I will never forget my first summer with the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT) in 1972. That was the summer I first met Father James (Jim) Flanagan, the late Founder of SOLT. (Note: Today is the one year anniversary of the death of Father Jim, who died on Holy Thursday, March 24, 2016, at the age of 91.)
I was completing my junior year at the University of Delaware. I saw a notice on the bulletin board at our campus Newman Center about a unique summer program in Kansas City called “Projection ‘72”. I was intrigued by one of the three volunteer opportunities to work in a large county jail tutoring inmates towards earning their GED.
Not only did the program offer no salary, but there was no offer to help with transportation to and from Kansas City. Worse, the program was starting in five weeks and I had to apply for the experience and wait for a response before I knew what I would be doing that summer.
However, within ten days I did receive a welcome response from Deacon Paul McCardle, the very first married permanent deacon to be ordained in the United States. He informed me that I was accepted, and should arrive in Kansas City no later than June 14. And, oh, by the way, SOLT had two new priests who had just been ordained, one named nearly identical to me: Father Jim Doherty.
That sealed the deal. They wanted me. I felt I had been called by God.
I hitchhiked to Kansas City over two days and got dropped off in the heart of the inner-city. The next morning I was picked up by a member of the SOLT community, a quiet and extremely humble man named George Kendzora.
SOLT Community Life
George led me into “Flora House”, the SOLT single men’s house. I introduced myself to the other SOLT single men members, as well as to the male college students like me who were staying at Flora House for the six-week Projection ’72.
Flora House was located on Flora Avenue. Flora was a street located in the heart of the inner-city, on the African-American side of the then segregated Kansas City.
I met some extraordinary SOLT men that morning, George Walker, who had served in a SOLT apostolate to the Hopi Native American Tribe; Steve Hogarty, who operated a nearby gas station called “Steve’s Stop, where he evangelized all those who needed car and soul service; and Pat McGee, who was director of Dismas House, a SOLT Halfway House for men just released from prison.
I learned that SOLT had a unique vision to bring all people into union with the Most Holy Trinity based on the discipleship of the Blessed Mother to the Trinity. They did this in a number of ways. One of the most obvious ways was that they lived a common community life in houses representing each of the Church’s vocational states. Besides Flora House, there was a Convent for SOLT consecrated religious sisters, a rectory for SOLT priests and seminarians, a SOLT single lay women’s house, and various houses where married SOLT members lived with their families.
There were a variety of SOLT membership levels. The most committed members shared their earnings and resources with the entire community, just like the early Church community described in Acts 2: 42-47. There were even married couples with families who lived an austere and heroic level of charity, such as the Sullivan’s, who had sold their house and belongings in Boston to join the first SOLT community in the mountains of New Mexico.
Most of the houses were located on Tracy Street, about a mile from Flora Avenue. But the rectory for SOLT priests and seminarians, along with several SOLT married family houses, were in the East Bottoms. This area consisted of very small residences bounded by an industrial park on one side, railroad tracks on the other side, and cliffs which had been created by the Missouri River, another boundary marker, which had eroded the limestone hills beneath which was the “bottom” of Kansas City.
The SOLT Church was also located in the East Bottoms next to the SOLT Rectory. The small Church was named St. Francis Seraph Church, an appropriate patron for a new religious community that would also renew the Church and the world, according to SOLT Founder, Father James H. Flanagan. Where was the most damaging attack being aimed by the devil in the last half of the 20th century? “At the family”, Father Flanagan noted repeatedly. The Trinity was a family and the world needed to live in the Trinity as the one true Family of God, asserted Father Jim, as everyone called Father Flanagan.
Father Jim lived in the SOLT rectory along with Father Jim Doherty and Father Vince Albano, the other newly ordained SOLT priest. Father Jim offered tramps and hobos who hitched rides on the nearby railroad trains food and lodging. He even gave them his own shoes and clothes when they asked. He was the Catholic chaplain at the county jail, Co-Founder of Dismas House, and spiritual director to hundreds of people, including other religious such as the entire convent of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Eucharist.
Father Jim was the primary formator for the SOLT Community and its unique charism of serving on family ecclesial teams composed of every vocational state. Every Saturday evening, Father Jim would give a teaching to the entire SOLT community gathered together at the Convent. He would discuss the Sunday readings for the coming day, and invite everyone to share their reflections on those readings. I was deeply touched by Father Jim’s remarkable tolerance to listen to everyone’s thoughts, no matter their state in life. His teachings were breathtaking, explaining the inner-life and relationship of the Trinity available to all. I wanted so much to live this new and Spirit-filled life!
Every Sunday, we would gather for Community Mass, which was open to all parishioners of St. Francis Seraph, and have a potluck dinner following Mass. I was able to interact at these potlucks with SOLT Sisters, families and lay members, who seemed to be part of one common family.
That entire summer went by in a blur of religious joy. I did not realize at the time how much I was being healed of my young adult sinfulness and self-centeredness. I returned later that summer to finish my final year of college and to return to Kansas City the next year to enter formation as a member of SOLT.