Fredericksburg couple opens their home to UMW students

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It’s almost impossible for students who frequented the University of Mary Washington Catholic Campus Ministry from 1996 to 2014 to think of the word “hospitality,” without thinking of Doug and Susan McKenna.

For more than 40 years, long before the McKennas moved to Fredericksburg, they made it their mission to serve others, especially young people trying to make their way in the world. It’s a mission they adopted after attending a marriage encounter weekend, which they say not only saved their marriage but also revolutionized how they interacted with others as married Catholics.

“We have the best job on campus. We get to love these kids.” Doug and Susan McKenna

“It awakened all sorts of things for us spiritually, emotionally, intellectually and led to us recommitting ourselves to each other and together recommitting ourselves to a life of service to others, carried out in the context of parish life and led by the Holy Spirit,” said Doug.

During Doug’s 24 years in the U.S. Army, the couple’s three children grew up seeing their parents involved in every form of service available. The couple spoke at marriage encounter weekends, and helped lead youth ministry. They were lectors, Eucharistic ministers and sang in the choir. When they were stationed at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina, they provided foster care for newborns through Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Raleigh.

“We could not do enough,” said Doug.

When Doug retired from the Army in 1992 and took a civilian job at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College in Quantico, the couple expected to bring all their years of experience to their new home in Fredericksburg. But to their surprise, they received a polite, “Thank you, but no thank you,” from the pastors in their area who already had enough people serving.

“For five years here we were good, faithful Catholics, but we felt a little bit lost,” said Doug.

“We really felt like we were in the desert,” said Susan. 

During this time, Susan was working as a cancer nurse at Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg when she met the minister for the Baptist campus ministry. One of Susan’s jobs was to bathe the bodies of patients who had passed away. She helped the minister understand the process as a final gift to the person who died. 

The minister was so moved by this act of love, that she invited the couple to come talk and work with the Baptist students. As wonderful as this offer was, the couple discerned that God was calling them to minister to youths within the Catholic Church. 

“I guess I need to introduce you to Father Jack Peterson then,” said the minister. 

This simple introduction with the chaplain for what used to be known as the Catholic Student Association marked the beginning of a wonderful relationship between the McKennas and the students that would span almost two decades.

“We have the best job on campus,” said the McKennas. “We get to love these kids.”

They made sure they were present for the students by helping teach religious education, and cooking for the weekly supper seminars and the exam week power breakfasts. Susan spent weeks cooking and baking for the annual winter retreat, which they would attend with the students. During breaks, she would pray the Stations of the Cross with them and Doug would help direct students to priests ready to hear confessions.

They opened their house to the students for ladies’ nights and men’s nights, Shrove Tuesday parties and senior nights. They even housed several students over the years who couldn’t find campus housing and instructed students in the gift of hospitality and essential cooking skills through their “prayers of the kitchen” nights. 

When the McKennas realized after one large party that their house wasn’t big enough to host 50 students comfortably, they decided to build an addition with a huge deck instead of cutting the guest list.  Many students gathered on the deck during parties to hear the McKennas beloved and often hilarious stories of marriage, family life and the importance of hospitality.

One of the McKennas’ favorite Bible verses is Hebrews 13:2, “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels.”

“The thousands of times that angels have been in our home is just an unbelievable blessing to us,” said Susan. “It is not just the event.  It is the whole process of the week before. And thinking of and praying for whomever will come. And that they will be blessed in our home by being there as we are blessed with them being here. So we pray for them before every preparation that we make.”

In the quiet aftermath of the festivities when the McKennas would clean and wash, Susan felt a kind of closure to the wonderfulness they had been blessed with that night.

“It is a time to reflect on the conversations and the prayers that we were asked to add to our prayer list,” said Susan. “There is a saying, ‘The love in your heart wasn’t put there to stay. Love isn’t love till you give it away.’  And that’s what we have believed. The love that we have for each other has to be shown to the world. When I look at CCM and I see the beautiful kids who are coming out of that and the love that they have for our faith, it is a blessing for us.”

After 26 years in Fredericksburg, the McKennas are entering a new chapter of their lives in their 50th year of marriage. Doug will retire as dean of academics at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College in Quantico in July and the two of them look forward to a long-awaited move to Arizona. They’ve already found a house close to a Catholic church. Susan can’t wait to continue making quilts in her new quilting room and Doug has his eye on the public golf course that runs through their neighborhood. They won’t spend too much time there initially however. They have a busy schedule of reunions and weddings to attend, not to mention the 50-plus road trips Susan has planned for Arizona alone. 

Although they may be 2,000 miles away, they will never forget the students at the CCM.

“The joys that we have derived from being in the presence of like-minded people is just enormously powerful for us,” said Doug. “What we have given pales in insignificance to what we have received.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018