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 the 10,000 square miles of Kansas 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 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 clothing. He often gave the coat off his back to homeless men he met on the street. Like Francis, he served Christ by serving the poor and the 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.
Seventy years ago this past September, 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. In 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 troubled him deeply.
Fr. Bob believed a Christ-centered approach held the key to their 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 was able to open another Boys’ Home near Salina, and by the time Fr. Bob left in 1960 to become Bishop of Damaraland in Southwest Africa, the ministry 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, and Mississippi, and through a new partnership with the Anglican Episcopal Diocese of El Salvador. As a ministry, we advocate for those struggling with issues as a result of poverty, drug and alcohol dependency, mental health issues, domestic violence, and human trafficking.
Bob Mize died in 2000 following another successful ministry as a bishop in Africa. He lies buried in a humble church cemetery on the windswept prairie near rural Hays. Many 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 70 years, Fr. Bob’s vision gave healing, hope, and redemption.
This story first appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Hi-Lites. You can view past HiLites here.