In mid-November, I took the bus down to Washington to sit in on the fall meeting of the U.S. bishopspartly because they were to vote on their pastoral statement regarding the need to re-vamp our draconian criminal justice system, an issue I follow for America. The meeting spanned four days, and on a day given over to business procedures, I took the occasion to visit my old parish, St. Aloysius. My first stop there was the Father McKenna Center, a drop-in center for poor people. Not a few of those who seek its assistance are former offenders, so the bishops’ statement had a special timeliness.
The center is named after Horace McKenna, a remarkable Jesuit who was still on the parish staff when I first went to St. Aloysius as an associate pastor 20 years ago. In his 80’s by then, Horace was nearly blind; but he was as intent as ever on helping people in need. He had already been at the parish many years, and his generosity by my time had taken on an almost mythic quality. He staved off numerous evictions, and was even known to have given away furniture from the parish parlor to needy familiesa move that evoked a rebuke from the rector of the Jesuit community; but it was a rebuke tempered by the rector’s awareness that he might be dealing with a saint.
Though as a priest Horace was sought out by rich and poor as a confessorhe called his confessional the peace boxhis main work at the parish revolved around the St. Vincent de Paul Conference, which he managed from a single room in the lower church. There he dispensed everything from clothes and sandwiches to carfare and job counseling. Aware of the need for a broader approach, he helped co-found SOMESo Others May Eata large combination soup kitchen and multi-service operation based a mile or so away that continues to thrive. But as his strength and eyesight waned, Horace stayed mostly in that single lower-church room, near the men and women in whom he perceived the face of Christ.
After his death, the Maryland Province of the Jesuits wanted to ensure the continuation of his work, and therefore provided funds to enlarge Horace’s small room into five by re-configuring the space of the lower church. The area beneath the enormous front porch, moreover, became a shelter for homeless men. Since the Blessed Sacrament was reserved at the opposite end of the church, parishioners began to say that St. Aloysius held, in fact, two Blessed Sacraments: the one in the tabernacle and the other in the homeless men in the shelter. Horace would have seen that as sound theology.
Over the years, a number of extraordinary people have joined the McKenna Center staff. Among them is Shabaka. Shabaka spent almost 15 years on Florida’s death row and came so close to execution that he had already been measured for his burial suit. Through the hard work of his appeals lawyer, his conviction was overturned. His case was thus a precursor of the recent overturning of dozens of death penalty convictions of people who were subsequently proven innocent. No wonder the bishops felt compelled to speak out against our present system of criminal justice! For several years, Shabaka has been in charge of the McKenna Center’s food service program. Another staff member is Dollene, who has been there since 1991. Having freed herself from a drug habit, she is the family services coordinator. She is also a part-time student at The Catholic University and expects to have her bachelor’s degree in social work within a year.
Both Dollene and Shabaka reflect what Horace called slow miracles. Our Lord, he used to say, could do his miracles in an instant; but the rest of us must work at them slowly. Dollene and Shabaka represent only two of the miracles that have taken place at the McKenna Center. Others are in the makingdoubtless helped along by Horace himself from his place in heaven.