On Wednesday, March 2, at the beginning of Lent, Fr. James McKenna, LC, left this life for the Father’s house. He had finished his pilgrimage in this world.
Father James was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1947. He entered the Dublin Novitiate of the Legionaries of Christ in 1965. He took perpetual vows for him in 1974 in Monterrey, Mexico, and was ordained a priest in 1981 in Rome, Italy.
He was director of the Mano Amiga School in Monterrey, and later director of two other schools, the Cumbres Bosques Institute, and the Irish Institute. He worked as a spiritual advisor at the Dublin OAK Academy; as a spiritual director, confessor and formator in the novitiates of Dublin and Monterrey, and in the Vocational Center of Monterrey.
In recent years he had served as spiritual director and confessor of the women’s sections of Regnum Christi in the localities of Monterrey Valle Alto and Monterrey Cumbres.
Father James had had health problems for several years, but this was not an impediment to his missionary spirit. He continued to share audio recordings of his spiritual reflections through Facebook and WhatsApp groups. At the beginning of 2022 he contracted COVID, a situation that weakened him even more. Thanks to medical attention and the care of his community, he was able to overcome it, but was left with some after-effects that worsened prior to his passing, despite the medical attention he received.
Several years ago he wrote a memoir of his time founding the Mano Amiga school for underprivileged children in Monterrey, Mexico, designed to break the cycle of poverty, which we share below.
FR. JAMES MCKENNA, LC: THE FOUNDATION OF THE MANO AMIGA INSTITUTE OF MONTERREY, SEPTEMBER 1974
On the afternoon of January 28th I was rushed to be admitted to the intensive care unit of San Jose Hospital in Monterrey. They were monitoring me to guard against a heart attack that appeared to be imminent. In the next few hours several cardiologists examined me and did an ultrasound on my heart. Saturday morning the conclusions of the doctors were confirmed with a “stress test.” Two inferior coronary arteries showed signs of being obstructed.
The team of Dr. Enrique Ochoa, who had more than twenty years of experience in open heart surgery, would take charge of my case. I greeted most of them, including Dr. Luis Manautou, father of four students of the Irish Institute (a Regnum Christi school in Monterrey), before the first surgery on Saturday at noon, which lasted an hour and half. They hoped to clear the obstructions but warned me that if they thought it was too dangerous, they would have to perform a by-pass surgery and schedule it for a later date. In the end, the right artery was 90% blocked and the left had three different obstructions. They also examined the arteries that lead to the brain. They concluded that they would proceed to by-pass survey on Monday at noon.
All Saturday and Sunday they worked to prevent the heart attack and have me ready for the surgery on Monday. The double by-pass operation last five and a half hours, using two arteries of the upper region of the chest and a leg vein, which is a good sign of the success of the surgery. They were able to use the off-pump method, meaning that my heart never stopped pumping throughout the surgery and they didn’t have to use a heart-lung machine.
When I had recovered from the anesthesia, the members of the team came to visit me, six cardiologists in all, of whom Dr. Ochoa and another doctor that I didn’t know yet worked directly on my heart during the surgery. One of them, Dr. Camid, concluded that “if this were a soccer game, we would all be shouting ‘GOAL!!!’”
Then the anesthesiologist and the second surgeon whom I didn’t know, a much younger man that the others, came up to me.
“I am Dr. Antonio Heredia. Fr. McKenna, right?”
“Your name sounds very familiar. Do you know of the Mano Amiga School?”
“Of course. I was the first director of the foundation.”
“I told myself that it had to be you. We were speaking a lot about you. I am one of the first graduates of Mano Amiga.”
I became very emotional. The doctor apologized, but there was no reason to and I told him so. I was just struck by so many emotions. In an instant I remembered the whole situation of those beginnings in 1974. The poor little kids, the hope that we offered them, the convictions that I had to hold on to myself in order to grow and hope. And here, thirty years later, one of these same kids had helped to save my life as a cardiovascular surgeon. How marvelous are the ways of God!
For me, the experience of the foundation of the Mano Amiga Institute of Monterrey was a fundamental part of my entire life as a Legionary of Christ, the confirmation of my vocation and the certainty that the apostolic charism of the Regnum Christi comes from God and really works.
We began with a two-floor building with eight rooms and a one-floor building that housed the bathrooms, the director’s office, another office and a multipurpose room. There was a 10 meter x10 meter cement patio. It was all in the middle of an open field of dirt at the foot of “El Mirador” mountain. Las Torres Avenue separated the school from Cerro La Campana, La Boquilla, the Burocratas Municipales neighborhood, all of which were neighborhoods inhabited mostly by people who would appear as if from out of nowhere, and who lived in authentic misery. According to studies by social workers, it was a population of about 300,000 individuals, without electricity, without plumbing, and sharing a few water spigots in one part that had recently been installed.
A week before the start of classes there were only about 30 children signed up for all six grades. One afternoon I went with the women’s Regnum Christi team that was running the project, among whom was Mrs. Guajardo (the mother of Fr. Mauricio and Br. Gabriel), to meet with the leaders on the block of Cerro La Campana so that they would promote the school. We crossed over the contaminated Seco River on stepping stones, and we walked through the dirt streets. Foul-smelling water ran down from above through the middle of the street. Shanties of wood, metal sheets and cardboard. Half-clothed and naked children everywhere.
We continued up the hill, walking further into the labyrinth of dusty streets. We arrived at an open space with some benches in a square that they used for neighborhood meetings. There were about twenty people, mostly women. Among them was a girl about fifteen years old, barefoot, her baby in her arms. The leaders never arrived. We explained that it was a Catholic school, that we would prepare the children for their First Communion, that afterward there would be a high school and it would be for girls as well, that we would train them in some profession. There was an old man seated next to me with a laconic expression. I asked him, “what do you think of the idea of the school?” He looked at me and said sadly, “they have promised us many things.” I never forgot that.
We hired six teachers (two men, four women) and a technical director. We met the day before the start of classes and I explained to them what our goals were for the school. It was not merely about educating poor children. The school would be a springboard to help improve the entire area by forming the children according to their dignity as persons, personal attention to each one to help them develop all their potential, to open up horizons to them so that they could grow and, through them, their families could too. They should be demanding with the students, but always motivate them with authentic love. There would be courses for the parents. We were not giving anything away, but helping the children and families to see their development and personal growth as a fruit of their own efforts. The teachers must never wound their dignity with empty paternalism. We would give them an authentic Catholic formation with ethics classes, etc.
A few days earlier I had gone with the technical director to the central distribution center of El Guerrero stationary company (the sons of the owners had been founding students of the Irish Institute of Monterrey) to get all the teaching material we would need to start an elementary school. Glitter paper to cover the children’s notebooks, the notebooks themselves, pencils, colors, etc. for the students and everything the teachers would need: chalk, erasers, large kits of geometrical instruments, maps, panels for history, science, etc. Thanks to the generous donation and discounts from the stationary company we got everything.
We started classes with 52 children divided in six classes. Many arrived barefoot. The path to Mirador, where the school was located, was red clay that turned into sticky mud whenever it rained. It led to another poor town of the same name, from which a few students came. They cleaned off their feet or shoes on the little grass that there was before going in. I could see that some of the professors and teachers obviously already had doubts. Some of the mothers were afraid of crossing the avenue and said that there were some who would send their children if not for the crossing. The sixth grade teacher “Juanon” proposed the solution. There was a boy whose father had “fishbowls” (Volkswagen Kombi vans that cost 1 peso per person and would transport as many people as could fit).
I went to speak with him. After several turns I found myself in front of cement block house. Parked in front were two Kombis, one on blocks with the motor “gutted” on the ground. They treated me like I was the president. They invited me to come in, to have a Coke. We agreed that for a small price the two Kombis would pick up the kids from those towns and bring them to the other side of the avenue to the entrance of the school. After classes ended, Club Faro offered their minibus, which followed the same process backwards and, furthermore, the driver took advantage of the trip to bring them to his house to eat. But not many more children came to the school.
At the end of the first week the technical director and three teachers, two women and one man, resigned. “Juanon” and the women who stayed were convinced and in fact spent many years at the school. Each of them took two classes until we found substitutes. When there was a need I took a group. I remember very well how I used my knowledge of Egyptian art that I learned in Salamanca to make the social sciences class on the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations more interesting for the 5th graders. “Juanon” became technical director as well as professor. Shortly afterward, through contacts of the women in Regnum Christi, the director of public education of the state visited us with his official staff, who gave instructions to the state schools of the area to award their best students by sending them to the Mano Amiga Institute where they would have more opportunities to grow. In this way we already had more than 120 students within the first month.
The first week, some barefoot children kept coming, wearing only shorts and a t-shirt. A cold front came down from the north, and I was shivering even with my coat on. The children arrived the same way, barefoot, t-shirt. One afternoon at home I sat down to think. What they were living through cut right to my heart. I knew the children now, I had seen where they live, and I knew how little they ate. I began to interview their parents as part of the formation methodology and to win their trust; I knew about so many sad situations.
I remembered the ideas and ideals about Regnum Christi that they had taught us Legionaries about only a short time ago in the mini-course at Monticchio. I truly felt very unsettled, a type of obscure doubt without any shape, without a face. I began to write. I don’t have the papers I wrote on, I threw them away afterward, but I came out from that moment convinced for ever that this was the path chosen by God for us to do authentic good. We were going to transform these children, to lift them out of their poverty and misery permanently, securely and efficaciously. And they would become leaders for the good of their own people. Throughout my Legionary life I have had personal difficulties, mishaps, mistakes, but never have I doubted our charism and spirit, a true gift of God for the Church and men, and for me.
Who bought the land for the school? Regnum Christi members.
Who completed the construction of the school? Regnum Christi members.
Who found the money to pay the professors, the electricity, water? Regnum Christi members.
Who was already looking for money to begin the high school next year? Regnum Christi members.
We must awaken and form laypeople, leaders, and send them out to the apostolate, to every type of work that helps the Church and men, but in the most efficacious manner. It was a question of making sure now that “the gears” began to work like they should.
Therefore, faced with these concrete situations that come to me and cause so much pain, how should I react? Seek help from the Regnum Christi members. In fact, I didn’t have to say anything. The women of Regnum Christi were already giving the ethics classes. They had seen the need. The team went into action, going to clothing manufacturers and shoe stores, etc. The second week we had a “school uniform sale.” The US dollar was at 12.50 Mexican pesos. We didn’t give anything away – a shirt was one peso; pants were two pesos; a pair of shoes were four pesos. A grandfather came to the sale, “I don’t have any more money, but I am happy to give it for my grandson’s uniform.” How proud all the children were when they arrived on Monday, and how carefully they took care of the uniform! When it rained and the road became a sea of mud, they took off their shoes and socks, rolled up their pants and came to school like that. Inside they washed their feet, and went to class!
But the Regnum Christi women were not happy with that – what about the rest of the family? They went into action again. The multipurpose room began to fill up with every type of clothing for children and adults. Jackets, shoes, dresses, pants, sweaters, and all new, nothing used. It was the start of the famous “Mano Amiga Bazaar” that from then on took place one Saturday a month. They held the first one, and everything was very cheap. Word spread very quickly and there are still poor people today who look forward to the monthly bazaar.
One of the first months, having come to fill the room throughout the week before like always, they arrived on Saturday morning to find the room completely empty, everything stolen. At that time we had a social worker as part of the team. He went through the towns speaking with the leaders of the block that he already knew. On Monday morning the room was full again, and nothing was missing. There were no more thefts.
To interview the parents we had no telephone, so we sent them an appointment reminder on paper. We had a heavy Triumph typewriter and a copier, one of the very cheap ‘spirit duplicators’ that make purple-colored copies. I wrote a short message five times on one page and made twenty-five copies. Now we had enough for all the families. We set a specific day and time. The child brought the paper home. Not one forgot to deliver it. No couple failed to arrive to their meeting with me. Normally the mother, but also many fathers made the effort, which meant losing a morning of work.
They were impressed by the way we treated them. No one from the school had ever spoken to them about their children. No one had ever received them at the door, asking them to take a seat (there were no secretaries, the director did everything). No one had ever spoken to them in a positive way about their child or had been interested in how things were at home, how they got along with their siblings. No one had ever accompanied them from the office to the door to say goodbye. These were details that Fr. Francisco Mateos, my superior, recommended to me, all with the idea of treating them with dignity. I constantly asked Fr. Mateos for advice, since he had a lot of experience from his days as the Academic Dean at the Cumbres Institute in Mexico City and now was also the women’s and men’s Regnum Christi section director.
The mothers were the ones who mostly spoke about the difficult situations they lived in. There were particularly sad cases. One woman said to me, “Father, my son tells me that they make him play during recess. I wanted to ask you please, if sometimes my son says that he can’t, that he is feeling ill, to not make him play. Often he goes to school without breakfast because I don’t have anything to give him to eat.” Her husband had left her a year earlier. Her oldest daughter of sixteen years was blind. Her next son, fourteen years old, was the one at the school, and was only in 4th grade because he had missed previous years. The ten-year-old daughter was mentally handicapped. And she had another seven-year-old girl. They lived in a little house that was just a roof on top of the side of the hill held up by wood on the other sides. Every day she washed clothes for the neighbors in the river above the school. These people were as poor as she was, but they gave her a few pesos. She said to me, “sometimes I don’t know what to do, what to give my children. But every night I pray to the Blessed Virgin of Guadalupe and she always helps me.” She hoped that her son would be educated at the school and could help the family once he finished.
To win over the boys I often joined them during recess – cheering during the games, chatting with them, and talking to them about what the school would soon be like, that we would have a regulation soccer field and basketball courts. The library would be over there, and the high school building over here. And they spoke about everything. One day a 2nd grade boy told me that he had gone to the movies on Saturday.
“There in town.”
“There’s a movie theater?”
“There’s a man on the corner who had a huge pig that he had sold and bought a television. On Saturday mornings he lets us watch it for one peso.”
One morning shortly before the start of classes a group of some thirty mothers arrived and asked that we let all the children leave. They had been warned that in the town Independencia, on the other side of the ridge, a group of doctors and nurses had arrived with soldiers at all the schools and that they were injecting all the children by force. The directors and teachers had protested but the soldiers kept them from intervening. Everyone said that they were sterilizing them. The directors of the state schools on this side were already letting the children leave before the group arrived. We let the children leave.
At the time Luis Echevarria was president of Mexico and he had a strong Marxist tendency. The newspapers the next day published a vague article about clashed between teachers and medical personnel who were immunizing children in some schools. But a few weeks later an article was published about a ferocious encounter between groups of Tarahumara indians and medical personnel from the government because they wanted to forcibly inject their children, and the description was the same: an injection in their ear lobes. “The dignity of the poor.”
Evening classes for the mothers began in the first month, with large attendance. Teams of Regnum Christi women would give them. “Realistic” cooking: how to take advantage of beans, nopales, etc. so that they retain their nutrients. Dressmaking: soon they were making dresses, pants, etc. for their children and later they would sell them at the bazaar. Hygiene: practical tips to prevent the many infections, etc. that they got. While the mothers were in class, girls from the youth section would provide daycare for the children. One afternoon I saw a little girl crying. A Regnum Christi woman approached her – she was from high society, an elegant lady. She took the dirty, crying girl in her arms, kissed her, comforted her and with a big smile gave her back to her mother, who was already coming over, surprised and grateful.
Christmas was approaching. A team of girls from the youth section proposed organizing a “posada” (a traditional Mexican Christmas procession and party). Among them were the sisters of Fr. Luis Garza and Fr. Evaristo Sada. They told me that it would be a completely traditional posada, except that they weren’t going to bring a lot of candy for the children, but rather what would do them good, food. And so it happened. When it was time for recess the procession of the pilgrims began, children posing as Mary and Joseph asked others in the rooms for shelter with the traditional song. After the procession there was the piñata. The children had never had so much fun. Then the party – drinks, snacks, some candy, and sandwiches of all types.
Suddenly one little 2nd grader ran up to me all worked up. He showed me the sandwich he had in hand. “Father, Father, it has meat! I’m going to bring it home to my mom!”
After Christmas, everything began to return to normal order and tranquility. The “gears” were working. I almost enjoyed the northern music, the peddler who came every day through the towns in his van announcing his wares: “I have potatoes, melons, beans, everything is cheap today ma’am.” Then in the second semester they reassigned me to be the prefect of the Irish Institute and ECYD assistant for Club Faro, so that everything that had already been accomplished would be continued, given the personnel changes in the summer. Mano Amiga continued in other hands.
Shortly afterward Fr. Eugene Gormley arrived as director, as well as being a religious on apostolic internship. He was there several years and left an indelible mark on the students, families, and teachers. In the third year of the school Toño Heredia entered the school. He lived in a little house between the dirt streets a short distance above the school on the Mirador ridge. He says that they talked about me a lot, probably because I was the first director. He also says that Fr. Eugene “kept him in line.” That is another way of saying personalized formation. Thanks to that formation and by rising out of that poverty and simplicity, I was able to count on an excellent surgeon who directly contributed to saving my life thirty years later.
Since the day that I left Mano Amiga I never went back to the school until nine years ago. I was already living at the novitiate here (in Monterrey) when I began to help as a confessor in the three Mano Amiga schools (St. Catarina, La Cima, and Mano Amiga de Monterrey). The surroundings of Mano Amiga de Monterrey are unrecognizable. Neighborhoods and towns of different social classes, malls, businesses, etc. The school was completely finished with its sports fields, trees, and beautiful chapel. There is an atmosphere of discipline and study among the students. A team of teachers fully convinced of their mission (the average length of tenure is more than 18 years).
The hills on the other side of the avenue have paved roads now, houses of painted concrete, electricity, plumbing, etc. But if you look up toward the heights you can make out where there are still dirt streets and some houses made of wood or cardboard. Jesus Christ has said, “the poor you will always have with you,” and that is so we may serve and love him in them, showing them the love that He has for them.
The first steps toward organizing the society of alumni of Mano Amiga of Monterrey have been taken, and Dr. José Antonio Heredia is very involved, enthusiastic, and determined to support the school in everything. He has his own practice as a cardiovascular surgeon in one of the most prestigious medical centers. He works in one of the social security clinics and is now a member of the well known team of Dr. Enrique Ochoa. Dr. Ochoa told me that he invited him because he was looking for talent, he is young, and an excellent surgeon. Toño was immensely happy to have been able to operate on me as a kind of expression of gratitude for what he has received.
During the first months of foundation I lacked more of a historical sense and I never took a photograph. What Mano Amiga was then only exists as a memory of those of us who lived it. What is there now is a tangible monument to the power of the apostolic charism that God inspired as an expression of authentic Christian charity.
James McKenna, L.C.
Monterrey, March 6, 2005