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Daniel Kenna Marks 50 Years as a Friar

This is the third in a series of profiles of friars commemorating their anniversaries of profession. The second featured Peter Chepaitis, OFM. The 2018 silver and golden jubilarians will be honored in June at a special Mass celebrated in New York City.

NEW YORK – At age 25 and still months away from ordination, Daniel Kenna, OFM, was asked in 1973 to serve as vice president for student development at St. Bonaventure University in Allegany, N.Y. Although grateful for being called into leadership at a young age and relishing the then-groundbreaking assignment of evaluating and modifying student-life policies and services at the university, Dan had his sights set on pastoral ministry and a return to his southern roots.

A few years later, Dan was offered a job by the Archdiocese of Atlanta and his dream looked close to coming true. But the Provincial leadership had other plans – sending Dan to Denver in 1977 to be part of a friar team at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish operating a new Franciscan interfaith ministry center on the shared campus of three state colleges.

As he celebrates 50 years as a professed Franciscan friar this year, Dan has never lost sight of that lesson of four decades ago because despite the disappointment of having to turn down the position in Atlanta, it set the tone for his ministerial life and deepened his commitment to the Franciscan vow of obedience.

“That experience showed me how to stay open to the needs of the Province, rather than pursuing my own plan. Being a Franciscan means being open to a world greater than your own,” Dan said during an interview at the Provincial Office on West 31st Street in New York City, where he was assigned last October to coordinate a three-year planning process designed to evaluate and make decisions concerning the sustainability of the Province’s 29 current corporate commitments.

“I have continually been called to a series of wonderful opportunities that I would never have been able to plan,” he said, adding, “The itinerant nature – moving and living amidst the people – is what attracted me to the Franciscans. But what kept me in the Order has been the Province’s deep commitment to implementing the reforms of Vatican II – empowering the laity, advocating for the underdog and working for social justice.”

Photos of Dan taken during his tenure as vice-president for student development at St. Bonaventure University. (Photo courtesy of The Bonadieu)

A Fateful Walk Home
Dan says his religious vocation, in many ways, was deeply rooted in growing up Catholic in the heart of a Southern Baptist community – his family just one of a half-dozen Catholic families that lived in a suburban middle-class neighborhood in Charlotte, N.C. Although some of his best friends attended the Baptist church across from his house (they even snuck him into summer Bible camp), he remembers Catholic families being left out of the neighborhood Independence Day picnics.

But that didn’t deter these transplanted Iowans from being founding members of St. Ann Parish and its grammar school. Dan helped the nuns decorate classrooms before the school opened, and he remembers helping the pastor unwrap statues for the new church.

While he often thought about the priesthood at a young age, it was a walk home after school in 1955, accompanied by his fourth-grade teacher, Sr. Joan Lorraine – dressed in a traditional habit – that stoked the fire of religious vocation. As they passed a playground near a public school, a group of boys tossed handfuls of gravel and hurled derogatory insults at Sr. Joan.

“I was scared, but I will never forget Sr. Joan’s softly spoken words: ‘Danny,’ she told me, ‘just keep walking and don’t say a word. Hold your head high and be proud of who you are.’ That was a powerful moment – Sr. Joan heroically and proudly displaying her faith,” Dan said. “What a tremendous witness she was for me, showing a young and very impressionable person what it’s like to walk in the world much like St. Francis did.”

Not long after that experience, he was intrigued by a talk at an altar boy outing given by Edward Dillon, OFM, about St. Francis of Assisi and his dedication to living among the poor. He was also fascinated by the human element of the friars, who would visit the parish on their days off.

Dan told his parents that he wanted to attend high school at the Franciscan minor seminary. After graduating from St. Ann Catholic School, he entered St. Joseph Seraphic Seminary in Callicoon, N.Y., in 1961 at age 13.

He was received into the Franciscan Order on July 14, 1967, at St. Raphael’s Novitiate in Lafayette, N.J., where he made his first profession one year later. Dan made his final profession on June 19, 1971, at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Manhattan. He was ordained on Sept. 22, 1973, at St. Camillus Church in Silver Spring, Md., and he later received a master’s degree in theology from Washington Theological Union in the nation’s capital.

Guiding Novices
After two years as a campus minister at the St. Francis Interfaith Center in Colorado, where he helped blaze a trail that ministered to students in a new way – offering interfaith educational programs and services collaboratively with clergy of other religious traditions and denominations – Dan was assigned to the Franciscan parish of St. Joseph in Winsted, Conn., in 1979. For the next five years, he served as pastor, guardian of the friary, and director of the Franciscan postulancy program.

“It was the best of both worlds – performing pastoral ministry in an active parish whose Franciscan presence pre-dated the Civil War, and accompanying young men in their search for their vocation,” said Dan.

In 1984, he was appointed director of the novitiate and guardian at St. Francis Friary in Brookline, Mass. Although he missed being “in the trenches with the people,” he realized that internal ministry was a special opportunity to call forth the gifts and talents of novices and so help to revitalize the Province.

“I learned as much from those in formation as they learned from me,” Dan said. “As we welcome and encourage new members to share their talents, values, and opinions, they reform who we are, and they restore us and give us renewed vision.”

Dan as director of novices, with the class of 1988. First row, left to right: Dan, William Herbst, Harry Monaco, Kevin Dougherty, David Schlatter (assistant director of novices). Second row: Barry Langley, Edward Frenzel, Jeff Waldron, Henry Fulmer. (Photo courtesy of The Provincial Annals)

Before returning to parish life, Dan went on sabbatical to the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem, where he studied with rector Stephen Doyle, OFM, one of the Province’s scripture scholars. Dan also spent time in Lima, Peru – “a real plunge for me,” and an eye-opener to see Franciscan friars serving the impoverished and destitute, who, despite their hardships, were “very simple people of strong faith.

In 1990, Dan moved to St. Francis of Assisi on Long Beach Island, N.J., and three years later celebrated a homecoming of sorts – when, in 1993, Dan returned to his southern roots upon being appointed parochial vicar of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Raleigh, N.C.

“I had wanted to go back home ever since I became a friar,” he said. “I love the Church in the South because it’s very different. Almost everyone is a transplant from somewhere else, so people are more open to change and new perspectives. This progressive approach to building Church is a theme that has been important in my ministerial life.”

With unprecedented population growth in Raleigh at the time, Dan’s passion for building Church reached new heights. His first meeting with parishioners was taking part in designing a new church to meet the needs of the burgeoning Catholic community.

Two years after his arrival, Dan was appointed pastor – just in time for the dedication Mass of the new church. Dan described the moment that he and the local bishop first walked inside the new building before the dedication Mass as one of the most moving moments of his life – not because of the brick and mortar of the new structure, but the excitement of seeing the 1,000 people that followed and filled the pews.

“To be part of this growth was exciting and energizing,” said Dan, who saw active parish households grow to more than 4,000 by the time he left in 2003.

Opportunity to Evangelize
For Dan, the most effective way to build Church also comes in quiet accompaniment – which took on many forms in Raleigh, such as collaborating with Baptist ministers for affordable housing, visiting patients of all religious denominations at a local hospital, and walking alongside death row inmates at the local state penitentiary.

“The sincerity of faith of ordinary people is humbling,” he said. “It’s a privilege to experience the trust of someone in the midst of a dire situation, to be able to walk with them and talk them through that moment.”

An unexpected opportunity knocked on the friary door, literally, when Herb Sendek, the then-newly hired coach of the N.C. State University men’s basketball team, added his family to the parishioner rolls. After a few conversations, he asked Dan to be the team’s chaplain.

Dan watches the NC State University’s men’s basketball team warm up before a game. (Photo courtesy of The Charlotte Observer)

Dan, a big fan of collegiate basketball, became a fixture at practices and games. He grew close with prominent alumni who traveled with the team – most of whom were Southern Baptists, but nevertheless attended team Masses and other spiritual exercises.

“It became an opportunity for me to evangelize in a real setting with people who otherwise would not have been attracted to the Church,” said Dan, who also served as chaplain to N.C. State football team and became friends with then-quarterback Philip Rivers (who’s had a stellar NFL career with the Los Angeles Chargers).

Dan left St. Francis but remained in Raleigh after accepting the bishop’s invitation to serve as the first-ever president of Cardinal Gibbons High School – where he took on the challenge of devising and implementing a long-term strategic plan and development program to grow the student population.

After three years at Gibbons H.S., Dan was assigned to Holy Name of Jesus Church on West 96th Street in Manhattan as parochial vicar, and later as guardian and pastor, from 2006 to 2014. There, he met the challenge of ministering to distinct parishioner communities in several languages – including immigrants from French-speaking Haiti, western Africa, and Latin-American countries.

“This symbolized for me what it meant to build up the Church, developing a tri-lingual liturgy and bringing the English, French and Spanish-speaking together as one community in the Body of Christ,” he said.

Dan washes the feet of a small child during a Holy Thursday service at Sacred Heart Church in Tampa, Fla. (Photo courtesy of Sacred Heart)

Dan went to Sacred Heart Church in Tampa, Fla., in July 2014 to serve as parochial vicar, regional vocation director, and coordinator of a special project that ultimately expanded HNP ministries in diocesan parishes in the Southeast, including Macon, Ga., and Orlando, Fla.

Some of Dan’s early mentors deeply influenced his life as a friar, such as former Franciscan Damian McElrath, a Church historian whose inspiration led Dan to his first ministry at St. Bonaventure, and who later became director of a renowned drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Minnesota. Dan said that David McBriar, OFM, who was pastor when he arrived at St. Francis in Raleigh, was his “biggest source of inspiration that stretched my heart and mind,” and who showed him how wonderful it was to experience life as a friar.

“I have come to value our fraternal life as friars,” he said. “It enables us to authentically go out into the world and minister. Everywhere I have been, I was always blessed to live and work with a great team of friars.”

Much like that walk home with Sr. Joan in 1955, Dan has quietly given witness to the Gospel by accompanying others in their life journeys, whether ordinary people or friars in formation. He continues to help build the Church, one person at a time, wherever his ministries take him.

— Stephen Mangione is a longtime writer and public relations executive based in Westchester County, N.Y.

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