A Priest’s Papers Come To Light: The newly processed Reverend Edward J. McKenna Papers

After the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council in December 1965, many aspects of the Catholic Church were modernized in order to reconcile changing social attitudes with the spirit of Catholicism. Reciting the Holy Mass in the vernacular and fostering dialogue with other faiths/Christian denominations were among the most well-known modifications to Catholic practices; however, the Council also initiated aesthetic changes, especially in regards to prayer and liturgical music, both of which are still rigorously debated by members of the laity and clergy.

Official Church documents illustrate that the Council represented a departure from earlier theological thought, but how did Catholic clergy respond to these changes? Did all agents of the Church embrace and uphold post-Vatican II Catholicism? For Reverend Edward McKenna, 1965 not only represents the year in which modern Catholicism was formally initiated, but also the year in which Father McKenna was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Having entered the priesthood only months before the end of the Second Vatican Council, Father McKenna and his contemporaries championed dozens of changes, which ranged from administrative modifications within the Archdiocese of Chicago to adopting a more socially-based perspective of theology. Specifically, McKenna devoted his priestly career to the Council’s call for aesthetic changes to liturgical music: he studied music composition and theory at six institutions in the United States and Europe; he started his own performance group, called The McKenna Ensemble; and he published dozens of reviews of music compositions, scholarly articles on the renewal of the liturgy, and original music scores.

Holy Innocents
Page from the handwritten musical composition, “The Holy Innocents,” inspired by Daniel Berrigan’s poetry, 1962. Revered Edward McKenna Papers.

The music composition, named for a poem by Daniel Berrigan, S.J., symbolizes many aspects of Father McKenna’s life: it shows McKenna’s aptitude for composing music; it is an example of McKenna’s respect for Berrigan as a fellow poet and priest; and the poem and its musical adaptation are products resulting from the increased interest in liturgical development after the 1960s. Though McKenna was foremost a priest and musician, his early professional life encompassed a diversity of experiences. McKenna was part of the founding of the Young Priests’ Caucus, a subcommittee of the Association of Chicago Priests, which was an umbrella organization dedicated to upholding Vatican II practices within the Archdiocese of Chicago. From 1966 to 1974, Father McKenna was assigned to the St. Thomas Aquinas church located in Austin, where he and other community organizers started the Organization for a Better Austin (OBA). The OBA served as a network of community organizations dedicated to improving housing standards in Austin and notifying the community of exploitative practices such as blockbusting.

The newly processed manuscript collection illustrates how one Chicago priest navigated parish life in a racially-shifting landscape, of priesthood after Vatican II, and of musical composition in the midst of liturgical renewal. For additional information about the materials from the Reverend Edward J. McKenna Papers used in this blog, contact Special Collections and Archives at archives@depaul.edu or stop by our department in the Richardson Library, Room 314.

3 Replies to “A Priest’s Papers Come To Light: The newly processed Reverend Edward J. McKenna Papers”

  1. I have just recently been made aware of the works of Fr. McKenna . . . [specifically, an item in HOSANNA, 1980.] would appreciate any of his writings/ articles that you could share. I am retired, this would be for my personal interest. Thank you. Ms. Emelia Junk, Ludington Michigan

    1. Hi Emelia. Thanks so much for your interest and comment, which I will forward to our Special Collections department. They will contact you via email. –Alexis Burson

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