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Sister McKenna speaks about her call to serve

Gandhi once said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

Being young adults, our main concerns usually consist of what outfits we are going to wear this weekend and what can we do to make ourselves happy. However, in an age of materialism, selfishness and quick fixes, Sister Margaret McKenna shows us what it’s like to be selfless. McKenna is one of 650 Medical Mission Sisters in 19 nations who are dedicated to bringing the healing grace of Jesus to people in need. The community is non-denominational and they cater to the homeless, the addicted and the abandoned. She says her work is about the freedom of being in love with God.

“My community has allowed me to be free and follow the spirit,” she said.

More than 50 years ago, McKenna founded the New Jerusalem Laura monastery in the section of Fox Chase in Northeast Philadelphia. Today, she directs the recovery program there.

“I wasn’t trained for healing work,” she said. “It just happened.”

Before starting the program, she experienced many different arenas in her career. She has been a director of novices, a university professor at La Salle for seven years, a writer, peace activist and finally a director.

She graduated from Chestnut Hill College with a Bachelor’s degree in English. She received her Master’s in Liturgy from Notre Dame and her doctorate in christian origins and religious thought from the University of Pennsylvania. She then went to Israel to write her thesis because she said it was a place that gave her clarity, and she longed for solitude.

St. Benedict is where she and her community draw their inspiration.

“If you put God first, everything else will fall into place,” she said.

She uses this motto in her recovery program. She believes addicts become so fed up with their lives that they actually come to hunger for Jesus. She says that when people begin to like themselves again, after battling the addiction, it’s God in them that they are liking. Typically, people are in her program from three months to six years.

In 1989, McKenna moved to Germantown. Here, she was involved in many neighborhood organizations. She helped fix abandon house and sponsored the Single Living Movement and other non-violent movements and workshops for 15 years. She started the Peacemakers Reflection Center, which focuses on non-violent peace making and civil disobedience, and the Alternate to Violence Project. McKenna was arrested for the cause over 40 times, and one action led her to remain in jail for four months because of it.

She and her community also worked for food service for the poor. They not only gave away food, but had local food drives where fresh food was grown and donated to the homeless. In this way, the sisters weren’t just serving the homeless potato chips, but rather something with more substance.

“The starting point is not to do things to help the poor, but to be with them in their efforts,” she said. While she is still on the go at age 76, McKenna hopes to become a “hermit” when she is finished her work.

“I could go a month without seeing people,” she said. “It’s not because I don’t like people. It’s because God is everywhere.”

She thinks people are called to live the Gospel not just as a past-time, but as an internal commitment. She believes we are all made to seek God and that we are not happy without Him.

“Religious life is fun and beautiful,” she said. “All these dedicated people are willing to give their lives to God.”

Although she recognizes that the religious life isn’t for everyone, she advises students to be true to themselves in whatever it is that they do in life.

“Follow your heart,” she said.


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