Chicagoland

175th anniversary: Meet the archdiocese’s oldest living priest

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
November 8, 2018

Father George McKenna stands in front of the Bishop Timothy J. Lyne Residence for retired priests in Palos Park in this file photo. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Note: This story is part of a special issue marking the 175th anniversary of the founding of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Father George McKenna was born less than a year after the end of World War I. He was ordained a priest a month before D-Day. He had been, officially, retired for 13 years when 9/11 happened, but he was still the volunteer chaplain at Midway International Airport.

Now, at 99, McKenna is the oldest living priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, and, as of October, he still maintained a blog at fathermckenna.wordpress.com.

If you visit it, you can buy his latest book, “Wisdom from the Pulpit,” for $11.95 direct from the publishers, CMJ Marian Publishers of Oak Lawn. It’s his fourth volume; the other three were titled “I’ll Only Talk for 3 Minutes,” and were collections of his homilies at the airport chapel.

The blog posts are also taken from the stock of homilies he delivered, egg timer in hand, over 23 years at Midway.

“I don’t see so well any more so I can’t write,” he said in 2016, although he acknowledged that he likes being able to reach people through his blog.

McKenna recently moved from the Bishop Timothy Lyne Residence for retired priests in Palos Park, where he had lived since 2007, to Holy Family Villa nursing home.

His ministry at Midway all happened after he retired as associate pastor of Our Lady of the Snows Parish in 1989, when he was a young 70. (“It was my own idea, in all humility,” he told the Catholic New World, as the archdiocesan newspaper was then known.)

“Those years were the happiest of my life,” he said.

He began celebrating Mass in the Midway Airlines courtesy room. When that airline went bankrupt, he got permission from Southwest and Frontier Airlines to celebrate Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning liturgies at gate B2. When the airport terminal was renovated and expanded in 2003, it had a dedicated chapel for the first time.

Ministering to travelers and airport workers was actually the third stage of his priestly career. McKenna taught at Maryville Academy in Des Plaines for five years after being ordained, then spent the next 20 years teaching at Quigley North and Quigley South, the two high school seminaries.

He then served as pastor or associate pastor at several parishes, mostly on the Southwest Side or in the Southwest suburbs near Midway, although he did spend some time as a missionary pastor in the Diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska.

When he was profiled in “Five Minutes with Father” in the Catholic New World in 2009 — to promote the collection for the Priests’ Retirement Fund — he noted that he had been a priest for 65 years and playing golf for 75 years.

Golf “helped keep me in the priesthood,” he said. “I socialized at least once a week and relaxed a bit.”

He won a golf tournament for retired priests for eight years in a row; then they stopped having the tournament.

McKenna said he would encourage Catholics to contribute to the annual collection for retired priests because it’s “a good work of charity. It helps priests who work for many years serving people. Most of them, when they retire, don’t have much money.”

This article was originally published on June 13, 2016. It has been edited and updated.

Topics:

  • priests
  • 175th anniversary

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