The family commitment carried on by Kansas City’s Bill Quatman is touching lives, and souls, from across the globe.
In Selçuk, Turkey, Kansas Citian Bill Quatman is something of a rock star. He meets with the governor, dines with the mayor, and can scarcely walk down the street without being thanked by someone or another for something or another his foundation has contributed to the region.
Bill is the general counsel for Burns & McDonnell by day, but his side job is as the third-generation president of the American Society of Ephesus, founded in 1955 by Bill’s grandfather, George B. Quatman.
Until a recent visit, all I knew about Ephesus was that it was the ZIP code to which the Apostle Paul sent letters, there to be read presumably by the “Ephesians.” Looking back, I am impressed by my own ignorance. Ephesus is quite the place.
For three generations, the Quatman family has helped make Ephesus the destination it is today, and it all began with a vision. In 1955, George B. Quatman toured the holy sites in what is now western Turkey. Standing on a hotel balcony in nearby Izmir, George saw Mary, the mother of God, in the heavens over the valley of Ephesus beyond.
Mary plays a surprising role in Turkish lore. She and the Apostle John fled the persecutions in Jerusalem after Jesus’ death on the cross and found refuge in the hills above Ephesus, then a flourishing city under the sway of Rome.
Best evidence suggests that Mary spent the final years of her life in a small stone house above the city. John ended his days in Ephesus as well, his tomb now lies beneath the ruins of a massive basilica built by the Roman emperor Constantine.
This story might not seem to have much appeal in a nation more than 99 percent Muslim, but readers of the Koran know otherwise. That book mentions only one woman by name and that woman is Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, a woman the Koran unblushingly calls “the greatest of all women.”
At the time of his vision, the 65-year-old Quatman was in position to show his gratitude for the blessings bestowed on him throughout his life. They were many. Before his immigrant mother died when George was not yet two, she asked the parish priest, Rev. Francis M. Quatman, to raise her son.
This the good priest did, and the orphan George flourished under his care. He went on to become a successful entrepreneur in the emerging telephone industry and fathered five sons of his own. He even adopted the priest’s last name.
In 1954, polio struck one of George’s grandsons, paralyzing the 5-year old. A devout Catholic throughout his life, George made a pilgrimage to several Marian shrines in Europe to pray for the boy’s recovery. If you believe in miracles, that is exactly what happened. The boy was healed.
A year later, George toured Ephesus to see Mary’s home and the ruins of two basilicas in the ancient city, dedicated to Mary and John, respectively. Following this visit George had his vision.
As George interpreted what he saw and heard, Mary directed him to use his resources to help restore these extraordinary sites. As George’s plans materialized, his first objective was to restore the great Basilica of St. John, commissioned by Constantine in the 4th century A.D.
The second step was to restore another large basilica at Ephesus known as the Church of Mary, the site of the Third Ecumenical Council in 431 A.D.
The Society also assisted in the restoration of Mary’s house and several other nearby ancient churches.
In 1958, George signed a protocol with the Turkish government permitting his foundation to restore Christian sites in this overwhelmingly Muslim country. For the next 60 years, George’s descendants honored their founder’s (literal) vision and expanded the role of the foundation in the area.
At a contentious time in world his-tory, the greatest accomplishment of the American Society of Ephesus may be to show how Christians and Muslims can live together in peace. In the years since George Quatman’s vision, literally millions of people have visited Mary’s restored home, Christian and Muslim both.
Prominent among the visitors to Mary’s home have been Pope Paul VI in 1967, Saint John Paul II in 1979, and Pope Benedict XVI in 2006, each of whom celebrated Mass at the house. Not a bad line-up.
In recognition for what the elder Mr. Quatman did for the area surrounding Ephesus, the people of Selçuk named a public square in front of St. John’s Basilica as “George B. Quatman Square.” To repay the favor, in 2015 the American Society of Ephesus gave to the town of Selçuk a clock tower for its city center.
On my recent visit, we arrived in the evening and saw little of the area that night. Early the next morning Bill Quatman and I and a dozen other good spirits boarded a small bus and, after a 20-minute chug up a very steep hill, arrived at Mary’s home, an impressively tranquil site.
Bill had told us that the site attracted several thousand visitors a day, perhaps more than 1 million per year. Looking around, I wrote that claim off to good-natured boosterism. We were the only ones there. We attended Mass inside the intimate stone house, one that resonated with passion and mystery. Several among our little group were moved to tears.
As we exited the back of the house through Mary’s bedroom, the day seemed as tranquil as it had when we arrived. Appearances were deceiving. As I turned the corner of the house and looked back the way we came, I saw hundreds of people already lined up, maybe thousands.
Among them were Christians and Muslims and, presuming some good portion of the Japanese visitors were Buddhists too.
I felt like a character in the Field of Dreams. Yes, I realized, if you restore it and respect it, even revere it, they will come.