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Anna Kurzweil in her youth
Anna Kurzweil in her youth

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, and it was no small change.

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 is 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 upon her death in September 2012, one month before her 101st birthday.

“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 she amassed such wealth on a public-school teacher salary and retirement.

A niece said she had a favorite devotion to Anthony de Mello, the Indian Jesuit priest and psychotherapist known for his spiritual writings and teachings. De Mello, who loved paradox and sudden shifts from conventional thinking, emphasized the spiritual over the physical.

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.

“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 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. Byrne described her as a competent professional woman who “knew her game” and was strong-willed.

In the early 1970s, Father Byrne 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.

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 that 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.

Hunleth had five siblings who had joined the Sisters of Loretto, a teaching order of religious women in Kentucky. In 1948, Anna reluctantly left her mother and the family farm in Grandview, Mo., joined the Lorettos, and received her veil and name, Sister Frances Vincent Kurzweil. 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.”

With or without the habit, she was in service to others for much of her life, a value ingrained in college, she wrote.

From 1958 until her death in 1964, her mother, 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 she taught.

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 retired on February 1, 1980 with a monthly teacher’s pension of less than $1,000. 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. One of Anna’s nieces recalled her aunt talking about a priest (very likely Father Hunleth) who came every day to bless her grandmother at the house on Lydia.

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 also endowed 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.

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 true twist on the scriptural story of the widow’s mite.