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June 7, 2009

Senior priest has rich past, lives the present

By Dolores Madlener



Father George McKenna stands in front of the Bishop Timothy J. Lyne Residence for retired priests in Palos Park.Catholic New World/Karen Callaway

He is: Father George McKenna, Mundelein Seminary class of 1944, retired. Has taught at Maryville Academy as well as Archbishop Quigley Preparatory Seminary and Quigley South for a total of 24 years. Has been an associate pastor at four parishes and served as pastor at St. Barnabas in Chicago and St. Catherine of Alexandria in Oak Lawn.

Growing up in St. Theodore’s: “We were three boys and a girl. I was the youngest. My father was a laborer and there was no work during the Depression. We were on Relief.” His father drowned in an accident at age 52 when he was 17. “My mother went to work in a factory that made war munitions.”

Choosing Quigley: “My eighth-grade sister at St. Theodore’s was after me to go to Quigley, but I told her ‘No, I want to be a railroad engineer.’ Toward the last month I decided to go.”

The grace of golf: “I caddied at Westgate and Beverly Country Club for nine years while at Quigley and Mundelein. I played golf for 75 years. It helped keep me in the priesthood. I socialized at least once a week and exercised and relaxed a bit. I shot a 76 on my 75th birthday at Westgate.” He was champ of the retired priests for eight years, and then they stopped having the tournament.

Living out a dream in Alaska: “After ordination in 1944, I hoped to join the Maryknoll Fathers and go to China, but the war was on. In 1950 China closed down everything. During my last year at St. Barnabas in 1976, I went to Ireland for a three-month ministry course. I met a lot of missionaries. When I got back to Chicago I was 56. It was in my head I must go now if I was going to go. The people in Alaska were really Chinese (the Mongolians came across to Alaska), so I was living out the dream with the Eskimos. While there, I was seriously ill twice, but I had given it a try, and I’m glad I went.”

He started Midway Chapel: “In 1988, I was retiring from Our Lady of the Snows Parish, just north of Midway Airport, and thinking about getting some kind of work. I began to say weekend Masses in the old terminal. They had no religious services there from 1927. We’d go in the departure gate between flights, set up chairs, altar, sound system, put out the missalettes while people were walking up and down the concourse and announcements were being made. We always got a good number of people. The chapel is prominent in the new terminal and its 21st anniversary is in July.”

Traveling man: Has been to the Holy Land 27 times. “Each time it was a new experience, saying Mass where the tomb of Christ is, Gethsemane, Bethlehem, all those places. I’ve brought a lot of people along with me, too. My advice to young priests is travel yearly and see how the church is doing in different places, especially Europe and the Mideast.”

Longevity? “We were blessed with good genes. My sister died at 96, my brother was 94, the other brother died at 85 — he smoked too much.”

Band of brothers still: “I think we draw closer the fewer we are. We had 33 ordained in my class; six are left. They’re all in different stages of disability. Four meet regularly to play cards and meet for lunch once a week. At Bishop Lyne Home I haven’t heard a harsh word or seen an unkind action in the two years I’ve been here. I’m the oldest, 90 in July; the youngest is about 69. We’ve built a new brotherhood. We eat together and concelebrate Mass each morning.”

Computer savvy: “I use Amazon. com to purchase mostly spiritual books. My vision is going down so I can’t read more than a half hour at a time. I make the master copy for my Midway Airport bulletin on the computer. We send out 350 letters a month.”

Man of few words: Famous for his delightful three-minute homilies, he has written four books, covering 200 of his sermons. His life’s motto: “I accept.”

Help support Father McKenna and all retired priests serving the archdiocese by donating to the Priests Retirement Fund during the second collection June 14.