Sharon McKenna ’60

Sharon McKenna ’60

Written by Nataly Cifuentes ’16

sharon-mckenna

Sharon McKenna

Since earning her Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy at Manhattanville, Sharon McKenna ’60 has dedicated her life to learning how to better contribute to peace in our world.

Sharon’s interest in helping others started at a very young age. Through the years, Sharon met a number of people that impacted her in many different ways. She grew up in a family where being hospitable and generous was tremendously important. For example, her parents welcomed a couple who had been recently released from a World War II concentration camp. Over the years her family hosted many diverse houseguests from all walks of life. Their poignant stories that she remembers hearing as a child helped develop her caring and genuine personality. She shared, “People meant a lot to me from a very early age. I just wanted to make connections, to give love and to receive love.” As she learned more about the horrors of war, the extent of poverty, the threat of atom bombs, she wondered how she could best work towards a more peaceful world.

During her upbringing she developed more than one of her talents. She played the violin from an early age and often competed in ski-racing. The United Nations had also been of great interest to Sharon, and in high school she delivered a speech about the UN and was awarded a trip to its Headquarters in New York City.

After her freshman year at Wellesley College, her home community in Norwich sent her as a Community Ambassador on the “Experiment in International Living.” This program, which preceded the creation of the Peace Corps, allowed her to travel to France where she stayed with a local family. While on this trip, she decided that she was called for a religious life.

Upon her return, she visited her cousin who lived in a Trappist monastery. She felt a calling and was asked to join them immediately. However, her mother wanted her to finish her college education, so she decided to transfer to a Catholic college that would better prepare her for a monastic life. Jacques Maritain, a well-known philosopher, advised her to go to Manhattanville. Manhattanville would allow her to study under the guidance of Dr. Daniel Walsh, a professor who had previously advised Thomas Merton to join the Trappists.

Manhattanville provided Sharon with many opportunities to serve the community and help those less fortunate. One of her most meaningful and memorable experiences was to be a part of a community service group that regularly visited a psychiatric hospital in Rye. Because of her special interest in psychiatric care, she really enjoyed spending quality time with the patients. Sometimes she would bring her violin or bongo board to perform or play ping-pong with them.

Sharon knew that she wanted to become a nun. However, Mother Sullivan, one of her mentors, suggested that she should first travel to Europe for a second time before she graduated. Sharon took Mother Sullivan’s advice and in the summer before her senior year, she was able to go to Holland. From there, she was able to hitchhike her way through Europe and continue on to the Near East, where she stayed with families she met along the way. The countries she visited include Holland, Germany, (the former) Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Italy and France. Although an exciting experience, exploring the Near East also became a very eye-opening chapter of her life, as she witnessed a lot of poverty and injustice in the places she visited, especially in Jerusalem.

After her senior year, she joined a Benedictine monastery in Connecticut, where she lived for 30 years. When she left the monastery, Sharon headed to New York City. She went to various nursing homes and parishes including St. Thomas More Church looking for a lady to live with. After hearing Sharon’s story, Monsignor George Bardes hired her as a sacristan. In her role, in addition to aiding with the upkeep of the church, she helps the elderly in the nearby community, mainly those who live alone. She has learned that this population is prone to depression and some live in untidy and unhealthy environments. She also collects clothes for the poor whenever she has the opportunity.

Among all the people that Sharon has helped in her life, one particular story has received significant attention and praise. Strength in What Remains, a book by Tracy Kidder, tells the story of Deogratias, a man from Burundi, Africa, and his challenging experience as he escaped the genocide in his country and fled to New York with only $200 in his pocket. Sharon helped Deo find a home and continue his medical studies at Columbia University. In 2008, Deo went on to establish Village Health Works, a health clinic in Burundi that helped nearly 20,000 patients in its first operating year by “dispensing AIDS medication, vaccinating residents and operating a deworming program.”

Deo-Sharon

Sharon McKenna

Deo felt invisible when he came to Manhattan, but Sharon’s helping hand gave him the strength to keep on going and fulfill his dreams. In gratitude for her support, he has named the clinic in Kigutu the Sharon McKenna Community Health Center.

In 2011, someone who read Strength in What Remains offered to pay Sharon’s airfare so she could go to Burundi and see the development of Village Health Works. She was hesitant at first because she knew the money could be better invested if given to the health workers in Kigutu. However, the anonymous donor insisted and assured her that Village Health Works would not receive the money if she did not go. Sharon accepted the offer and was deeply touched by what she saw.

For more information on Village Health Works, visit their website: http://www.villagehealthworks.org/

Sharon is proud of being a Manhattanville alumna, and each day she tries to live up to the values of her alma mater and constantly reminds herself, “semper reformanda,” i.e., “always in need of reform.” Her advice to current students is to remember this guiding principle: “Compassion is the key to happiness.”

 

 

 

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Photo Credits:

Sharon McKenna (http://bit.ly/1KDZmTt)

Sharon at Village Health Works (http://bit.ly/20QijnR)

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