Sister Corita remembered as advocate for Kansas City kids

To Sister Corita Bussanmas, every child was precious and every day was marvelous, her colleagues at Kansas City’s Operation Breakthrough remembered this weekend.

Bussanmas, co-founder of the child-care center who spent decades fiercely advocating for the city’s poorest children, died Saturday. She was 87.

The seventh of eight children, Bussanmas was born Dec. 11, 1933, in Des Moines, Iowa, according to her obituary. Her parents, Otto and Mary Bussanmas, raised their children Catholic with a focus on social justice.

After high school, Bussanmas entered Mount Carmel Convent in Dubuque, Iowa. She became a professed member of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1955. She earned degrees in education and Spanish from Clarke University in Dubuque before moving to Chicago to teach elementary school.

When a fire in 1958 at Our Lady of Angels School in Chicago killed 92 children and three nuns, Bussanmas was sent to help in the aftermath. There she “learned on the fly how to comfort and teach traumatized children,” according to the obituary.

It was in Chicago where she also met Sister Berta Sailer.

The sisters were often unconventional. Together they ran a club for teenage gang members. They even hid teens in the basement when they had nowhere else to sleep.

Bussanmas moved to Kansas City in 1967 to become principal at St. Vincent’s Catholic School at East 31st Street and Flora Avenue.

A few years later, the diocese pushed to close the school, since the families making up the neighborhood shifted from mostly Catholic, European families, to African American families of other faiths, according to her obituary.

Sister Corita Bussanmas
Sister Corita Bussanmas visited Operation Breakthrough, the child-care center she co-founded nearly 45 years earlier, in October 2013. She got hugs from two children. Jill Toyoshiba/The Kansas City Star

But Bussanmas insisted they stay open. When the sisters learned that children of working parents needed help taking care of their infants, they turned their living room into a daycare.

In 1971, they incorporated the school into a daycare. With Bussanmas serving as executive director, Operation Breakthrough was born.

“With a pocketbook full of uncashed paychecks, Sister Corita devoted 16 hours a day to keeping Operation Breakthrough’s doors open to the children most in need in Kansas City’s urban core,” according to her obituary. “The commitment jumped to 24 hours a day in 1994, when Sister Corita and Sister Berta became licensed foster parents, then adoptive parents.”

‘An exceptional woman’

The first person Bussanmas hired at Operation Breakthrough was Mattie Flanagan. They didn’t have titles then, but Flanagan helped with everything from cleaning to teaching classes. The center helped any child who came through the door.

“It didn’t matter what they looked like, what color they were,” Flanagan told The Star on Sunday. “They were good to them, and that’s why I stuck with them.”

Flanagan went on to stick with the center for decades. Though Bussanmas and Sailer “didn’t have a lot themselves,” Flanagan recalled, they would help anyone struggling to pay their bills. She remembered that one family could not afford diapers, so Bussanmas paid for them with money out of her pocket.

“It was a bad situation that she made nice,” Flanagan remembered. “I don’t ever remember her turning anybody down.”

Bussanmas and Sailer ended up taking in about 70 foster children and adopted four as their own: Yauti, Ronnie, Vanshay and Tyrez.

CH15-Corita and Vanshay.jpg
Sister Corita Bussanmas is pictured with her daughter Vanshay Purnell. Operation Breakthrough Operation Breakthrough

When they saw a growing need for social services, Bussanmas and Sailer added a food pantry, counseling, a clothing closet and job search help to the operation.

“She is one of those rare individuals who always saw the glass as ‘half full’ — no matter what the circumstance — programming, people, support, sports, the list is endless,” Mary Esselman, Operation Breakthrough CEO, said in a statement Saturday. “She believed in people and their potential, noting that many of those she spent her life serving remained overlooked and unseen.”

Bussanmas retired in 2013. By then, the center cared for more than 500 children, many of whom were part of families living below the poverty line.

“You can’t do any of it without love,” Bussanmas told The Star at the time.

The center is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

“I am very happy,” Bussanmas said when she retired. “I have gotten to do just what I wanted to do.”

Bussanmas and Sailer earned the Bank of America Neighborhood Builder Award in 2006 and the Marion and John Kreamer Award for Social Entrepreneurship from the University of Missouri‐Kansas City in 2014. Both women were also chosen for UMKC’s Starr Women’s Hall of Fame.

“What an exceptional woman, whose gifts will ripple for generations in the lives of the thousands of families and young people she cared for,” Mayor Quinton Lucas wrote Saturday on Twitter. “We were blessed to have her in our community.”

Bussanmas liked to cheer on the Chiefs and the Royals, even if they were losing, according to her obituary. Her dog, Lady, was always by her side.

“With a faith as strong as her will, Sister Corita is likely to be remembered by several generations of Kansas City children as a calm, loving part of their family who made them feel safe and important every day,” her obituary read.

Operation Breakthrough is asking that, in lieu of flowers, memorial contributions be made to The Sisters Berta and Corita Irrevocable Trust at Country Club Bank at 1 Ward Parkway, Kansas City MO 64112, or to Operation Breakthrough, PO Box 412482, Kansas City MO 64141.

The Star’s Cortlynn Stark, Luke Nozicka and Mará Rose Williams contributed to this report.

Related stories from Kansas City Star

Anna Spoerre covers breaking news for the Kansas City Star. Before joining The Star, she covered crime and courts for the Des Moines Register. Spoerre is a graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where she studied journalism.

Cortlynn Stark covers breaking news as well as race and class issues for The Star. Cortlynn studied journalism and Spanish at Missouri State University.