Monday, February 18, 2013


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.

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?"


  1. What a fantastic, intriguing story! To me it aptly pinpoints the fine line between holiness and insanity. The character I most like in this story is Brian Bawden, the long suffering, non-judgmental younger brother.

    I have a great, great, great Uncle who had a similar story. His name was Joshua Norton and he believed himself to be the Emperor of San Franciso in the late 1800s. He dressed accordingly in a red robe, and the San Franciscan played along. Wherever he went, people bowed; as he entered the theatre, people stood up, and he received special treatment in shops.When he died the whole of San Francisco turned out, I am told.

    That's MY Uncle! There's a statue to him somewhere in the city and I've even heard there's a Joshua Norton Society. People do love a touch of insanity. I like that whole story because it shows people enjoying and playing around with absurdity, not laughing at the man, but having a sort of mass joke together.

    The difference with David Bawden is that his followers are sincere. They really believe in what they are doing, they're not "playing along".

    I suppose in the end I have to stand with the 99.999999999999% who say David Bawden is insane. He might still be holy. But I wonder. CAN you be holy and completely wrong?

  2. I watched the documentary sometime last year. It is compelling in a disturbing way.

    Well, as we will be sede vacante (chair empty) in just over a week, Mr. Bawden might want to check out the cheap-seat rates online and go aRomen.

  3. Jane asked about the possibility of being both holy and wrong entirely. This might be where intentions come into play...

  4. not to mention wholly wrong ;-) ... but I see both Anne and Jane's point. :)

  5. Wow. Flannery O'Connor might move the lad to someplace in Alabama, rename him "Sweetwater", make him die in some spectacular, violent and figurative manner, and make a fine short story of it.

  6. Thanks, folks, is this not just about the best example of the thin line between passion and pathology imaginable?...Jane, I love the also very poignant story of your uncle..I'm not sure that you can be holy and COMPLETELY wrong but I think Michael Bawden, even if slightly misguided, is still not nearly as freakish as many of the people who walk around claiming to be normal but have no sense or wonder whatsoever about least he is concerned with ultimate things...

    Owen, wasn't aware the documentary was readily available: thanks, I've put it up.

    Two quotes from Flannery O'Connor:

    “Either one is serious about salvation or one is not. And it is well to realize that the maximum amount of seriousness admits the maximum amount of comedy. Only if we are secure in our beliefs can we see the comical side of the universe. One reason a great deal of our contemporary fiction is humorless is because so many of these writers are relativists and have to be continually justifying the actions of their characters on a sliding scale of values.”

    “A sense of loss is natural to us, and it is only in these centuries when we are afflicted with the doctrine of the perfectibility of human nature by its own efforts that the vision of the freak in fiction is so disturbing. The freak in modern fiction is usually disturbing to us because he keeps us from forgetting that we share his state.”

  7. I guess we all have a little -- just a little -- of Pope Michael in us. I spent several hundred hours in my younger days practicing my "monastic" signature, just in case I ever became a monk! "Brother Aelred, OCSO." And I can't tell you the number of times I've imagined myself as either an aspirant to, or a holder of, political office.

    But the more I think about it, Heather, you're right not to mock. There's some kind of "condition" here that isn't congruent with reality; nonetheless, isn't it refreshing that someone would want to be Pope rather than, oh, Stalin or Hitler or Caligula or Hugh Hefner?

    I'm thinking now of Caryll Houselander and the very great respect with which she treated an asylum patient who was, in her own mind, "Queen of the Whole World" -- to the point that Houselander kissed the Queen's hand! Houselander wrote that she met "several Queens (female ones)" in the asylum!

    So, yes, there is a disturbing disconnection from reality here, but at the same time, there's a trace of (what's the right word?) romanticism, I suppose. Childlike and perhaps childish, but perhaps innocuous.

  8. I absolutely love those two quotes by Flannery O'Connor. I really will have to read something by her one of these days. "Either one is serious about salvation or one is not. And it is well to realize that the maximum amount of seriousness admits the maximum amount of comedy". This supports what I have often felt is a saving grace about fundamentalism, and about some people who get into all sorts of conflicts in a church context. Of course its not the ONLY factor that constitutes fundamentalism and human conflicts - but an earnestness about things of God is always worthy, in my mind.

    And of course mass killers and deranged cult leaders are earnest about things of God too, but - that's broadening the conversation too much! My answer to that (if only as part of the conversation going on right now in my own head)is - well, thank God for His grace, for keeping more of us who believe we are earnest about Him off the path that leads to insanity.

    And yes, the obsession with the freak - the mass enjoyment of heroes who fall from grace - Flannery O'Connor puts that in a new light for me - that its because we are obsessed with perfectibility by our own efforts. In earlier times, could it be that people accepted the blurry line between "passion and pathology" more? I remember reading of how in the 300s in Britain, kings would listen earnestly to real "madmen" who came down from the mountains periodically to chastise them. As in the Old Testament. The way the Saul and others bowed and cringed before Samuel and other prophets - who must have been unconventional to say the least.

    I wander from the original topic, but its such rich food for thought.

  9. This is fascinating. It left me with a blend of feelings peculiar to my childhood. I grew up in the deep south, in a small Louisiana town which had at its center--both geographically and culturally-- a state mental hospital that had existed before the Civil War. I can remember participating in the town's Christmas parade as an elementary school student and the homecoming parade as a high schooler. The parade route when through the grounds of the hospital. It was the favorite place to view the parade and the path was lined with a combination of townspeople and patients with staff. One of my vivid memories of high school was sitting on the trunk of a Mustang convertible as I tried to throw candy over an enormously high fence to the patients/inmates of the Forensic unit for the criminally insane. Because they were begging for candy from behind a fence. Part fear, part sympathy, both of which were made stronger as I witnessed the faces along the route. It all created in me an even stronger than normal acceptance, maybe even affinity, for the eccentric or the freaks. Since Flannery has already been mentioned or quoted, I'll go low-brow with a favorite excerpt from the television series Designing Women:

    You spoke of wonder and I think wonder is the key and your sense of wonder at the world around you is the reason I keep coming back to this blog, Heather. Thanks so much for sharing this story!

  10. I watched this last night after teaching. Fascinating; absurdist and yet respectful...

    It reminded me a bit of a Wes Anderson film

  11. Ok, now I am totally intrigued about what else is in your "Weird Happenngs" file. Maybe that could be a regular/occasional feature. "Weird happenings Friday" or something like that.
    Absolutely great story!

  12. Oh this is amazing, what great comments. I'm haunted by the throwing of candy over the wall to the criminally insane...I remember spending a Christmas eve here in L.A. talking with a bunch of other alkies to the inmates of the domestic violence unit at one of the county jails. One of the most attentive and polite groups ever--probably, my girlfriends and I realized later, as they were busily imagining how we'd look with broken ribs and black eyes...

    Caryll Houselander has a beautiful passage somewhere about attending Mass with the patients at a psych ward/mental institution...the heartfelt ardor; the simplicity and earnestness of their prayers...

    Anyway, I've had a chance to watch more of the documentary and what's interesting is that the guy is not CRAZY crazy. He's quite intelligent and articulate and lucid and he is clearly well-schooled in Church teachings, or the ones that don't have to do with obedience. You can make fun of him, striding about the farm in his skullcap and surplice, but I so saw myself! Walking about L.A. in an imaginary wimple and rough robe, sighing that if only everyone cared AS MUCH AS ME. If only everyone loved Jesus AS I DO...

    So his "sin" is pride--thinking "I alone know how the Church should be run" so I'm essentially going to start my own. Again, Hazel Motes in F. O'Connor's Wise Blood. This to me is the danger when the Church Militant brigade goes overboard and gets fixated on fighting evil but forgets that the way to do that is to see Christ in our neighbor; to exercise simple charity to all those around us. Which of course is the hardest thing in the world--to me, in fact, impossible without the Church.

    Whatever the case, if the image of Pope Michael I, responsible by his reckoning for every soul in creation, reclining on a Lazy-Boy in Belvue, Kansas watching "Jeopardy" with his mother isn't material for a novel or short story or play, I don't know what is...No wonder my friend wanted to compose an opera!

    And Snow and Stars, you may be on to something! You've prompted me to thumb through my Weird Happenings folder, which I haven't examined closely for years, and there is some interesting stuff in there. Will ponder further.

    Meanwhile let's pray for Pope Benedict XVI-I so feel for him--and for his successor...

  13. Heather--

    "This to me is the danger when the Church Militant brigade goes overboard and gets fixated on fighting evil but forgets that the way to do that is to see Christ in our neighbor; to exercise simple charity to all those around us. Which of course is the hardest thing in the world--to me, in fact, impossible without the Church."

    That's quite a statement, especially the last part. Can you elaborate?

  14. Dear Heather,

    When I watched it last year I thought, this man is not crazy but he is deluded. If he was merely crazed it would be easy to dismiss him and one might feel sympathy but what I felt was more empathy because while I don't think I am pope I could probably write a book called The Pathology of Being Owen Swain and not long after publication it would probably be found for a dollar fifty in the local Thrift Store.

    . . .
    And yes, while I've been praying for our outgoing pope (how odd it is to be saying that, our out-going pope) I have been praying for whomever is elected. Somehow I imagine the days ahead for him (loony St. Malachy prophecies aside) could be even harder than it has been for Benedict.


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