The 'Good Church' Priest

Rev. Kevin McDonough relishes role as administrator, pastor

The words of "Spirit Song" fit the moment, the Mass, the congregation and, perhaps most affirmingly, the priest.

"Oh let the Son of God enfold you with His spirit and His love," those gathered in St. Peter Claver Catholic Church sing. "Let Him fill your heart and satisfy your soul. Oh, let Him have the things that hold you, and His spirit like a dove will descend upon your life and make you whole."

The voice of the Rev. Kevin McDonough rises above the rest on this Pentecost Sunday in June as he strides down the aisle and smiles into pews filled with people of all races and ages. His heart indeed is filled with joy, and he shares it as he celebrates Mass, introduces guests, explains how the Holy Spirit "draws us into a family" and reflects on tributes posted on the walls by co-workers of a parishioner who died recently.

Ten a.m. Mass at St. Peter Claver, a predominantly African-American parish near Interstate 94 and Lexington Parkway in St. Paul, is not for timid souls who want to pray quietly and quickly and get on with their Sunday. You must invest your spirit, your soul, your lungs and up to two hours in this experience, led by an inspired pastor whose charisma and radiance fill every corner.

"So you enjoyed the Mass?" McDonough asked a few days later. "It’s quite a place, isn’t it? I came there in 1990, and the 10 a.m. Mass ran an hour or so the first few weeks. Then one Sunday, the choir got a burst of spirit and we went longer. When I got to the back of the church, I looked at my watch and it said one hour and 30 minutes. I thought, ‘I am in trouble.’ The first fellow who walked out said, ‘Father Kevin, we had some good church today!’ "

St. Peter Claver still has "good church" 11 years later, and still is led by McDonough. "African-Americans value ‘good church’ — a worship experience that is impactful and offers purpose," he said. "Worship is our electricity and enlivens our life as a parish."

McDonough offers these thoughts as he sits in his spartan office in the Chancery of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, where he leads his "other" life. His title is vicar general and moderator of the curia, which in layman’s terms translates to chief operating officer and Archbishop Harry Flynn’s right-hand man.

He has held that position for 10 years, and he has a schedule of meetings and a list of responsibilities that would overwhelm most people. Add to that his duties at St. Peter Claver, where he also is leading a $4 million fund-raising campaign and will reopen its school this fall, and one wonders how he keeps his sanity.

"Wednesdays," he replied. "My day off. Though lately, it seems, I haven’t had too many Wednesdays off ... "

McDonough, 46, didn’t aspire to be a priest, but a doctor. He was born in Boston, the oldest of 11 children, and his family moved to Stillwater in 1965. He went to Carleton College and at one point considered marriage, "but more and more, through prayer and reflection, I decided to become a priest. I thought this was what God wanted me to do."

He transferred to St. Thomas and St. John Vianney Seminary for his final year of college, graduating in 1976 and enrolling in the St. Paul Seminary. After ordination in 1980, he was an associate pastor at St. Richard’s in Richfield for three years before moving to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on the West Side of St. Paul.

"I had a dream — I wanted to go to the archdiocesan mission in Venezuela," he said. "But there was a rule that you couldn’t go to a mission if you had less than five years of parish experience. I applied at Our Lady of Guadalupe even though I didn’t speak Spanish. It would be the perfect experience to learn Spanish, and then go to Venezuela."

Venezuela would have to wait. A year later, McDonough was asked to continue his studies to prepare for the position of chancellor, the archdiocese’s legal officer. He spent three years in Rome, learned Italian and earned his doctorate in canon law from the Angelicum.

Returning to St. Paul in 1987, he found himself with two jobs — chancellor and rector of St. John Vianney Seminary. That made for a hectic life, just as his dual roles are today as vicar general and St. Peter Claver pastor, but he sees the wisdom in it.

"To do my work well, it helps enormously that I have credibility with the priests of the archdiocese," he said. "When I speak on parish issues, I speak as an administrator and a pastor. Beyond that, it’s important for black Catholics to feel connected to the leadership of the church because they have been excluded for years, and it’s just as important for the church leadership to be connected to communities of color."

As busy as he is at the Chancery, McDonough finds it easy to leave the office. "I say 5:15 Mass at the parish," he said. "No matter what’s going on here, I have to leave. Who is going to challenge a priest when he says, ‘I am going to say Mass’? It’s the perfect dividing line."

His years as vicar general have been filled with many experiences, and when pressed he cites three of them. First, and perhaps biggest, was his leadership role locally and nationally in helping the church deal with sexual misconduct among clergy. Second was assisting in the mid-1990s transition of archbishops from John Roach to Harry Flynn. Third, and most recent, is his work in examining the archdiocese’s growth in numbers and in diversity.

Through all of those tasks, one constant in his life has been St. Peter Claver.

He applied for the pastorate in 1990 "sight unseen" because he wanted to serve a community of color and had a good experience as a seminarian working at St. Leonard’s, an African-American parish in Minneapolis. He arrived at St. Peter Claver at an unsettled time. The parish was down to 175 households and the school had closed.

"It was like a family whose child had died," McDonough said. "The school was our baby. It was a parish in mourning. But just over the horizon was our centennial (in 1992), and we realized it would provide a wonderful opportunity to complete our mourning and to look to the future."

Piece by piece, the rebuilding process took place. Membership grew, and stands at 825 households today. Fred Johnson was hired as volunteer coordinator in 1997 and was ordained a deacon. The parish decided to reopen the school, starting with pre-kindergarten to third grade this fall and adding one grade a year.

McDonough believes the school will provide an ideal platform for the parish’s education and youth ministries. Sharon Tolbert Glover, who took a leave of absence from a senior fellowship at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute to serve as principal, likes what she sees so far.

"Father Kevin has provided real leadership for the school," Glover said. "He not only raises money but he meets regularly with me and always is available to meet with parents. It’s amazing that somebody who has so many other jobs would take that much time to help us."

McDonough wouldn’t have it any other way. "I live for now," he said. "I might spend 3 percent of my time looking at the past and 3 percent looking at the future but I spend 94 percent thinking about now. And what I see is a school full of black kids and a church full of people and an archdiocese that is growing in its ministry every day."

He says those words with a persuasive passion and a satisfied smile, and the words of "Spirit Song" come to mind once again.

"Oh, come and sing this song with gladness, as your hearts are filled with joy, and lift your hands in sweet surrender to his name," he sings on Pentecost Sunday. "Oh, give Him all your tears and sadness, give Him all your years of pain, and you’ll enter into life in Jesus’ name."

Rev. Kevin McDonough and St. Thomas• Graduated in 1976 with a degree in history.• Elected to the board of trustees in 1991, serving as vice chairman and on the Academic Affairs and Institutional Diversity committees.• Also serves on the School of Law board of governors and the St. John Vianney Seminary and the St. Paul Seminary boards.• Believes St. Thomas' biggest challenge is to continue to carry out the vision of the Rev. Dennis Dease, president, of an urban university "that responds to the needs of the community. Don't be an ivory tower." At the same time, McDonough says St. Thomas should strengthen its international initiatives "because of the increasing globalization that affects all of us."