If you have driven along Benton Boulevard, between E. 27th and E. 28th Street in Kansas City you will, no doubt, have noticed a large round brick building. This unique structure is St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church. Despite its unusual and modern appearance, St. Augustine’s design is inspired by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which dates back to the 4th Century.
Church Architecture overall has enjoyed an impressive and long-term evolution. The churches in Kansas City have included several distinctive styles: Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic and Gothic Revival, Neo-Classical Revival, Greek Revival, Italianate, Craftsman/Bungalow, and the Modern Movement. But until 1960, it did not include a round church.
Church architecture historically began with what is called a round church with a completely circular plan. Strictly speaking, round churches should not be confused with the similar-looking polygonal round-tower church constructions, such as the Round Church, a 16-sided church in Richmond, Vermont, USA.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre
The inspiration for round churches came from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which was dedicated in the 4th Century. This church became known throughout the world as the most sacred place in the most sacred city, the site of the burial of Jesus.
Round churches spread around the world
Round churches are often associated with the Knights Templar, who, inspired by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built many round churches across Europe after they returned from the First Crusade in 1097. They believed that being buried in a round church was akin to being buried in Jerusalem.
Round Churches were built In England from the 11th to the 15th Century and have been erected in at least 16 countries. They can be found in North America, South America, and Europe. Intriguingly, round churches are rare in the United States. Round churches in the US include the Circular Congregational Church, Charleston, South Carolina, built 1861; Blessed Sacrament Church, Holyoke, Massachusetts, opened 1953; St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, Kansas City, Missouri, built 1960; and the Church of all Nations, Boston, Massachusetts, built 1975.
St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church
In 1956, Fr. Birney W. Smith Jr. became the second rector of the Parish. Fr. Smith, following a proposal by the Brotherhood of St. Andrew at St.Augustine’s, popularized an annual fish fry that achieved city-wide popularity. This annual event, usually held in August, was a tremendously successful fundraiser. Saint Augustine’s Brotherhood organization, the vestry board, and the Women of the Church built the fundraiser into something an event that Kansas City had not seen before. The church’s collective vision and goal through Fr. Smith and its vestry were to build a new church on its adjacent land.
The event drew support from all parts of the city. Over 800 pounds of catfish and buffalo fish were prepared and served to an estimated 1,600 customers per year. The fish fry required a skillet specially constructed for this purpose. Measuring six feet in diameter, the skillet was advertised and touted to be the world’s largest at the time. Along with the fish, potato salad, soft drinks, and dessert were served. Beautiful lawn tables with table cloths were dotted over the grounds where the new church was to be built. The goal was to raise $75,000 (equivalent to $646,000 today).
Four years later, on September 22, 1960, the Rt. Rev. Edward R. Welles II, fourth bishop of West Missouri, officiated at the groundbreaking ceremony for the new church. Kenneth O. Von Achen was chosen as the architect, and Wesley Elders Construction Company, a minority firm, was chosen as the general contractor. This fine edifice was an architectural marvel and unique for its time. It was round, made of brick, windowless except for a beautiful blue stained glass window in the front. The doors were red in the tradition of the Episcopal Church. Its architectural design was patterned after the great historical round churches of the past, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and churches in Europe and Scandinavia.
Bishop Welles would also officiate at a ceremony to lay the first cornerstone of the church on Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 1960. On November 23, 1961, the altar was blessed, and the church was formally dedicated on March 11, 1962.
On May 18, 1975, Father Edward L. Warner, Saint Augustine’s second rector of the new round church blessed a 700 pound sculpture of Saint Augustine that was dedicated in a special outdoor service. This sculpture was made in England and given to the Church along with financial support in memory of James Yates by his wife Ellen Yates. Yates was a strong and recognized church leader in every respect. This sculpture was attached to the church façade facing Benton Boulevard.
Saint Augustine’s now 61 years old, will probably remain the only round church in Kansas City for many years to come.