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Rev. William G. ‘Bill’ Kenneally, popular longtime St. Gertrude’s Parish pastor, dead at 85

He pushed Catholic church officials for change, worked for social justice and was known for welcoming all to his North Side church.

Rev. Bill Kenneally.
Rev. Bill Kenneally.
Braxton Black

The Rev. Bill Kenneally endeared himself to his congregation at St. Gertrude’s parish by being tough with those in power and kind to those without it.

He pushed Catholic church officials for change and worked for social justice.

Small details got his attention, too. When he found out a little boy at St. Gert’s was allergic to wheat, Rev. Kenneally arranged for him to get Communion wafers made of rice.

And he’d laugh along with everybody else when his cocker spaniel Buddy wandered in to church in the middle of the mass.

Services were held this month at the church the Rev. Kenneally, who was the pastor at St. Gert’s for 22 years. He died Oct. 28 at 85 in hospice care at the Wisconsin home of his nephew John Kenneally.

When he retired as pastor in 2006, Rev. Kenneally told his congregation: “I have problems with the Church. I get very frustrated, but my church is here. The way you treat each other. . .you’re the Church for me.”

“I would call him a revolutionary but not a rebel,” said Peter Buttitta, a former lay minister at St. Gertrude’s and a chaplain at Amita Health St. Francis Hospital in Evanston. “He was not out to break rules. He wanted to do the best thing for the congregation.”

Rev. Kenneally challenged the Archdiocese of Chicago’s handling of accusations of clergy sexual abuse of children and defended journalists who reported on them.

He welcomed members of the LGBTQ community and women who’d had abortions.

He brought in altar girls before they were officially permitted, and he asked women and former priests in the congregation to take a greater role in preaching and running the parish at 1420 W. Granville Ave.

“He was a big supporter of dancers at Sunday liturgies,” said his friend John Horan.

With the St. Gert’s convent empty, Rev. Kenneally decided to repurpose it as housing for people who needed temporary shelter.

“Kindness, openness, acts of charity grow the church,” he said at his retirement mass.

Heidi Schlumpf, executive editor of the National Catholic Reporter, called him a “homilist extraordinaire, standup comedian, lover of opera and the Chicago White Sox and healer of hurting souls.”

When people told Rev. Kenneally he was popular, he’d jokingly answer: “Everybody who really hated me has left.”

The son of Irish immigrants, he grew up in Humboldt Park. His mother Mary Joyce was from Balla, County Mayo, and his father William was from Ballyporeen, County Tipperary. Young Bill attended Maternity B.V.M. grade school and Quigley Preparatory Seminary and the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary.

In 1961, he was ordained by Cardinal Albert Meyer. Over the years, he served at churches including St. Paul of the Cross Church in Park Ridge, St. Edmund’s in Oak Park and St. Nicholas in Evanston. In Chicago, he served at St. Therese of the Infant Jesus Church and Immaculate Conception. He became pastor at St. Gertrude’s in 1984. After retiring, he helped out at St. Barnabas parish in Beverly.

Rev. Bill Kenneally
Rev. Bill Kenneally
Archdiocese of Chicago

“Bill was always figuring out ways to welcome,” Horan said.

He’d visit people at the hospital and show up at people’s homes if he heard they were depressed.

“He was always checking in: ‘How you doing, how do you want to be involved?’ ” Horan said.

One time, standing on the steps of his church after mass, he greeted a man dressed in the resplendent robes of his native Nigeria with: “That’s what I wanted to wear!”

He enjoyed listening to NPR and seeing theater at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, Horan said.

In addition to his nephew John, Rev. Kenneally is survived by his nephews Christopher, Mark and Matthew.

He talked about the attributes he’d like to see in an archbishop in the 2012 Claire Bushey book “An Irrepressible Hope: Notes from Chicago Catholics.”

Rev. Kenneally said he wanted one “who considers Chicago home, not Rome; who goes to our plays, movies and symphonies, likes hot dogs and pizza; and dislikes tired pieties. But especially we need an archbishop who is willing to make a leap of faith out the window, spending two or three days at each parish, living at the rectory, meeting the staff, gathering the people. And, yes, he should walk the parish dog. It’s good for the heart.”