The next chapter of that tradition began September 26, when Saint Francis acquired the real estate and physical assets of St. John’s, which graduated its final class in May, after 131 years as a faith-based military boarding school for boys.
“There was no purchase price. Legally, this is a reorganization of the school,” Smith said. He explained that the school’s financial assets were earmarked for settling the school’s affairs and toward a historical museum of the school that will be housed on the site.
Saint Francis acquired the school’s physical assets and real estate, and is exploring options for how best to use the facility.
Saint Francis operates in six states and two foreign countries, and has more than 1,300 employees. It provides adoption, foster care and family preservation services, and runs residential programs for youth and prepares them for independent living.
All of this is headquartered in five buildings in Salina, and Communications Director Morgan Rothenberg said one option being considered is to consolidate the headquarters into the school property, which is about a mile and a half away from Saint Francis’s primary headquarters.
Because St. John’s was a boarding school with housing and classrooms, another option is “providing some sort of a workforce program for youth aging out of foster care,” she said.
The ties between the two Salina institutions run deep. The Rev. Robert Mize Jr. was a graduate of St. John’s who founded Saint Francis in 1945 as a home for about a dozen boys labeled “juvenile delinquents.”
While Saint Francis has been growing dramatically, St. John’s fortunes were headed in the other direction. Because of changing demographics and educational practices, the corps of cadets had dwindled to little over 100 boys, grades 6-12, in a facility built to accommodate twice that.
“The school’s recent legal issues and a low enrollment resulting from negative and unfair portrayals in the media has created a deficit we, regrettably, simply cannot overcome,” the school said in a February letter announcing that the school would not reopen after graduation in May.
St. John’s officials could not be reached, and a phone at the school went unanswered. The Kansas City Star reported in January that an arbitrator had awarded $370,000 to a former student who allegedly “was sexually assaulted in his dormitory room by a classmate the school ought to have known posed a danger to other children.”
The Star article also said that in 2014, the school reached settlements with 11 former students who alleged “physical and emotional abuse.” The settlements ranged from $55,000 to $1.8 million.
When asked if Saint Francis could face any future liabilities from further cases against the school, Smith said: “We don’t see that as an ongoing long-term risk. We believe the due diligence that both organizations engaged in was deep and thorough. We know of past situations, and believe that those are in the past, and that we’re able to move forward in confidence in a way that supports the new mission, the new work that’s under consideration.”
The Diocese of Western Kansas has not been involved in the merger of the two organizations, “but the bishop has been very supportive of this,” Smith said.
Despite the large number of institutions with Episcopal affiliations, the largely rural Diocese of Western Kansas is quite small in terms of average Sunday attendance (552 for 2018), ranking 99th out of 101 domestic dioceses. Bishop Mark A. Cowell, who was consecrated in December 2018, also serves as the vicar or priest-in-charge of two churches, in Larned and Kinsley. In addition, he is the part-time municipal prosecutor of Dodge City, and the elected county attorney of Hodgeman County, based in Jetmore. While the diocesan cathedral is in Salina, diocesan headquarters are in Hutchinson, more than 60 miles to the south.
Smith spoke with TLC the day after the Trump Administration announced plans to cap the number of refugees allowed into the United States next year at 18,000, the lowest level since the program began 40 years ago.
Smith was asked about the effect on Saint Francis Migration Ministries, an affiliate of Episcopal Migration Ministries, which is one of nine organizations in the country that oversees all refugee resettlement. “We hope that it turns around. I think it’s an intentional way to try to get ministries like Saint Francis to stop doing this important work,” he said. “It’s easy to dismantle aspects of the social safety net that support the common good. It’s incredibly difficult to get them started.”
One of the reasons the administration has given for reducing the number of refugees is the fear that terrorists could enter the country by posing as refugees. “The truth is that by the time someone becomes eligible to be relocated to the United States through the refugee resettlement program, they have been vetted for years,” Smith said. “I met a family earlier this year that had lived for almost 20 years in a refugee camp in the Horn of Africa, before they were able to be relocated to the United States.”
Saint Francis Ministries is a sponsor of The Living Church magazine.