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Farewell to Two ICN Stalwarts, Sheila Fitzgerald McKenna and Karen Minette Woods

Volume 31, Issue 7,8 & 9, September 21, 2017

Sheila McKenna

     Sheila McKenna, a regular contributor of occasional verse and charming celebratory poetry to the pages of Island Catholic News and other publications, died August 1, 2016 in her 95th year.
     Karen Woods an ICN board member since 2016 died suddenly on March 25, 2017. Both were stout hearted defenders of Island Catholic News’ vision and values.
     Sheila was born of London-Irish heritage on December 21, 1921. Karen, her neighbour and friend, was born in the Comox Valley on December 13, 1951. They lived in the same apartment building in Esquimalt, one managed by Sheila’s daughter and son in law.
The building was owned by former St. Andrew Cathedral parishioner Emelio Ghiradello, a close friend of the McKenna family. Emelio and Sheila’s late husband Gerard served as acolytes at the cathedral during the rectorship of Oblate Father Terry McNamara in the 1990s.
     Sheila’s husband of 50 years and the father of their five daughters died suddenly during Ash Wednesday services at the cathedral in 1990, while serving on the altar. Bishop Remi De Roo, being present at the time, offered a final anointing to Gerard who died shortly afterwards.
     The event served as a dramatic finale, perhaps reflective of Mrs. McKenna's stage talents, gift for poetry and personal presence.
     In 1959 the McKenna family migrated to Alberta from Petersfield in England, with five girls ranging in age from 18 to five years. The family settled in Southern Alberta to work for the Catholic Diocese of Calgary, Gerard having been trained as a social worker. A military officer during World War Two, Mr. McKenna studied in a seminary in Durham prior to enlisting. Father Patrick O'Byrne employed Gerard for twenty years until he had to retire due to ill health at which point the couple relocated to Victoria.
     As a widow in her late 60s, Sheila embarked on a second career. Still vital and an accomplished composer of occasional verse and volumes of poetry, she lived another 27 years making her mark as a performer in popular theatre, stage shows and parish costume pantomime corresponding to the Catholic liturgical cycle. Sheila was also a member of the cathedral choir.
     For many years she was a stalwart of Senior Citizens Entertainment Pool,(SCEP) a concept that sprang out of the creative attitude of encouraging and enabling the theatrically gifted at the Cathedral, where in those days there was a certain bon vivant spark. It was part of an effort to blend open spirituality, sociability, liturgical creativity and social purpose in a charming mix that reflected the religious liberation brought about by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). This shaped the inner life of Sheila and Co.
     While none of Sheila’s daughters followed in her faith footsteps, they appreciated her spirituality and at her funeral reception it was evident she was held in high regard by her third and fourth succeeding generations. With the grandchildren and great grandchildren, the flowering rather than the roots were best appreciated.
     Sheila wrote consistently for the pages of ICN, occasional and regular verse, specially composed or extracted from her series of chapbooks of verse which celebrated her Irish roots, her global travels, seasonal and religious themes as well as her romantic nature and subsequent relationships.
     After Mr. Ghiradello’s wife Betty passed, Sheila and Emelio were constant companions, travelling to Hawaii and Italy together, until his death fifteen years before her own.
     Karen Woods lived her early years in the Comox Valley-Campbell River region where she lived surrounded by extended family as an only child. Trained in nursing, in her mid-30s she converted to Catholicism at Campbell River under the direction of Ann Haig-Brown, Frances Beston and the parish priests of the time Fathers Michael O’Connell and Charles Joerin, all members of the pastoral team at St. Patrick’s parish.
     Karen married in her 20s and had one son Jason, whom she raised as a single parent. She had a strong penchant for the Mystery and spiritual romance of the Catholic faith but was also a strong advocate of social justice in her faith context.
     In her time on the board of Island Catholic News, Karen always pushed strongly for the further integration of the paper into the life of the institutional church which she felt needed a wide variety of theological views. She particularly embraced the prophetic Catholicism manifested in the pages of ICN and expressed much anguish at the current divisiveness within the Catholic church and the state of the world in its religious fractiousness.
     At one stage of her life she actively explored the Muslim faith.
     Her greatest gift may have been her friendly and hospitable nature.
     In her last five years she was Sheila’s neighbour in their small Esquimalt apartment block. She appreciated and contributed to the sense of community it promised, regularly dropping in on Sheila and her daughter, always bringing the coffee pot or taking a glass of wine. Karen liked an evening at the pub with friends including my father who she looked in on in the same spirit when I was travelling in his later years.
     It would be fair to say that Karen suffered personal hardship, especially with the death of her boon companion and mother Alma Geary who lived many years in Langford. She was a perpetual optimist but there were other family difficulties that tested her severely.
     At bottom though she was an eternal seeker of hope and truth and love and really enjoyed taking an active part in various adult education groups associated with and promoted by Island Catholic News such as Earth Literacy classes, spiritual progressive seminars and discussions, and liturgies of the Roman Catholic Women Priest movement as well as the various talks and meetings held by ICN itself as a non-profit society. She was particularly affected by her friendship with Bishop Marie Bouclin of Sudbury during her regular visits to Vancouver Island.
     Always a seeker after spiritual enlightenment and social liberation, after the revelations of 9/11 she attended a Muslim prayer community for a number of years, and was a founding member of Central Africa Refugee Association (CARA) which is endeavouring to sponsor a Burundian family from a camp in Rwanda.
     Typical of Karen, she insisted on sending small amounts of money directly to the wife and mother of the family of five as part of her effort because direct care and emotional devotion were among the chief characteristics of Karen Minette Woods, R.I.P.