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Frank Kenney

kennyIn 1968, three young priests were assigned to St. Stephen's Catholic Church in south Minneapolis. The pastor there had retired, the Second Vatican Council had just concluded, and the parish, like the church itself, was in transition.

Frank Kenney, who was then working in north Minneapolis, was one of those three priests.

He'd already fostered a radical message, telling parishioners that they, not the Catholic hierarchy, were the essence of the church. Parishioners flocked to his evening classes on Vatican II, staying up late to discuss what they'd learned.

"We were coming alive again, and it was so exciting," said Beryl Wolney, a parishioner who eventually followed Kenney across town to St. Stephen's. "I didn't always agree with everything he said, but I'm forever grateful for what he did for us."

Remembered as a passionate, tireless man who dedicated his life to serving others even after he left the priesthood, Kenney died Nov. 23. He was 85.

Kenney, one of 11 children, was raised in south Minneapolis. His father died at a young age, and his mother started working at a local church to make ends meet.

Those tough times contributed to a boundary-pushing, go-for-broke quality in Kenney and the rest of his family, said Ed Flahavan, a former priest who met Kenney when the two were seminarians.

Kenney, like two of his brothers, joined the priesthood. He was ordained in 1956 but left in 1970 and moved to the Pacific Northwest with his wife, Bobbi, a former nun.

"For him, it was simply, 'We have a new church, a new reality, I'm a young man, I'm in love.' … And that was not uncommon in the '60s and '70s," Flahavan said.

The couple raised three children in Oregon, then eventually moved back to Minneapolis. There, Kenney returned to the communities he'd served as a young priest.

In the 1960s he had played a role in the beginning of the American Indian Movement, after meeting co-founder Clyde Bellecourt as a pastor at St. Stephen's. Kenney helped the nascent group secure funding from a reluctant archdiocese, Bellecourt said, after submitting a proposal that accused church leaders of violating the Ten Commandments with their treatment of Indian people.

"He was very, very, very supportive of everything that we did," Bellecourt said.

After returning to Minneapolis, Kenney started a jobs program, the Project for Pride in Living Industries, for people struggling to find work.

An offshoot of the Project for Pride in Living, the program began as an effort to serve the local Indian community, but it broadened over time to integrate other minority groups into the workforce.

"He had a very specific goal in mind," said Chuck Denny, a former CEO of ADC Telecommunications Inc. who helped found the program. "He always seemed to have a cheerful attitude, no matter all the difficulties we had to work through in the early years."

Kenney eventually retired, but never stopped working, despite heart trouble that meant repeated hospital stays.

His family and friends remember him as stubborn and hardworking but also lighthearted and fun. His niece, Patty Brophy, recalls a family picnic when she and her cousins piled into a Volkswagen Beetle with Kenney at the wheel, driving partway into a lake to see whether the ad promising that the car could float was true.

Even in his final weeks, Kenney and the loved ones who surrounded him were full of life. Gathered in his hospital room, they prayed and then broke into song.

Kenney is survived by his wife, three children and seven siblings. Services have been held.