by Elizabeth Pease
Photos: Courtesy of Dorothy Kenney; Anne Kane; Robert Cunningham, Photoresource.
On a frigid Wednesday last December, hundreds gathered for a funeral at the Cathedral of St. Paul, packing the center section of one of the largest churches in the United States. Some circled the downtown blocks near the cathedral looking for parking, and eventually gave up and went home.
Outside, the mailman asked at the rectory what was going on, and the hired motorcycle escort asked the funeral director how he’d gotten such a large event.
As the gospel was read, a man wearing a bandanna and carrying a backpack came in the side door and walked across the front of the cathedral. On a day with a high temperature of 10 degrees Fahrenheit and a wind chill well below zero, he wore sandals with white socks, and white pants. While the crowd stood in their pews, he walked right up to the casket at the front of the church, bent down and kissed it. Then he walked down the center aisle and out the door.
Later, as the casket was carried out of the cathedral, 12th-grade girls from Visitation School wearing white gloves teared up as they lined the aisle. The school declared a day off in his honor.
Who was this man loved by so many?
He was a security guard. He was a realtor who had once fallen deeply into debt. He wasn’t a rich man or a famous personality. He was Bill Kenney and, above all, as his son, Fr. Kevin Kenney, explained in his homily at the cathedral, he had three words that he wanted said at his funeral: “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.”
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In the early 1970s, Bill Kenney was a hardworking husband and father in the throes of growing a small business. Kenney Realty had three offices in the Twin Cities and 40 licensed realtors. Bill put in long hours showing homes, but he still found time to take his seven kids water-skiing. He bought a beautiful large home for his family near Lake Harriet in South Minneapolis. He loved to talk and meet new people, he loved a good joke, and he loved his wife, Dorothy, often bringing flowers home for her along with the groceries.
He had learned his work ethic early. His father died when Bill was 16, and Bill had taken on two jobs to help support a family of 11, mostly younger siblings. His son Kevin recalls, “From the minute we could walk, we had to have a job of some sort, oftentimes just in his real estate office. I remember as a little kid emptying wastebaskets and vacuuming and cleaning.”
In the fall of 1973, Dorothy’s life changed when she decided to attend a weekend introduction to the charismatic renewal put on by their parish. At the retreat, Anna Brombach, a fellow mother Dorothy knew from church, came over to pray with her. Dorothy remembers, “I looked down, and it wasn’t Anna’s hand taking mine. It was Jesus’ hand. I got home the next day, and I was so on fire.”
A full turkey dinner was Bill’s favorite thing to cook, and he had one waiting for Dorothy when she came home from the retreat. As the kids started washing the dishes after the meal, Bill and Dorothy went for a walk around Lake Harriet. Dorothy recalls, “I’m jumping and dancing, and I said, ‘Would you ever go to a prayer meeting with me?’ He said, ‘Oh, Dorothy. You’ve always been joyful. What’s such a big deal about this? You go to the prayer meeting. I sure as heck don’t want to go.’”
For two and a half years, Dorothy went to the prayer meetings alone. Then, in 1976, Jim Cahill caught Bill and Dorothy as they were leaving mass, and mentioned that Bishop Lucker, a friend of Bill’s, would be at the prayer meeting that night. As Dorothy remembers, Jim said, “Bill, why don’t you come?” and Bill said, “Maybe I will.” “I nearly fainted away,” Dorothy recalls. At the end of the prayer meeting that night, Bill greeted Bishop Lucker. Says Dorothy, “The bishop said, ‘Bill Kenney! What are you doing here?’ Bill said, ‘I don’t come to these things. My wife does,’ and Bishop Lucker said, ‘You come back five times, and then decide if you’re ever going to come again.’ Well, Bill obeyed him, and he never stopped coming.”
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Bill quickly became involved in the charismatic renewal, attending conferences and praying with people. He and Dorothy joined the growing covenant community in the Twin Cities that would eventually become Servant Branch. Bill insisted that his teenage children attend charismatic conferences, and all seven of them were eventually prayed with for the baptism in the Holy Spirit. Bill started asking for the Lord’s help in the details of his life. Kevin recalls him praying over broken washing machines, as well as his response to car troubles on a road trip. “I think the block cracked in the car. He says, ‘We have to pray over it and it’ll get fixed.’ That was his faith.” Many of Bill’s friends recall him counting how many times priests mentioned the name “Jesus” in their Sunday homilies so that he could encourage them later to get their numbers up.
This shift in Bill’s focus impacted his business life, too. By the late 1970s, with the economy struggling, it became clear that Kenney Realty was overextended. The company, and therefore Bill as its owner, had fallen hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt. Many years later, Bill told the story to the Twin Cities Catholic charismatic renewal: “Because of my finances, I decided I needed help. I received the Holy Spirit in my life, and got serious about getting out of debt. I always made decisions to do things, and then I asked God to bless it, but now I was asking God’s opinion as to what I was doing.” Bill started referring to Kenney Realty as a Christian business and instituted an optional daily morning prayer at the office.
In 1979, Bill brought in some community members with business experience to form a board of directors for Kenney Realty. Robert Regan, who worked in investment counseling and served on the board, recalls Bill asking for help with the administrative side of the business. “He was always gregarious, a great salesman, not as good as an administrator and manager, or financial guy.” Good advice from brothers and a demand for houses that came from groups of brothers and sisters moving to the Twin Cities to join the community (from North Dakota, Iowa and Washington) kept the business growing for a few years until another economic downturn in the early 1980s.
Also in 1979, Bill and Dorothy began a process of downsizing that would continue into the 1990s. Dorothy remembers, “To get out of debt, he never filed for bankruptcy, but he said, ‘We have to sell the big house.’ “Dorothy loved their block because they were surrounded by at least eight other large community families, and the Kenneys used their house to host morning prayer for the neighborhood, but they left it behind for a smaller place on Minnehaha Parkway. Bill’s eye for real estate showed in the deal: the new house was more affordable, but still in a lovely spot.
Three years later, Bill told Dorothy that they would need to sell the smaller house and rent something. To Bill’s surprise, the first thing Dorothy asked about was curtains. “I said, ‘If you rent a house, you don’t want to put fancy curtains in there.’ Of all the crazy things for me to say, but that’s what was on my heart at the time.” Soon after that, Bill and Dorothy went to look at a condo at the Commodore, an old converted hotel in St. Paul. The owner reported, “We furnished the whole place, and I just spent $10,000 on window treatments.” They moved in and eventually bought the condo. Bill set up a small office downstairs, where he kept Kenney Realty running as a smaller and smaller business until it finally disbanded in the 1990s, when Bill went to work as a realtor for another firm.
Finally, in 1999, a confluence of events ended Bill’s remaining debt for good. Both a community member and a minister Bill had borrowed from separately decided to forgive him those large debts. A year or two earlier, Bill and Dorothy had thought about selling the condo to move into a smaller apartment across the street from the Cathedral of St. Paul, but it hadn’t sold. Then another apartment opened up in the same building, so they put the condo on the market again, and it sold for $20,000 more than the original listing. Dorothy says, “Bill always said, ‘God dumped $20,000 in my lap.’ So, totally, totally, totally out of debt, we started over.”
Robert remembers, “Bill had been living an upper-middle-class life and he made the transition to less money. He had to change dramatically. He made the transition, just no problem at all. He trusted the Lord and never had a depressed day as far as I recall. The Lord let him down very gently, step by step, and gradually out of debt.”
In the midst of all this, Bill was busy for the Lord, too. He was in Christians in Commerce. He was on the board of DeLaSalle High School, his alma mater. He was chairman of the Catholic charismatic renewal in the Twin Cities. He and Dorothy joined the cathedral parish in St. Paul, and Bill volunteered to run the men’s club pancake breakfasts. He was also constantly engaged in his favorite pastime, talking to people about Jesus.
Mark Lauer, Bill’s head, remembers going out to lunch with Bill. “He would get to know the waiter or waitress by name and a little bit about the person’s story. If any need came up, he would say, ‘I’ll pray for you.’” Bill and Robert played golf together regularly, and sometimes they would pair off with a couple of golfers they didn’t know. Robert says, “No matter who we were playing golf with, Bill would somehow bring the Lord into the conversation: ‘Do you know the Lord? Are you going to church?’ A lot of people would say, ‘I quit going 25 years ago.’ He’d tell them, ‘You gotta get back in touch.’”
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Around the year 2000, Bill took a newly created job as a security guard at Visitation School, a Catholic school of about 600 students in Mendota Heights. Visitation starts with pre-K, and the older students in grades six to twelve are all girls. Bill arrived in the afternoons and stayed to close the building at night, watching the security cameras, greeting visitors, and walking the last few girls to their cars after dark. He discovered that the parking lot was a little chaotic in the afternoon, with students crossing the street at the same time that vehicles needed to leave, so he started coming in earlier to direct traffic, sometimes in a funny winter hat.
Rene Gavic, the head of school at Visitation, remembers, “He was the go-to person. He knew everything. He had keys for everything. He was a good problem-solver, so if someone’s car wouldn’t start, they would go to Bill first. He cared about you and would help you and support you in any way.”
Bill noticed when the students were having difficulties. Mary McClure, who teaches religion at Visitation, recalls, “He would ask, ‘Would you like me to pray with you?’ He waited until he knew there was an opening. Sometimes girls would share a healing: they needed to run, and they’d had an injury, so Bill prayed and they were able to participate the next day.”
Rene adds a story about her own daughter at Visitation. “When she was 12, she fell in a cross-country race, and other runners stepped on her face with their spiked shoes. She needed 22 stitches in her face. As a 12-year-old girl, that was challenging for her. I remember her coming to school the very first day back, and what she wanted to do was have Mr. Kenney pray with her. He prayed with her, and her situation and her self-image–all of that–never bothered her again.”
At Visitation, Bill developed a strategy for generosity. Once a month, the students give one dollar to charity for permission to be out of uniform for the day. Bill dropped by the campus minister’s office on the day she collected the dollars, and exchanged larger bills for her pile of ones. “In one of his pockets, he had a little vial of oil to pray with people, and in the other pocket, he had maybe twenty single ones. That would be for the kids whose dollar got stuck in the vending machines,” Mary remembers. Those ones also often made their way into the hands of the homeless.
There’s no way to know for sure if the man who kissed his casket at the funeral knew Bill, but we can be quite sure that Bill would have cared about him if he had ever met him on the street. In his later years, Bill’s friends remember him always going up to homeless people standing on corners, telling them that Jesus loved them, and giving them one or two dollars for a cup of coffee. That human contact was important to him. Bill’s son Kevin adds that he would also offer a dollar or two when someone at the grocery store didn’t have enough to pay. “I think it was because people had helped him when he was in a time of need. It became a way of life for him,” Kevin recalls.
* * *
On December 4, 2016, Bill stayed after church at the cathedral to play St. Nicholas for the children, while Dorothy went home. As he was leaving, he fell on the sidewalk outside, and a passerby called 911. He’d had a stroke and died within a few days.
For Christmas, Dorothy and the Kenney family gathered at the home of one of her daughters. Bill had dressed as Santa Claus for many years, and Santa Claus wasn’t there that year. Dorothy’s kids coaxed her to the front door of the house. Dorothy recalls, “Out the front door they had all these jars with candles in them spelling out ‘Jesus’ on the front lawn. It was so beautiful, because Bill preached Jesus. I mean, he preached Jesus, preached, preached Jesus.”