The Kansas priest who brought God’s redemptive grace to troubled boys.Shane Schneider Five-minute read. Resources
Western Kansas in the 1940s was a vast expanse of sky and rolling earth sparsely dotted with towns and farmsteads. Episcopalians and their churches were few and far apart, cast across 10,000 square miles of wind-blown prairie served by The Rev. Robert Mize Jr., a young and energetic priest. Fr. Bob served isolated churches and families with a pastoral heart and a spirit of simplicity modeled after Francis of Assisi.
Like Francis, Fr. Bob cared little for money and embraced a poverty that was both practical and unaffected. This was just as well, since the Missionary Diocese of Western Kansas was poor, and his boss, The Rt. Rev. Robert Mize Sr., could barely afford to pay his son’s living expenses. That was okay with Fr. Bob, who preferred to wear donated, second-hand clothing and who gave nearly every coat he owned to homeless men he met on the street. Like Francis, he served Christ by serving the poor and marginalized. He believed resolutely in the power of forgiveness to heal even the most broken, and though he never married, his spiritual children can be counted in the thousands.
Nearly 75 years ago, Fr. Bob opened Saint Francis Boys’ Home in the dilapidated former “Old People’s Home” in Ellsworth – against the advice and counsel of, well, nearly everyone. During his travels across the Kansas prairie, Fr. Bob had met many boys in trouble with the law for reasons ranging from truancy and vandalism to car theft and armed robbery. Most ended up in the Topeka Industrial School or other institutions of the juvenile justice system – disregarded, forgotten, written off. That any boy might be given up for lost was an affront to the redemptive power of God, and it troubled him deeply.
Fr. Bob believed a Christ-centered approach held the key to a boy’s rehabilitation. He called it “Therapy in Christ,” and it involved daily prayer, accepting responsibility for one’s actions, unconditional love, and forgiveness. Fr. Bob fervently believed unconditional love and forgiveness (even before it was sought) would enable boys to regain their self-worth and begin to order their lives accordingly.
It didn’t happen overnight. Fr. Bob initially faced skepticism and stiff community opposition in Ellsworth. He spent countless hours apologizing to local merchants, returning stolen merchandise, and tracking down boys on joyrides in stolen cars. Yet, he never wavered in his conviction that unconditional love and forgiveness could change lives. And it did. Gradually, most of the boys quit running, reformed, and left the home to lead happy, productive lives. Eventually, Saint Francis opened another Boys’ Home near Salina, and by the time Fr. Bob left in 1960 to become Bishop of Damaraland in Southwest Africa, the ministry he founded had built a solid reputation of success throughout the state, the nation, and the Church.
Today, Saint Francis Community Services serves more than 10,000 children and families through active ministry in Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas, Mississippi, and in the Central American countries of El Salvador and Honduras. As a ministry, Saint Francis serves and advocates for children and families struggling with poverty, drug and alcohol dependency, mental health issues, domestic violence, refugee status, and human trafficking.
Bob Mize died in 2000 following other successful ministries in Africa and the United States. Today, he lies buried back on the windswept prairie, in a humble church cemetery near rural Hays. Many over the years have called him a saint; perhaps he was. Only God knows for sure. But to the thousands of children and youth served by Saint Francis over the last seven decades, Fr. Bob’s vision gave life-saving healing, hope, and redemption.