Father George P. McKenna used to set a timer at the Midway Airport chapel to make sure his sermons wouldn’t go on longer than the time it took to cook an egg.
“I’ve always believed in a short homily,” he told the Sun-Times. “You make one point, use one illustration with personal experience, and it’s something to hook the lesson to so people remember.”
At 92, he started a blog, “God is Good!”
Father McKenna, Chicago’s oldest archdiocesan priest, died Jan. 25 at 99 at the Bishop Lyne residence in Palos Park. He’d been a priest for 74 years.
Some air travelers said he changed their lives. Nancy Westvang, a native South Sider, encountered him at Midway in 2008. A nurse, she was preparing to fly home to Seattle when she was hit by a panic attack about boarding the plane. Then she heard an intercom message that Catholic mass was about to start in the chapel.
“I hadn’t been to church for 18 years,” she said. “The first thing that just struck me was that he set a timer for his homily. He set it for three minutes, and that’s how long he spoke. He said more in those three minutes than I’d ever heard a priest say.” His talk calmed her fears.
During another stop at Midway, he prayed with her for her mother’s recovery from surgery. He wrote a book, “Wisdom from the Pulpit,” and three more, all titled “I’ll Only Talk for 3 Minutes,” which he’d give to travelers from the carry-on he pulled around the airport. As her mother recuperated, Westvang started calling her mom and reading her stories from Father McKenna’s books. “I’d read and she would get calm and relaxed.”
Westvang wrote to the priest. They started exchanging letters and she struck up a friendship with him and his family.
She began attending mass again. And she and her husband, who were wed in 1999, got married around 2012 in the Catholic church.
“He really saved me spiritually,” she said. “He really was the kindest man I’ve ever met. He just had such a human connection to people and he was so warm.”
“There was such an inner peace about him,” said his niece Loraine Cunningham.
George grew up in Englewood. His mother was from County Mayo, Ireland and his father was from County Limerick.
During the Depression, he and his brothers caddied at Westgate Country Club. His father died when he was 17, so “They would take their earnings for the day, wrap it up in a handkerchief and put it on the table, and that’s what their mom used to buy food,” Cunningham said.
The boys switched to caddying at the Beverly Country Club, where the commute was shorter and the tips were better, said his nephew Patrick McKenna. He caddied for Walgreen’s founder Charles Walgreen, among others.
On his blog, Father McKenna said he was inspired in grade school by a nun at St. Theodore’s, who brought him and other students down six flights of stairs to church to pray about their “poor conduct in class.”
“I mulled over my selfishness in bringing Sister Angelista up and down those long stairways. I consider those minutes a watershed experience in my life,” he said. “. . . .Prayer took on preciousness for me. Sister Angelista came to my First Mass.”
He studied at Quigley Preparatory Seminary and Mundelein Seminary. The future priests had restricted outside contact at the time. “When they were ordained in 1944, they weren’t sure who was winning the war,” his nephew said.
His first posting was at Maryville orphanage. He also served at St. Richard’s; Sr. Barnabas; in Bethel, Alaska; at St. Catherine of Alexandria in Oak Lawn; St. Ita’s, St. Terrence in Alsip and Our Lady of the Snows.
He also taught at Quigley’s north and south campuses, where he used memorization techniques to master the names of hundreds of students over the years. “I think he failed one kid at Quigley in 20 years,” his nephew said, “and he felt bad about it.”
From 1988 to 2011, Father McKenna ministered at Midway. Before it had a dedicated interfaith chapel, he’d do pop-up masses. He’d wait for an unused gate and transform it by wheeling in a portable altar and hanging a cloth that mimicked stained glass, Cunningham said. Sometimes, he rode around the airport in a cart with a sign that said, “Confessions Available.’’
Once, his niece Joanne McKenna saw him give a wad of around $80 to a man selling newspapers at Midway. “If someone gave him $50,” she said, “it would be in someone else’s hands minutes later.”
A good golfer, he was an eight-time winner of a clergy tournament. At 75, he shot a 76, his nephew said.
“He ate White Castle up to the end,” Cunningham said. And, he liked Beggars Pizza.
Services have been held. At his wake, his maroon windbreaker was on display, emblazoned “Midway Airport Chaplain.”