By Father Timothy Gollob
Special to The Texas Catholic
Several weeks ago, Father James George McKenna died at the home of a humble family in Ciudad Juárez in Mexico. He died as he had lived, in the midst of a people suffering pain and violence, but still full of faith and of love.
It was interesting and prophetic that the scripture readings that week were from the book of Sirach in the Old Testament. They declared, “These were godly men whose virtues have not been forgotten.” Then the Gospel of Mark informed us that Jesus was vehement in fighting those who oppressed the poor.
Father Jim McKenna was one of those godly men who heard the call of Cardinal Cushing’s St. James Society, which sent priests from North America to Latin America. Father John Mitchell was the first from the diocese of Dallas to answer the call and after a few years he had been in a parish that needed help. He came home and asked for volunteers. Father Jim responded from his assignment in Tyler to go to Peru.
There he remained for 20 years. He was so actively involved in the campesino campaign of land reform, that his life was in danger and he had to hide out in a poor barrio of Lima. Later, the Bishop of Puno had him work in Lampa Chica to protect his parishioners caught in the middle of warring factions.
Later in the 1980s, he joined Father Jim Feltz in Nicaragua as civil war swept over that nation as Contras battled Sandanistas.
The next decade, he was in Chiapas, Mexico, to assist Dom Samuel Ruiz in the conflict of the Zapatistas with the army.
Even after he returned to the United States, it was to join Maryknoll Father Roy Bourgeois to protest the training of soldiers from El Salvador at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga.
At the time when the Pastors for Peace came with their caravan headed for Cuba, he was with them on the famous little yellow school bus which was stopped at the border of Mexico and detained for 26 days before being allowed to journey on to the Island. For his perseverance, he was honored to meet Fidel Castro and gave a graphic answer to that leader’s question about Catholic Confirmation.
From 1999, Father McKenna lived in a tiny place in Juarez. He read and prayed and walked the neighborhood. At times, he would celebrate Mass on one side of the fence dividing Juarez from El Paso as priests from Texas celebrated Mass on their side. Communion through the fence was a sign of reconciliation and unity.
He delighted in his friends Joyce and Mac Hall, Peter and Betty, Mark Snider and his wife and children, and especially his mother and brothers and sisters
Just before Father McKenna’s death, Archbishop Oscar Romero was beatified. He was one of Father Jim’s heroes. Now they both can pray together for the peace of Christ to come to the countries they served and loved.
Father Timothy Gollob is the pastor of Holy Cross Catholic Church in Oak Cliff.