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Rev. Edward J. McKenna papers

Identifier: MSS0099

Scope and Contents

This collection documents the work of Reverend Edward Joseph McKenna as a diocesan priest, social activist, musician and composer, poet, and scholar of liturgical music. Fr. McKenna's papers illustrate three areas of focus in his life: 1. his devotion to community activism in the Chicago neighborhood of Austin from 1965 to 1974 with groups such as the Organization for a Better Austin and the Austin Clergy Council; 2. Fr. McKenna’s commitment to the modern Catholic church and post Vatican II Catholicism, evidenced by his involvement with the Young Priests' Caucus of the Association of Chicago Priests; and 3. Fr. McKenna’s interest in music composition, which took the form of scholarly lectures and writings on the development of liturgical music as well as cultivating his own musical education, composing over 60 original pieces, and starting his own group, The McKenna Ensemble. The materials in this collection are largely textual, but other formats are present, such as photographs, compact discs, and memorabilia, and these materials were either created or collected by Fr. McKenna. The majority of the collection consists of correspondence, original compositions, and writings by Fr. McKenna, which largely fall between 1961 and 1984.


  • 1905-2013
  • Majority of material found within 1953-1984

Conditions Governing Access

Two memoirs in the Biographical Files series, housed in Box 001A, are restricted until Fr. McKenna’s death.

Biographical / Historical

Reverend Edward Joseph McKenna – diocesan priest, composer, musician, and poet – was born on October 7, 1939 in Chicago, Illinois. After attending St. Philip Neri Grammar School in Chicago from 1947 to 1953, Edward McKenna attended Quigley Preparatory Seminary from 1953 to 1958. As a seminarian at the St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, Illinois, McKenna studied scholastic philosophy for his first three years (1958-1960) and in the remaining four years (1961-1965) studied Jesuit-instructed theology. Having been a musician and composer for most of his life, McKenna started the McKenna Ensemble (originally named the Bridgeport Chamber Players) in October 1965. The McKenna Ensemble still continues to perform. Following his ordination to the priesthood on April 29, 1965, Fr. McKenna was assigned to St. Thomas Aquinas Parish (later renamed the St. Vincent Ferrer Church) in the Chicago neighborhood of Austin. Here, Fr. McKenna served as a school teacher and parish priest and, from 1971 until his departure in 1974, as the parish administrator. While he was an associate pastor at the St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, Fr. McKenna attended the Chicago Conservatory College (CCC), where he studied with one of his musical idols, Bernard Dieter, from 1966 to 1967 and received a Bachelor of Music in composition and theory.

For much of his time at St. Thomas Aquinas (1965-1974), Fr. McKenna was active in the Austin neighborhood community and in reformation efforts challenging administrative policies of the Archdiocese of Chicago. For example, Fr. McKenna was a member of the Young Priests’ Caucus (YPC), a subcommittee of the Role of the Priest Committee of the Association of Chicago Priests (ACP), which was founded in 1966. The YPC focused on the topics such as ending the mandatory celibacy of priests and adjusting office titles (e.g. Assistant Pastor to Associate Pastor). Collectively, the ACP was a network of committees devoted to upholding new principles of priestly activity influenced by the Second Vatican Council and changing social conventions. While assigned to St. Thomas Aquinas, Fr. McKenna worked with Father Michael Rochford, who was also part of the founding of the YPC. In early 1967, Fr. McKenna worked with priests and community organizers who founded the Organization for a Better Austin (OBA) an activist group that, according to the 1972 OBA Plans, Programs, & Budget report, sought to:

unite all elements of the [Austin] community into one organization that enables the people to work and solve the community’s problems. […] At a time when relations between blacks and whites are extremely tense, the OBA continues to foster not just dialogue, but more importantly, inter racial cooperation and joint actions and programs.

As a chair of the Housing Committee of the OBA, Fr. McKenna played an integral role in remedying housing abuses (e.g. redlining and poor property conditions) plaguing members of the Austin community. In September and October of 1967, members of the OBA distributed pamphlets on panic peddling occurring in Westchester, describing the practices of Jerry’s Real Estate Company as blockbusting. The OBA then received national attention after the case (115 Ill.App.2d 236, 253 N.E.2d 76), Organization for a Better Austin v. Keefe, escalated to the U.S. Supreme Court. Challenging a Chicago circuit court’s prior verdict that the pamphlets were libelous and damaging to the reputation of Jerry’s Real Estate, the OBA brought the case to the Supreme Court in January 1971. The original case’s decision was reversed on May 17, 1971, and Chief Justice Burger stated that the actions of the OBA were in alignment with First Amendment rights.

In 1973, Fr. McKenna graduated from the University of Chicago with a Master of Arts in music composition, and in 1974 he left the St. Thomas Aquinas due to mandatory tenure policies in the Archdiocese of Chicago. Fr. McKenna then traveled to Paris, France where he attended the following institutions: the Ecoles d’Art Americaines (where he studied with world-renowned French musical composer Nadia Boulanger) from 1975 to 1977, the Conservatoire National Superieur de Paris from 1976 to 1977, and the Institut Catholique de Paris in 1977. Fr. McKenna was allegedly the first American to receive an upper level degree in music theory from Boulanger. Once Fr. McKenna returned from his studies in France, his work primarily focused on publishing various types of music critique, such as performance reviews, composition reviews, and scholarly work on liturgical music. From 1978 to 1997 Fr. McKenna was a Worship staff reviewer for newly released music compositions. During this time he published articles in Worship, America, The Chicago Catholic, Chronicle, and Pastoral Music on the condition of Church music, providing insight to the development of liturgical composition. In a letter written to Emmett Anthony Coyne on January 17, 1978, Fr. McKenna explained that upon his departure to France he “retired quite literally to [the] ‘private world’” of liturgical music, attempting to enhance the quality of pastoral compositions and update Church music.


8 Linear Feet (25 boxes)

Language of Materials



The Rev. Edward J. McKenna papers are arranged into eleven series: 1. Biographical Files; 2. Academic Files; 3. Professional Files; 4. Creative Writing Files; 5. Liturgical Music Publications; 6. Music Compositions; 7. Family Correspondence; 8. Subject Correspondence; 9. Media; 10. Collected Material; 11. Oversize.

Physical Location


Immediate Source of Acquisition

Accession 2002.19; 2012.18; 2012.56; 2013.23

Related Materials

Gale Cincotta collection; Daniel Berrigan papers; Ars Musica Chicago records

Processing Information

M. Morley 2014; revised by P. Chavez 2018

Guide to Rev. Edward J. McKenna papers
M. Morley 2014; revised by P. Chavez 2018
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English

Repository Details

Part of the DePaul Special Collections and Archives Repository

John T. Richardson Library
2350 N. Kenmore Ave.
Room 314
Chicago Illinois 60614