Father George McKenna, oldest priest, dies at 99

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Bishop Raymond Goedert was the main celebrant during a funeral Mass for Father George McKenna at St. Barnabas Church, 10134 S. Longwood Drive, on Feb. 1, 2019. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Father George McKenna, 99, was remembered for his love, generosity of spirit and brevity of speech at a funeral Mass that drew hundreds of mourners and more than a dozen priests to St. Barnabas Church Feb. 1.

“He asked me to be the homilist at his funeral about 20 years ago,” said Father Paul Burak, who fulfilled his promise. “But he always said a homily shouldn’t be any more than three minutes. I said, ‘Does that mean I can only speak for three minutes, George?’ And he said, ‘Maybe you can go on an extra minute.’”

Father McKenna, who taught Burak at Quigley Preparatory Seminary in 1960, died Jan. 25. He had been the archdiocese’s oldest living priest since 2016.

He would have celebrated the 75th anniversary of his ordination in May, and his long ministry included teaching, serving at Maryville Academy in Des Plaines and being a pastor or associate pastor at eight parishes. He officially retired in 1989, a year after founding the Our Lady of Loretto airport chaplaincy at Midway — a position he held until 2011.

His 3-minute homilies came in handy when he preached to airport workers on their lunch breaks or travelers on their way to catch planes. They also provided the material for a series of books he published under the titles, “I’ll Only Speak for Three Minutes,” “Wisdom from the Pulpit” and “God is Good,” the blog he published until late last year.

He loved to travel, Burak said, but he always went as a pilgrim, not a tourist.

“He was always looking to catch what was holy, embrace it and bring that holiness back to others,” Burak said.

Priests, McKenna said, were called to “bring the heart of God to every person we meet,” Burak recalled. “What a privilege it has been for us to have walked with Father George McKenna.

Another of his Quigley students was Deacon Dan Welter, chancellor of the archdiocese.

“He was a beloved confessor,” Welter said. “He would always remind us that we were beloved children of God.”

Welter remembered Father McKenna’s eidetic memory: Every year the priest would memorize the names of all his students and on the first day of class he would call them by name without the need of a chart.

“This ability lasted all his life,” as 40 years later he called Welter by his full name.

The mourners at his funeral included several members of the Murphy family, who grew up in St. Catherine of Alexandria Parish in Oak Lawn when Father McKenna was pastor there.

Mary Murphy Smith said that Father McKenna celebrated her wedding Mass. Her sister, Kathy Murphy Kelly, recalled going to the 7 a.m. Mass Father McKenna celebrated at the Poor Clare monastery in Palos Park with Father McKenna’s niece, Joanne McKenna.

“Afterwards, we’d go out to breakfast at his favorite place,” Kelly said. “McDonald’s.”

Margaret Murphy Regan recalled being in elementary school and having Father McKenna pull her aside.

“He would ask if there was anyone in the class who couldn’t afford the Great America trip,” she said. “Or if any families were having a hard time before Christmas. He’d leave presents on their doorsteps.”

In addition to ministering as pastor of St. Barnabas and St. Catherine of Alexandria, Father McKenna was assistant pastor of St. Richard and Incarnation Parish, Palos Heights, and associate pastor of St. Ita, St. Terrence, Alsip; and Our Lady of the Snows.

Bishop Raymond Goedert, who celebrated the funeral Mass, said he became pastor of St. Barnabas on 1976, after Father McKenna finished his term.

“I was so proud to succeed him as pastor of this place,” Bishop Goedert said. “I just found him to be such a wonderful pastor, I don’t know if I ever could match him, but I did strive to follow him.”



  • priests
  • retired priests

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