The National Catholic Review

While in my Jesuit training, I spent three years teaching high school at Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwest South Dakota. You've probably heard of Pine Ridge; the New York Times and Washington Post love to send reporters out for week-long jaunts after which they write about how sad and desperate it is out there. They're not completely wrong, but they miss an awful lot. 

When I started at Red Cloud, there was a great young Jesuit at the helm, Father Bill McKenney. He was from Michigan, he looked like Fred Flintstone (the kids at our school there actually called him that when he used to teach there) and he had endless energy and passion for the people there and our work. A great joy to live with.

Four months into my stay there, Bill died suddenly, age 38, of a massive coronary. No warning, no priors, just dropped dead.  

And, if you can believe it, the same thing had happend three years earlier; Assistant Principal Brother Denny Ryan, a Jesuit from Omaha with a wicked sense of humor and an uncanny ability to connect with even the angriest of student, died of a sudden heart attack at age 38, just after Easter.  

The months following Bill's death, we lived like zombies, shells of ourselves, working as hard as we could just to keep going, trying desperately to run away from the incredible sorrow we all felt. 

In April of that year, we had our first visit with the new bishop of Rapid City. It's a long trip, Pine Ridge to Rapid, 90 minutes to 2 hours drive, and it was unusual for the bishop to come without some liturgical function involved.  But this guy, he just wanted to come and spend some time with us, get to know us a little bit. 

I remember him walking through our community on the way to our dining room. He was pleasant, reserved. And very observant. And as he looked around, had dinner with us, heard about Bill and about all that we were doing, you could see something flash across his face momentarily. Concern. Deep concern.

When dinner was over, the 15 or so of us moved to our living room, where the bishop said a little about himself, thanked us for our hospitallity.

Then he stopped and looked us all very deep in the eye. And he paused, maybe debating whether it was approriate to speak his mind so early in our relationship. Then, with real feeling in his voice, he told us that we were all working very hard. Too hard. And that we needed to take care of ourselves.

It's been 17 years since that conversation, and I've never forgotten it or him. When you're lost in sadness like we were, to have someone see the truth and speak to it with such gentleness and love -- it was infiintely kind.

 If rumors are true, this morning that man, Bishop Blase Cupich, will be announced as the new Archbishop of Chicago. How blessed that city will be.   


Bill Mazzella | 9/20/2014 - 5:09pm

By extension, how blessed this country will be. Vatican II finally will take place. God has visited his people.

Terrance Wagner | 9/26/2014 - 8:41am

I agree. I think the time has come for our religious leaders to become Christlike compassionate beings. It actually brought tears to my eyes when I read all of the articles regarding our future Cardinal Cupich. Thank you Jesus