A Vatican in Kansas

Sunday, May 29, 2005

DELIA, Kan. -- The weathered blue farmhouse stands just off a dirt road, in the rolling hills northwest of Topeka.

There are children's toys lined up in the yard, and irises blooming in the garden around a statue of the Virgin Mary. Satellite dishes and solar panels point toward the southern sky.

"Good morning," says the dark-haired man on the front porch. "How are you? I'm Pope Michael."

This is David Bawden. He has never been ordained a priest and hasn't been to Mass since 1989. But to his tiny flock, numbering about 100 and scattered as far away as India and Australia, he is the rightful leader of the Catholic Church.

Bawden, 45, has claimed the title of Michael I since 1990, when he was elected by six people -- two of them his mother and late father -- meeting in his father's consignment store in nearby Belvue. He has maintained his "Vatican in Exile" near Delia for the past dozen years.

And yes, he has heard all the wisecracks.

"Junk Store Pope."

"Secondhand Pope."

"Thrift-shop Pope."

If that bothers him -- or his mother, Clara, with whom he shares the farmhouse -- they don't show it.

"They called Jesus a kook, too," he says.

Even most other traditionalists -- who reject the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s and maintain that no legitimate pope has ruled from the Vatican since Pope Pius XII died in 1958 -- dismiss his election, which they largely ignored despite what Bawden said were months of preparations and publicity.

"They had the right idea (i.e., that an election was necessary), but the wrong execution," the Rev. Robert Lyons, a cardinal in the "true Catholic Church" led by the Rev. Lucian Pulvermacher, wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

Pulvermacher, a former Capuchin priest who took the name "Pope Pius XIII" after his followers elected him in 1998, lives near Spokane, Wash. At least 10 other people around the world have claimed the papacy since 1958, some by election and some by what they claimed was divine revelation.

"Bawden was 'elected' pope by his parents and a lady friend," Lyons wrote. "Anyone with an ounce of common sense would see such as a flawed election."

But to the "lady friend," author Teresa Benns, the fact that Bawden was the only eligible man present at the 1990 election was a sign from God.

"I had never considered him a real candidate until the very day of the election," said Benns, who lives in La Garita, Colo. "We had expected priests. We had expected more response. It was a disappointing thing, but it was like God saying, 'This is the choice I give you."'

And to Bawden and his followers, low numbers mean nothing.

"The communion of saints consists of all the people in heaven, in purgatory and the militant on earth," Clara Bawden said. "We're the militant. We've got a few people here. We've got all the people in purgatory and all the people in heaven on our side."

Bawden hopes for a bishop to declare his loyalty -- perhaps, he says, one who was underground in a Communist country in the 1960s and did not sign off on Vatican II.

In the meantime, he checks his e-mail, writes and updates his Web site. Some donations come in from his followers, and his family's savings help pay the bills.

He receives visitors in the living room, where a shrine with saints' relics, holy water and statues of St. Michael the Archangel and the Virgin Mary stands between bookshelves holding cookbooks and the card games Bawden's nieces and nephews like to play when they come to visit.

He studies in his upstairs library and prays in his tiny chapel with its pink, red and gray carpeting.

"My home is Rome," he said -- then added with a laugh, "but I don't see getting there until Benedict XVI moves out of my apartment."

On the Net:

David Bawden's site: http://www.vaticaninexile.com

Teresa Benns' site: http://www.betrayedcatholics.com

true Catholic Church: http://www.truecatholic.org

Society of St. Pius X: http://www.sspx.org

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