Viterbo University Alumni Magazine June 2000
Sr. Kathleen Kenkel Leaving Viterbo
At age 70, in the year 2000, having served as an FSPA for 50 years and at Viterbo for 15 of those—Sr. Kathleen Kenkel is leaving her position as a full-time teacher in the Religious Studies Department.
These milestones all point to a full and enriching career, but for Sr. Kathleen, the term “retirement” doesn’t quite match up with her future plans. Slowing down the pace of things might be a more agreeable description of her intentions.
“I’m not sure what I’ll do. I will be volunteering at our retreat centers in Prairiewood and Marywood. I also plan to take a year off for a sabbatical to reflect and pray. This is an opportunity to integrate life and my years of activity in a contemplative way.”
The year off, or more if she prefers, has been earned—the bountiful reward for a life lived well and committed in selfless dedication to the thousands of young people who were her students.
Wherever there was a need, at Viterbo or elsewhere, Sr. Kathleen could be counted on to do the required job. Assigned to elementary and secondary teaching jobs throughout the vast network of FSPA-sponsored schools that existed at the time, she took her final vows in 1950, and quickly became familiar with the landscape of the Midwest. Always on the move, she taught in Mosinee, Wausau, Superior, Platteville, La Crosse, and in the Iowa towns of Carroll, Bellevue, Kemper, and even in Spokane, Wash.
Her specialty was English, but Sr. Kathleen also earned a master’s degree in Theology from Notre Dame, and that coveted combination was noticed by Father J. Thomas Finucan, then president of Viterbo College.
“I arrived at Viterbo in 1975 and taught in both the Religious Studies and English Departments. The times were exciting because there was a strong common spirit among the sisters and some of the first lay faculty to be hired.”
After eight years at Viterbo, Sr. Kathleen was to move on. The Franciscan Spirituality Center was just beginning at St. Rose Convent and she was named its first director. After three years there and a year studying at Loyola University in Chicago, she accepted one of the most difficult challenges in her life, work in parish ministry at Sacred Heart Church in Palos Hills, Ill. The congregation did not have a school and Sr. Kathleen assumed primary responsibility for ministering to 700 grade school students and catechists. She also assumed multiple roles associated with the spiritual needs of the massive church which had a burgeoning membership of 3,300.
Viterbo was in her past...that is, until one night when she received a call.
“I was happy with what I was doing and I got this phone call, and Viterbo wanted me to return to teach in the Religious Studies Department.”
The lure of academia and the desire to be closer to her La Crosse FSPA community made saying “yes” easy, and from 1993 on, Sr. Kathleen has been in the Viterbo classroom, most frequently teaching Religions of the World.
When she teaches that last class and says goodbye for a final time to her faculty peers, the feeling will be bittersweet.“I will miss the intellectual stimulation and commitment to students. I’ll miss the opportunity to invite people to a deeper spirituality in their sense of God and ministry.” But Viterbo is in good hands, she said, even though her retirement means the loss of one more FSPA from the faculty rolls.
“People here are committed to Franciscanism. There is a great receptivity to it, and with fewer FSPA, the laity will accept that as a reality and challenge. In the 60s, the number of Sisters teaching in the grade schools dramatically dropped. We were all traumatized and wondered what would happen. However the dedication of the people to the mission stayed the same and things were fine. At Viterbo, this is similar; I know many faculty who are dedicated and will carry on the mission.
“The Religious Studies Department is also very alive and creative. It has expanded in ways that fit the times. The involvement with campus ministry and Place of Grace (a local Catholic Worker house) and the volunteer ministry trips are just a few examples of these good works.”
Despite Sr. Kathleen’s impression that life at Viterbo will carry on just fine without her, Tom Thibodeau, chair of the Religious Studies Department, isn’t as quick to brush off the impact of her departure.
“You know people in two ways: by their presence and by their absence. I will miss Sr. Kathleen and all that she has done,” Thibodeau said before giving what is probably the finest tribute to a Sister who is remembered by many for giving 100 percent: “Many of us are good with ideas, but Kathleen understands that God is into details and whatever she was involved in was completed,” he said.