By Cheryl Wittenauer
December 2, 2015 — What is known of Anna Kurzweil is that she was the youngest of eight children, born and raised on a farm south of Kansas City, Mo., a teacher and Catholic who remained single, and entered, then exited, the convent.
What isn’t known might fill volumes, or at least the private diaries she kept in a home that grew cluttered as she aged near the Jesuits’ Rockhurst University in Kansas City.
It may never be clear what exactly prompted this fiercely independent woman — who wrote her own will and trust, made her own funeral arrangements, and penned her own obituary — to leave nearly $2 million to the Society of Jesus, or how she amassed such wealth on a public school teacher salary and retirement.
“Even the bank wanted to know how she got the money,” said John Van De Vyvere, the trustee on his aunt’s estate. “They were surprised a school teacher had that much money.”
Or that this self-made millionaire chose to donate her wealth to the Jesuits and other charities upon her death in September 2012, one month before her 101st birthday. One niece, who has since died, was disappointed that Kurzweil didn't mention her nieces and nephews in her obituary. She left each of her eight surviving nieces and nephews $5,000.
“She was strong-headed. Let’s put it that way,” her nephew said. "Everything had to go her way or she wasn’t happy. She was very independent. Oh yeah, she had an independent streak.”
A young Anna Kurzweil with her students.
The story of Anna Kurzweil, a dreamer, diarist, poet, and world traveler with a missionary’s heart, who abandoned youthful hopes for the convent to care for her elderly mother, and who spun a fortune from a public school teacher’s salary of less than $20,000 a year, is a twist on the scriptural story of the widow’s mite.
The widow is commended for donating all she had, a pittance, compared to those who give only a fraction of their wealth. By contrast, Anna Kurzweil gave most of what she had to the Jesuits, but it was no small change. Why she did it isn’t clear, but she did leave intriguing clues. Perhaps her evolving spirituality led to the surprising moves that baffled her family.
An intensely private person who didn’t marry or have children, she was lonely and searching, judging from her writings, and found in nature and a deepening spirituality the tonic for her darkness. Her correspondence, poems and diaries, drafts upon drafts and copies, which family members rescued from an apartment building dumpster, chronicle the evolution of an interior spiritual life, from her mother’s recitation of the Apostle’s Creed in childhood, to the Ladies Sodality of middle age, to a later life transfixed by mandalas, the Enneagram, contemplative practice, and Anthony de Mello, the Indian Jesuit priest and psychotherapist known for his spiritual writings and teachings.
Anna with her mother (seated) and other family members during her brief time as a habited Sister of Loretto.
A niece said she had a favorite devotion to De Mello, who loved paradox and sudden shifts from conventional thinking, and who emphasized the spiritual over the physical.
“I have a deep hunger for prayer, and my thinking on the spiritual life has changed drastically,” she wrote in an undated diary entry.
Perhaps in the Jesuits, she found spiritual solace and friendship, an interior connection.
Notes from the advancement office of the Jesuits’ former Missouri Province chronicle a warm and cordial relationship between Kurzweil and the Jesuits over the years. She occasionally ordered Mass and prayer cards, made modest donations, and stated how much she loved the Jesuits, especially Fr. Luke Byrne, who was spiritual director of the Ladies Sodality when she was its president.
In the early 1970s, he was pastor at the Jesuit parish she attended, St. Francis Xavier Church in Kansas City, located only a few blocks from her house on Lydia Street. She also communicated with Jesuit Fr. Gene Martens when he worked in the advancement office, asking for prayers and Masses on behalf of sick friends and family.
Byrne described her as a competent professional woman who “knew her game” and was strong-willed. When they visited in her last years of life at a residence for older adults, “she’d become kind of testy in old age,” he said. “I felt bad because I knew the gracious, charming nice person who ran the Sodality.”
She also knew a Jesuit, Fr. Francis Hunleth, who worked at Rockhurst University from the mid-1940s to 1954, a year before she purchased a $5,800 home near the Jesuit university, parish and community house in Kansas City.
She bought the house at 5221 Lydia St. in November 1955 upon graduating from Avila College (then the College of Saint Teresa) with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, where she would spend the next 25 years of her life teaching fourth- and fifth-graders at Blenheim Elementary in the Kansas City public school district. She retired on Feb. 1, 1980, with a monthly teacher’s pension of less than $1,000.
The old Blenheim Elementary School in Kansas City, Mo., where Anna Kurzweil taught.
Hunleth had five siblings who had joined the Sisters of Loretto, a teaching order of religious women in Kentucky. Anna Kurzweil reluctantly left her mother and the family farm in Grandview, Mo., joined the Lorettos, and received her veil and name, Sister Frances Vincent Kurzweil, in 1948. She professed first vows two years later, taught at Loretto-staffed schools in Kentucky and St. Louis, but left the Loretto Sisters in August 1954 to care for her aging mother on the farm, and later at the house on Lydia in Kansas City.
“Leaving my mother was the hardest thing I ever had to do,” she wrote in her diary. “Leaving Mom and (later) leaving the convent.”
Did the Hunleth sisters in the Loretto community direct her to their brother, the Jesuit, or did Fr. Hunleth know her first in Kansas City and influence her decision to join the Loretto Sisters? In her own telling of her spiritual journey, she writes of “Fr. H.,” as well as her retreats and workshops throughout the U.S. and world, struggles over marriage vs. religious life, and of a “great desire, searching, to find God.”
She never talked with family about her brief time as a Loretto sister. “It was a very private part of her life,” her niece, Linda Kurzweil of Freeman, Mo., said. “Maybe she had some regrets.”
She had been in love and hoped to marry a divorced fellow teacher she had met in 1935 at a small public school in eastern Missouri, more than a decade before entering the convent. Recalling her lost love in a diary entry in 1978, she wrote: “It ended. All things ended. I suffered greatly.” She wrote about a dream in which Christ in the statue she had prayed before came to life, embraced and healed her. “Then, I made my commitment to live for God,” she said.
With or without the habit, she was in service to others for much of her life, a value ingrained in college, she writes.
From 1958 until her death in 1964, Bertha Kurzweil lived with her youngest daughter, Anna, in the house on Lydia. Anna’s brother paid for a caretaker to watch the older woman while Anna taught at the old Blenheim Elementary School in Kansas City, an institution long ago abandoned.
“Mother is dead,” Anna Kurzweil wrote in her diary March 21, 1982. “I still dream of her. I loved her very much in life.”
In the summer of 1972, she worked at a leper colony in New Guinea through a ministry that served people with the chronic infection also known as Hansen’s disease. It was just one of her world journeys that earned her membership in United Airlines’ “100,000 Mile Club” in 1975.
She traveled to Europe seven times, Egypt three times, the Holy Land twice, Australia once, and around the world once.
She wrote in her journal regularly, and for more than a decade helped coordinate classes in the Kansas City area for students of the intensive journal method, a writing therapy popularized by the late Dr. Ira Progoff that helps the writer access personal history and subconscious.
She was a life member of the International Society of Poets, elected to the International Poetry Hall of Fame Museum, survived breast cancer and raised chickens in the city decades before it became trendy. She worked for a time at Kansas City’s old Pratt & Whitney plant that built engines during World War II, and later, non-nuclear components of nuclear bombs, two nephews said.
She had purchased a parcel of land in Lee’s Summit, Mo., that she wanted to turn into a prayer garden, named “Rabboni,” a New Testament reference to Lord or Master, and dedicate it to her late parents, Vincent and Bertha Kurzweil.
She agonized over whether and how to do it, but it never came to be. “Dad,” she wrote in a journal, “tell me what to do with the 50 acres. I feel overwhelmed.”
Although Rabboni never materialized, she did endow a scholarship fund at her alma mater, Avila College, and at Conception Seminary College, the Benedictine school in northwest Missouri. She donated to the Harry S. Truman Library, to Kansas City’s City Market, and other causes.
“She donated money to things we never knew about,” her niece, Linda Kurzweil, said.
Another niece, Mary Reutter of Kansas City, who died in February after the interview for this story, said: “We were all surprised when we learned (Anna Kurzweil) had left the Jesuits the money. We thought we were going to get it.
“She never mentioned us,” she added. “She mentioned this priest who came every day to bless Grandma (at the house on Lydia).”
In June 1981, Anna Kurzweil conveyed her home and property on Lydia Street to Rockhurst University for $1, Jackson County records show. The property, its house long since razed, is now student housing.
Did the gift of the once-so-important house, where a Jesuit regularly came to bless her mother, bring her gratitude to the Society full circle? Or did her deepening spirituality help her to see that a physical house was not so important?
The answers and those of other puzzles about Anna Kurzweil are buried with her at Lee’s Summit, Mo., Cemetery. [Source: Central and Southern Province]