Several years ago at a writer's residency I met Paul, a banjo-playing composer who at the time was contemplating writing an opera about a 30-year-old guy from Kansas who lived with his parents and claimed to be the Pope.
I, too, was fascinated by David Bawden, aka Pope Michael I. I filed the xerox Paul gave me in a folder called "Weird Happenings," and have kept it ever since.
Now seems an opportune moment to dust off the story, so here you go, from the July 29, 1990 issue of The Wichita Eagle.
THE THRIFT STORE POPE
Christine Crumbo, The Wichita Eagle
In the shadow of the bulbous water tower in this town of 200 sits a man who would be pope to 950 million Catholics.
He reigns from his dad's thrift shop, astride a high-backed, secondhand relic of a throne in a chapel carpeted in gaudy remnants of shag. A makeshift altar stands behind him. Before him sit pews padded with leopard-print cushions that may once have graced a '50s-style sofa. On July 16, six people deeply concerned that the Roman Catholic Church has departed too far from the teachings of Jesus met in the thrift shop cum chapel. By secret ballot, they chose 30-year-old David Bawden of neighboring St. Marys as pope. In what they say was the first valid papal election since the death of Pius XII in 1958, he won on the first count. They cite canon law in refusing to reveal whether the vote was unanimous.
Bawden chose to be called Michael I, after St. Michael the Archangel, defender of the faith. He donned religious garb not quite suitable for the regal nature of a pope but as close as the six could come to it in Belvue a white skullcap over his slicked black hair, a lacy smock atop a floor-length cassock and spit-shined black shoes.
Then the gathering tossed the ballots into a fire out back of the shop. The blazing scraps failed to raise the traditional plume of white smoke that signals a successful papal election.
Barely a week into the papacy of Michael I, a local priest called the election sacrilegious; the fledgling pope's brother, Brian, professed consternation; and the followers of Michael I rejoiced.
''What we're doing is total common sense," proclaimed his mother, Clara "Tickie" Bawden, 62.
''Everything (in the Catholic Church) is way out of order now," said his father, Kenneth, 64. Or, "It was until the 16th of July. And now we've got our pope back."
Brian Bawden, 23, of St. Marys, said of his brother's election:
''I'm not for him; I'm not against him, and I don't understand what he's doing."
When he heard of the election, Brian Bawden said, his reaction was, "Oh, my God, no. (Now) I don't know what to think. . . . I don't follow the church in Rome. I don't go around electing popes either."
The soft-spoken new Michael I echoes neither his parents' ebullience nor his brother's doubt.
Instead, the man who since 1987 had crusaded by book and letter for what he called a valid papal election seemed intensely conscious of his position.
He sat in the jury-rigged chapel, folding his soft hands in the traditional Catholic-school signal of quietude, then draping his wrists over his stomach. He spoke of himself as if he were in another room:
''One has to have faith in what one is doing," he said.
''I don't know if one can sway people, and charisma is not what it's about. . . . God will help us. He's got to."
He is prepared, he said, to engage in a struggle that may well last beyond his lifetime. And he spoke of the possibility that he would have to make a "heroic sacrifice."
It took the apostles 300 years to spread the word of Jesus throughout what was to become the Christian world, he said
''In some respects," he said, "we have a worse situation. They were dealing with pagans; we're dealing with apostates" people who have renounced their faith.
For now, he said, he spends his days in the back of his parents' bargain shop, The Question Mark, puzzling how to spread his gospel to receptive ears.
His worldly resources add up to "basically nothing."
That leaves him with spiritual works of mercy to perform. Corporal works cost too much.
After a day spent puzzling, he leaves the shop at the corner of Broadway and Highway 24 the one with the white-and-yellow papal flag hanging in the window to return to the St. Marys home he shares with his parents. There, he fills the family role he always has filled. If his mother asks, he takes out the garbage.
On Sundays, he may preach a little and pray the rosary with his small flock, which includes his parents and a visiting friend, Teresa Stanfill Benns of Denver, whom he met through friends of his mother in 1985. He claims a core of about 20 followers, including a couple from Michigan who came to Kansas to act as papal electors.
His followers are disaffected Catholics, upset with a Church of Rome that has imbued Catholics with the ecumenical spirit, instituted the saying of Mass in the language of its celebrants and rechristened the Holy Ghost the Holy Spirit. They also are disaffected Traditional or Old Catholics who once followed the maverick Swiss Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. The archbishop refuses to say anything but the old Latin Mass and has been excommunicated for performing ordinations without the sanction of Rome.
The followers of Michael I do not celebrate any Mass, believing themselves to live in a time foretold in the Old Testament Book of Daniel a time when the Eucharist, the supreme sacrifice at the heart of Catholic celebration, will be taken away; a time near the Apocalypse.
And there is a practical reason Michael I cannot say Mass: He has not been ordained, though he has devoutly wished to be since age 10.
When he was a child in Oklahoma City, David Bawden followed the stereotypical Catholic boy's path to the priesthood. He became an altar boy and attended Mass regularly.
But during the late 1960s and early '70s, his mother and several other mothers in the parish became disenchanted with current religious teachings. They withdrew their children from church-sponsored classes and began teaching them on their own.
In 1972, the Bawdens widened their split with the Roman Church. They stopped attending Mass each Sunday, participating instead in a Latin Mass every two to six months, whenever a Traditional circuit-riding priest passed through town.
In 1977, Bawden eventually pursued his theological studies at the Swiss seminary of the renegade Lefebvre. He stayed there four months, he said, leaving because he could not master French. He was transferred to a Lefebvre seminary in Armada, Mich. The seminary since has moved to Winona, Minn.
From Armada, Bawden said, he was dismissed "without cause" in 1978. He said he protested to Lefebvre about the dismissal, "irregularities" in school teachings and the school's refusal to list charges he could answer. He found no satisfaction.
Bishop Richard Williams of the Winona seminary said last week that he vaguely remembered Bawden but knew nothing of the circumstances of the dismissal.
In 1980, the Bawdens moved to St. Marys, a bastion of Traditional Catholic teaching and the home of St. Mary's Academy and College. There, while his brother attended classes, David performed clerical work and studied for the religious brotherhood, he said. David Bawden left after about a year because the school defied moral law in meting out excessive discipline, he said. He since has performed several jobs, including cabinetmaking.
Brian Bawden said Wednesday that his own career at St. Mary's also "went kablooey." The break with St. Mary's school was only the latest in a string of family political and religious upheavals, he said.
''Our life has been one battle after another," he said, "and I don't want it to be that way."
St. Mary's rector, the Rev. Ramon Angles, vehemently denied that his school had any connection with the Bawden family and said it offered no program to prepare young men for the religious brotherhood.
''We have nothing to do with these people. We have not had anything to do with these people," he said. The election of Michael I, he said, was "grotesque and clownish, not to mention sacrilegious."
Monsignor William Curtin, chancellor of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Kansas City, Kan., said through a spokeswoman that he had no comment on the election and that anyone who wished to break with the church was free to do so.
Michael I said he greets the barbs of detractors with patience and forbearance that comes from God.
He declares with certainty that someday, he will don the regal raiment of Michael I as an ordained priest.
From somewhere ''either in Russia or in China" will emerge a bishop to ordain him, he said.
''We've heard of stories of bishops in Russia or China who've never heard of Vatican II," he said. Such men, presumably, would subscribe out of blessed ignorance to the rites and practices that preceded Vatican II, the 1962-65 church council that instituted the doctrinal changes he finds odious.
David Bawden may have found his calling in a thrift shop, but he has lost almost everyone he ever called a friend in the St. Marys area.
''What few friends I had, they left," he said. "They're afraid of the truth."
He draws strength from the Old Testament declaration that a prophet is never heard in his own land.
And the election has only deepened an ostracism that began months before, he said. Smiling, he told of a town street sale last June at which he and his father tried to sell Benns' and David Bawden's self-published book of teachings, "Will the Catholic Church Survive the Twentieth Century?"
The Bawdens set up their small table in downtown St. Marys, piling it high with the shrink-wrapped volumes, anticipating a crowd. But as they began to greet passers-by, "The people, when they realized who we were, they would scurry on down the street." Even a former classmate of Bawden's whom Bawden said he intended to present a free book, in a gesture of friendship backed away quickly before the gift could be given.
Since the election, the Bawden family has received anonymous crank letters and phone calls, said Tickie Bawden.
But, she said, "Look what happened to Christ" in terms of rejection. "I know what's right, and I'm going to do it." She cited Bible passages that say that "if you are trying to do what's right, people kind of snigger at you."
Brian Bawden said he knew that the election was "a big joke around town. . . . It's gone too far. But I'm not going to hate them for it."
At Bernie's Cottage Inn restaurant, a waitress named Debbie she would not give her last name snorted with laughter when she thought of the election down the street.
''The pope?" she said. "I'm the Virgin Mary."
A gaggle of lunchtime customers laughed.
Restaurant manager James Vanderbilt said David Bawden used to drop in for lunch.
Now, he said, he "really isn't hurting anything . . . but I think he may have crossed over that fine line."
Then Vanderbilt mused:
''It's like I told my wife. How many people believed Christ?
''How do you know this dude isn't doing what he thinks is right?"