Sister Mary McKenna, CSJ

McKenna 3611 2x3

As I begin, a simple clarification, if you came to honor Marion, Mickey, Mary Kathryn, Philothea or Sister Mary McKenna, you are in the right place.  All these different names indicate the varied relationships that Mary experienced throughout her life.  She was very proud to say that her religious name, Philothea, meant not only love of God but that it also meant love of Friendship.  Her first and forever friend was Mary Beatrice Schneller and her second close to first, was Betty Falvey.  They grew up together in Corona.

A little less than six months ago we were gathered here for Mary’s 80th jubilee.  At that time in my reflection at Mass, I repeated a number of times, “My life would be very different if I had never met you.”   Just as then, each of us could say that about our relationship with Mary, we can say the same today.

“My life/our lives would be very different if I/we had never met you.”

If I had never met Mary McKenna, Sister Philothea, as a High School sophomore, I wouldn’t be here today, I wouldn’t be a Sister of St. Joseph and I wouldn’t be sharing with you.  How very different my life would be if I had never met Mary.

Mary had a phenomenal ability for memorization and often we benefited from it when out of the blue she would recite a poem that was spot on to what was happening.  Today during the Mass we’ll hear the Prologue from John’s gospel. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was God and the word was with God.”  Mary learned it by heart as one of her first assignments when she began High School at the Juniorate over 80 years ago and without missing a word, recited it for me last year at Christmastime!

She was a wordsmith.  Creating poetry, from the simple, the “ugh” bug poem we heard last night, to the most profound.  Paraphrasing familiar songs for her own enjoyment and ours, e.g., In Sacred Heart Academy biology the vitamin song to “Hi Ho It’s Off to Work we Go”.  Her ability to use words to lift up and to challenge came through whether she was teaching grammar school or high school or college or whether the subject was English or chemistry, algebra or the New Testament, Shakespeare or even French.  She never met a subject she didn’t love!  She never met a job she didn’t love, grammar school teacher, high school teacher, college professor, TV producer, TV director, TV writer, Director of Religious Education, campus minister and wisdom guru.

She desired that her words express her deep feelings for others.  Last Thursday night when I was sitting by Mary’s bed, by this point she had stopped drinking and eating, she no longer responded to her name.  An aide dropped in as she began her shift.  Quickly the aide realized that Mary was dying.  Shocked she said, “I was here last Friday and Sister Mary was talking to me, she told me “If I should die tonight, thank you, thank you, thank you. “  Gratitude was ever present on her lips and in particular during her days and years here at the Motherhouse.

When you were with Mary you never quite knew what the topic of conversation would be, theology, bugs.   The possibilities were limitless.  Occasionally Mary and I would talk about heaven. In the last such conversation she was very clear,  ‘I will become part of the cosmos, returning to stardust.”  Teilhard De Chardin, was a favorite of hers.  She loved his bringing together science and religion.  She was reading him even as he was listed on the “Forbidden Books” list. Just checking his authenticity, you know!  She embraced his sense of evolution and expanding consciousness.

If she woke in the middle of the night she would sing Jan Novtka’s song “Conscious Waking”, we heard it last night.  It comforted her.  During Mass we will sing it.

“Consciousness waking, holy and whole.
Creation stirring, birthing anew
Now is the time, we are the space
For the holy to rise in our midst.”

But in more recent times Mary sang her own version:

“Conscious waning,
Holy – not whole
Creation stirring, evolving anew
Now is the time

No then or when,

When your soul {Jesus the Word*} shall
Unfold mine again!”                               {*} insert by Maryann

“Not whole” “Not whole”.   Mary was conscious of the “not whole” within herself.  By the time she was six both of her parents had died.  Her Mom died during the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918 when Mary was only a few weeks old and her Dad six years later.  Fortunately her second Mom, Mary Ellen Gorman Hanophy, took her into her home and raised her as one of her children. It was because of Mrs. Hanophy’s illness that Mary was called home from her beloved island of Puerto Rico before time.

“When I was in first grade” (no kindergarten back then) Mary told me, “Sister said Mary, Jesus’ mother, was all of our mothers and would protect us.  So at lunchtime I ran into Our Lady of Sorrows church where there was a big statue of Mother Mary.  Standing directly in front I told Mother Mary in no uncertain terms, “I’m an orphan and you better take care of me.”  “Not whole”.

Which brings me to some final words Mary treasured:

Holy (H-o-l-y) and Wholly (W-h-o-l-l-y).  They can be found in the poem on the back cover of the Mass booklet.  This is a poem Mary wrote while sitting by the bedside of a dying nun, Sister Annemarie Sullivan.  Anne Marie was Father Jim Sullivan’s cousin.

When I was six or seven
Maybe even eight
I thought it would be great
To slip through the heavy door of our Church
And catch Jesus out of the
Tab – er – nakl

Where I knew He was for “REAL”
How could He stay? – all day?
Sheer thought of it was a question.
How could He fit?  He must have been smaller than me,
Maybe only four like the little Hungarian next door.
But I never found Him just walking around or
Looking at the stained glass window or Station.
it was in grown up terms “utter frustration”

Now I am fourscore and ten!  I sit quiet and close
Near a dying nun.
I know that Jesus will come.
I want to be there; I make a stab at prayer:
“Now and at the hour of our death,” I say
Hoping that clement and sweet Virgin Mary will also pray
I watch the nun; she stirs a bit probably at settlings
Of last things with Jesus before the sighing breath
That heralds what we call “death”.
And suddenly I’m swept into Sacred Space;

I know He’s here


One person’s small history moves forward into mystery and                                                    I say softly:




“And suddenly I’m swept into Sacred Space;

I know He’s here


One person’s small history moves forward into mystery
and I say softly:

Holy!    Holy!  Holy!

Welcome home, Mary, holy and whole. Welcome home.

Maryann McHugh, CSJ
Mary’s Postulant

Sister Mary McKenna, CSJ died on March 18, 2016 in the 80th year of her religious life.

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