One afternoon in the early spring of 1982, when I had a sudden need to listen to a wise elder of cant-free mind, I phoned Horace McKenna to ask if I could come by. Sure, he said. He invited me to his room at the rectory of St. Aloysius, the Jesuit parish eight blocks from the Capitol.
The priest, 82 and in the last months of his energetic life, was in rattling good form. He groused good-naturedly about the rug on the floor, a Sears special spread there by well-meaning confreres who feared he might fall on the bare wood while padding around in his socks. McKenna saw it as a useless luxury. What can you do, he said of this latest splinter from life's crosses.
And what's to be done, he wondered, with all those boxes and folders crammed in the corner between his bed and a dresser.
What's in them? I asked.
A book, he said.
In the boxes was an amassment of notes, interviews, clippings, transcriptions, drafts and all the other written meat and drink of McKenna's life. Someone, he sighed, can get a book out of all that.
Want to write it? he asked.
The question, I learned later, was routinely posed by McKenna to pilgrims to his room. He found an able man in John S. Monagan, a lawyer and former member of Congress who served seven terms from Connecticut's Fifth District. Monagan came to know McKenna in the late 1970s after contributing financially to the priest's projects for the poor. He is not a professional writer, and it shows here and there. Nor has he labored for a decade to weigh in with an exhaustive biography. His accomplishment is more modest. Monagan produced the best basic facts, achievements and lore of McKenna's heroic life.
Toward the end of his life, McKenna became a much-honored man for his work at SOME (So Others Might Eat), which feeds the hungry. He was a force behind Martha's Table, which cares for schoolchildren; Sursum Corda, the housing development; and the St. Vincent de Paul Society. For the moneyed of Washington, McKenna had the safest poor box to drop a check into: The funds would get to the poor directly. McKenna would not buy an airline ticket to a conference on poverty, much less a rug for the office floor.
For the unmoneyed, McKenna offered safety of another kind. Monagan interviewed the Rev. Imagene Stewart, pastor of the Church of What's Happening Now. McKenna, seeing that Pastor Imagene had opened an emergency shelter for the homeless, offered his friendship. "He was the only person to give me encouragement," Stewart recalls. "He would help me two or three times a day . . . I have had few white men play a part in my life . . . He was one of the few people that I could really trust."
Thousands of other blacks would say the same, beginning with those McKenna had served for 22 years in southern Maryland. In 1931 in Saint Mary's County, as a priest for two years, he saw the Depression devastate black farming families. He recalled: "The people were in a sad condition. If you were going by, they'd run out to the road and ask you to come in and you'd see nothing on the table, nothing in the sugar bowl, nothing in the cupboard, nothing in any of the jars and nothing on the stove except hot water. And they'd say, 'We have nothing!' "
Monagan concedes that he is writing about a man for whom saintliness is not an overblown description. Still, McKenna's feet had his share of clay, a toe or two: a taste for publicity (always the hardest of the Devil's temptations to resist, even for Jesuits), an abruptness for the slower of foot who kept slipping on Jacob's ladder. In his own Jesuit order, which occasionally was the Church of What's Not Happening Now, McKenna was revered by the faction that wanted a religion of risk and service. He favored women's ordination and he said the faithful didn't need to trifle with Rome's negative view of birth control. Of his troubles with Cardinal O'Boyle on the birth control issue, McKenna whimsically said, "That's what you get for trying to argue sex with an Irishman."
Most of McKenna's work continues: the soup kitchens, the shelters. A vehicle called "McKenna's Wagon" is on the streets of Washington nightly delivering food to the homeless.
At the priest's funeral in May 1982, more than 1,000 people came to the requiem mass at St. Aloysius. The event was as much a celebration as a mourning. McKenna had written of his death, "When God lets me into heaven, I think I'll ask to go off in a corner somewhere for half an hour and sit down and cry becuse the strain is off, the work is done, and I haven't been unfaithful or disloyal. All these needs that I have known are in the hands of Providence, and I don't have to worry any longer who's at the door, whose breadbox is empty, whose baby is sick, whose house is shaken and discouraged, and whose children can't read."