By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special to the Bulletin | Published May 25, 2018
ATLANTA—Still passionate for ministry at 88, Father Jerome McKenna, CP, celebrated his 60th jubilee Mass of priesthood on April 22 at St. Paul of the Cross Church in Atlanta, the parish that he has pastored for nearly a decade. And the bilingual liturgy celebrated his multicultural parish’s growing children’s and young adult ministries, African-American heritage and membership from Africa and Latin America.
“It was a wonderful experience,” said Father McKenna, a Passionist. “The whole parish was pretty much involved for the preparation of it and the celebration of it so I was very happy that they were all able to do that. This is a mixed cultural parish, and they worked together very well. It was a beautiful celebration.”
Back in 2009 as vicar general in the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, Father McKenna learned of the opportunity to pastor the historic church, which sits on 37 acres in northwest Atlanta. Established in 1954 for African-Americans, St. Paul of the Cross Parish has been staffed by the priests of the Congregation of the Passion since then. The 79-year-old priest, of Irish descent, yearned at the time to return to the field of mission and had been impressed by the parish on provincial visits years earlier.
“I had celebrated my 50th anniversary in Wheeling, and then I started looking ahead and saying I don’t think I want to die sitting behind a desk,” recalled Father McKenna. “I thought, I’m familiar with the place and had pastoral experience and have never worked with the African-American community so I’d love to do it.”
A multicultural garden
Since then the 450-family parish has blossomed into a multicultural garden. About half of the parishioners are Hispanics from Mexico and Latin America and 50 percent are African-American or Nigerian immigrants. While it seemed a bit late to learn Spanish, he has warmly ministered to his entire flock with the help of his parochial vicar.
“The Hispanic community started to grow and develop. We just opened the doors a little wider, and they continued to come. Now we have a large Hispanic population here as well as the black. I love it,” said the priest.
Deacon Hilliard Lee, a founding church member of St. Paul of the Cross, died May 8. He spoke of Father McKenna days before his own death.
Deacon Lee praised Father McKenna’s leadership.
“We’re very blessed to have him with us over these nine years,” he said. “They’ve been excellent. Father Jerome is a tremendous administrator, and he’s done an awful lot to set us on the right track. Spiritually his homilies are just unbelievable, a great homilist, very in-depth person.”
And Father McKenna challenges them to work for justice.
“There’s nobody in Atlanta more into social justice ministry than that man is,” Deacon Lee added. “He encourages us to be involved through his homilies and the various organizations that we have.”
Deacon Lee and Father McKenna worked together to ease any parish growing pains. The pastor initiated bilingual Masses and committee meetings while also working with African-American parishioners to honor their traditions.
“He really worked at that in bringing the two communities together,” Deacon Lee said.
Honduras native Edgardo Rubio, 23, agrees and appreciates the pastor’s steadfast “bienvenido” to Hispanics.
“When there’s a program or anything he’s always welcoming everybody to join,” said Rubio, who has attended the church with his family since 2009 and now works as custodian and facility manager.
Rubio noted that Father McKenna has also overseen bathroom and office renovations and guided many spiritually with his humility and approachability.
“He’s always there to listen to people’s problems. People like to see him and discuss things with him in an open way,” he said. “He doesn’t just live for the present and is always looking forward to something new, to encourage everybody to stay holy and connected to the church.”
A priesthood of social justice ministry
Father McKenna is indeed grateful for 60 years of such ministry as pastor, administrator and social justice leader.
“I do enjoy every day of it, never had any regrets or any second thoughts,” he said.
Growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he was first inspired on his sacerdotal path by a priest who would take him and classmates to parishioners’ homes for wakes of loved ones to pray the rosary. Additionally, his father sought confessions every Saturday at the Passionist monastery and would bring young Jerome and his six brothers along. By age 14 he entered minor seminary.
“I thought I wanted to be like them because they were preachers and I wanted to preach,” explained Father McKenna.
He was ordained to priesthood in 1958 at St. Michael’s Monastery in Union City, New Jersey, by Bishop Cuthbert O’Gara, CP, the exiled bishop of Yuanling, China.
After earning his licentiate in Rome, Father McKenna became secretary to the Eastern Province provincial and then superior of the Pittsburgh monastery for six years, until his appointment from 1970-80 as the first director of the American Passionist Social Concerns Center. Working with 40 Passionists in the Philippines, he chaired a church coalition for human rights there and secured an agreement for more humane company working conditions by Dole’s parent company, Castle & Cooke. Nationally, he advocated on behalf of East Coast migrant workers facing horrible camp conditions and organized Passionist monasteries, retreat houses and parishes into an advocacy network in collaboration with the Jesuits and women religious networks.
“What you achieve is not always obvious to the public, but it was personally most rewarding to me because we were making changes in the lives of people far beyond the limits of our province,” he said.
Father McKenna also led more than 500 Passionist Volunteers in serving the poor throughout West Virginia. Later he pastored the rural churches in the mountainous Preston County where he created a combined central church council and oversaw summer training of seminarians. He served there for 28 years, eventually becoming director of the office of pastoral planning and vicar general. Recently he was delighted to receive handmade jubilee cards from the children of children he ministered to in West Virginia.
“We left behind an organization of lay people, Passionist Associates. So they keep the spirit alive,” he added.
In 1997 he had the opportunity to travel to Beijing, China, and deliver donations to priest and religious of the Yuanling Diocese under Passionist care but driven underground from communism. In his hotel he celebrated Mass with lay leaders, seminarians and two Yuanling priests—one of whom was also ordained by Bishop O’Gara.
“They had nothing. They had a host and wine in a medicine bottle and used a teacup and saucer for the chalice and communion plate. It was just the most wonderful and moving experience of my life, to have Mass with them … They risked their lives in coming in. If they had been detected in any way they would have been thrown back into prison,” he said. “We talked about bringing Passionists back into China and actually that is the case right now.”
Forever inspired, Father McKenna has always striven to preach Christ’s Passion and the hope of the resurrection.
“We also focus on the contemporary Passion, the suffering of the body of Christ in humanity in the world today,” he said. “The risen Christ is present in the world and that’s where the strength and the power should come to Christianity … He sent his Spirit into the world to make his presence a greater reality so that’s what we preach.”
Having played piano and organ himself, the octogenarian renews his spirit with classical music. Among his spiritual practices, he prays the Stations of the Cross and meditates. And he’s energized through the church’s young people, including 50 children, mostly Hispanic, receiving first Communion this year. Additionally, “the young adults, they’ve formed their own prayer group, Bible study. They’ve formed a choir and also are serving as catechists. And the beautiful thing about it is they have attracted some of their peers who are not even Catholic and they’re coming as well for Wednesday night meetings. And two of them have been speaking to me about becoming Catholic so that’s the thing that keeps me alive,” he noted.
Father McKenna now prepares to step down this year as pastor but plans to stay active as a senior priest.
“There’s simply a lot of ministry here to carry out, and I can give assistance to the priests who are here,” he said. “I do a lot of spiritual direction, many people come here for spiritual direction, not just parishioners. So I’d like to stay with that and feel it’s very important in the world today.”