Neil McKenty 1924-2012: broadcaster, author, and former Jesuit.

By Alan Hustak on May 18, 2012

Neil McKenty  liked to argue for the hell of it and he made a career doing it.

The irreverent Jesuit who left the priesthood and went on to become the cornerstone of Montreal talk radio died Saturday morning at the age of 87. During his 14 years as a CJAD telephone talk show host in the 70’s and 80’s he brought a degree of  civility to  the charged political atmosphere  in province after the election of the Parti Quebecois in 1976, and in the referendum that followed.  In its heyday, his program, Exchange, attracted as many as 85,000 listeners or more than a quarter of the city’s English-speaking audience. He later did a television talk show, McKenty Live for three years.
While he was in his element behind the microphone, McKenty, however, wasn’t happy being a public figure. He quit his radio show at the peak of his career in 1985 to finish a biography, In the Stillness Dancing, about an obscure Benedictine monk, John Main who was influenced by oriental religions and started a Christian meditation movement. McKenty then bared his own soul in a no-holds barred courageous autobiography, The Inside Story, in which he revealed, among other things that he was bipolar, was a recovering alcoholic who contemplated suicide and that he never took his priestly vows of celibacy seriously.

“There were two  Neils,” said his long-time friend, Jim Reed. “The one who needed an image of himself, and the other who loathed the image that others had of him. He was a super, super guy, but he was distracted by the pain of living. He had no use for hypocrisy. He wanted to be real.”


neil_mckenty.pngNeil McKenty was born in Peterborough, Ont. on Dec. 31, 1924 and grew up in Hastings. His father, who ran a hardware store was an alcoholic who preached a hard religious line. McKenty and his younger brother were educated by Jesuits at Regiopolis College in Kingston. As a teenager, McKenty worked as a stringer for the Peterborough Examiner. He took his B.A. at St. Michael’s College in Toronto before entering the Society of Jesus as a novice in 1944. He was was ordained in 1957. He worked in New York  as a summer relief editor on \America, the Jesuit review and spent time in London.  He returned to study history at the University of Toronto where as his doctoral thesis, he wrote a biography of Ontario Premier Mitch Hepburn.  Influenced by Fulton Sheen, a popular U.S. clergyman who had his own television program arts McKenty went on to take a communications arts degree in 1964 from the University of Michigan. It was during a visit to Rome that McKenty began to have serious misgivings about the institutional church. He described it as “a bloated structure, top heavy with oppressive authority.”  By 1969, he made a decision to leave the priesthood.  “When it came to preaching, I had a lot going for me,” he explained in his autobiography but he was unable to reconcile the fact that  the words the congregation heard, while theologically sound, did not jibe with my feelings about those words in my heart. The ball did not go smack into the glove.” 

After leaving the Jesuits McKenty worked in Toronto for Red Foster Foundation for the intellectually handicapped  and helped organize the first Special Olympics held in Quebec. In 1972, he was hired by CJAD in Montreal to do talk radio. As he saw it, his primary purpose was serve as a moderator and give  listeners an opportunity to engage in a dialogue with each other. Sidney Margles, the station’s former director of information and public affairs said McKenty was hired for his questioning mind. “Because of his Jesuit background, the depth of his knowledge was most attractive. He was intelligent, a natural communicator,  a seasoned analyst, impressive and well spoken,” Margles said. “He had one hell of a good head on his shoulders.” McKenty said one of his proudest moments on air was getting Brian Mulroney to take questions from listeners after Mulroney said he wouldn’t.  “His refusing to take calls  on a radio talk show made as much sense as going into a television studio and refusing to turn on the lights,” said McKenty, “The Toronto Star  got wind of it, and on the morning of the show, put the story on its front page. By the time Mulroney arrived at CJAD the station was packed with reporters, Mulroney was in a rage and proceeded to excoriate me for causing him political embarrassment. \But he was an astute politician , so he squared his shoulders, adopted a thin smile, went on the air, and answered the callers questions.”

Although McKenty abandoned the priesthood, he embraced an ecumenical approach to spiritual discipline. He kept a blog, and had a regular column in the Senior Times, Pit Stop.  He continued to rail against the Vatican. He deplored what he considered to be the second-class treatment of women by the institutional church and he found it odd that while a married Anglican could become a priest in the Roman Catholic Church, a Catholic married man could not.  His last column, published in the May edition of the Senior Times, challenged the church to take a more nuanced approach to its teachings about homosexuality. McKenty wrote that while the church teaching on the profound significance of sex is correct, its interpretation of ancient scripture are in need of correction. McKenty wrote that he did not believe in a God who would condemn a person to an eternity in hell for a single, unrepented  moment of deliberate sexual pleasure.

He leaves his wife of 40 years, the former Ontario government speechwriter, Catherine Fleming Turnbull, with whom he wrote Skiing Legends and the Laurentian Lodge Club.

The funeral is 3:30 p.m. Saturday, May 19 at the Notre Dame des Neiges Funeral Chapel.



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