Custodian cuts down Mary Poppins figure suspended from cathedral ceiling; gets arrested and fired

14 Mar

I say he’s heroic.

Not the place for Mary Poppins.

Not the place for Mary Poppins.

On the first morning of the 31st annual Cathedral Flower Festival, with its theme of “A Night at the Movies,” an agitated church custodian made a bold move.

Mark Kenney, 59, who grew up in the parish, had worked at St. Cecilia Cathedral for three years. Around 8 a.m. on Jan. 29, he went to a work shed, picked up a pair of heavy-duty bolt cutters and ascended to a catwalk high above the mostly empty nave, or main sanctuary.

He looked through a peephole, he said, to make sure he wouldn’t hurt any people. And then he cut a steel cable, which sent a suspended, umbrella-carrying, hat-wearing Mary Poppins figure crashing to the floor.

Kenney then went downstairs and removed a cardboard Buddha figure from the Nash Chapel, which also featured costumed mannequins from “The King and I.” He threw the Buddha out one door and proceeded to toss costumed mannequins out two other doors.

Someone alerted the pastor, the Rev. Michael Gutgsell, who ran from the rectory next door to the church and saw Kenney.

“Mark,” he called out, “did you see who did this?”

“Father, it was me. You need to call the police.”

Gutgsell had known that his custodian had misgivings about secular displays in the church but says he was dumbfounded and didn’t understand why Kenney would take such drastic action. In a brief meeting that week, the pastor said, he had asked for Kenney’s promise not to be disruptive.

Now the priest was shocked, saying, “You promised!”

In response, Kenney said, he lashed out. “I started screaming, ‘Father, this is bullshit! We can’t have this in the church. This isn’t culture, it’s Disney crap!’ ”

Kenney — who has served three terms of up to six months in federal prisons for crossing security lines at military bases in protest of nuclear weapons — then knelt at the communion rail and prayed until officers arrived and handcuffed him.

He spent a night in jail before he was bailed out and pleaded no contest. He said he is scheduled for sentencing “on Holy Thursday,” March 24.

Damaging items at the flower festival was wrong, and Kenney said in an interview this week that he will make restitution. But he says secular items such as movie characters are inappropriate in the sacred space of the cathedral and amount to sacrilege and idolatry.

Gutgsell, a former chancellor of the Omaha Archdiocese and a Catholic University-licensed “canon lawyer,” an expert in church laws and rules, disagrees.

“Obviously, context is everything,” the priest said, noting that the cathedral also is home to about six concerts a year. No sacrilege or disrespect is conveyed, he said, in the concerts or the dozens of exhibits at the flower festival.

“Cathedrals,” he said, “are kind of the epicenter for culture presentation and development.”

Eileen Burke-Sullivan, a theologian and vice provost for mission and ministry at Creighton University, said she sees no problem. The cathedral and the archdiocese, she said, have supported the arts in Omaha for many years.

“In mixing thematic popular culture with the beauty of God’s creation in flowers,” she said, “I don’t think there’s any inherent idolatry.”

The flower festival is produced by the nonprofit Cathedral Arts Project. Its founder and director, Brother William Woeger, each year informs the archbishop of the theme.

Archbishop George Lucas was out of town this week and unavailable for comment. But spokesman Tim McNeil, the current chancellor, said the archdiocese will review the festival to make sure it is staying within bounds.

He said he sees nothing in “the broad language” of the catechism that would preclude such displays as Mary Poppins being suspended from the ceiling of the cathedral. But he said it would be good to know more specifics in advance.

Kenney’s actions aren’t the reason for a review, he said, adding that he has heard of no other complaints.

Why, then?

“The flower festival is evolving,” McNeil said, “and there are other types of props — mannequins and figurines. Everything has to be given a careful look.”

Woeger said next year’s theme is the 150th anniversary of Nebraska’s statehood. About 10,000 people attended this year, and he said volunteers had to scramble to repair the damage Kenney inflicted.

“I learned three years ago that he didn’t approve of the flower festival,” Woeger said. “It creates an awkward situation when you’ve got someone walking around negatively in the middle of what’s going on. It’s a big stretch to do $6,000 in damage and say you just wanted to make a point.”

Kenney won’t be walking around there anymore, at least not on the job. He was fired, and his archdiocesan “safe environment” certificate was revoked, meaning he no longer can work or volunteer when children are present.

So who is Mark Kenney?

He grew up fourth in a family of eight children, graduated from Creighton Prep in 1975 and attended the University of Nebraska at Omaha for two years.

He signed on for six years in the Navy but served only four. He worked as a mechanic in the nuclear program, but then saw actual missiles and believed they were immoral. He went AWOL several times, he said, and spent time in the brig before receiving an honorable discharge that cited his “unsuitable eccentricities.”

Kenney returned to Omaha and has worked blue-collar jobs, including the $12-an-hour position that he lost at the cathedral. He now is a custodian at a nursing home. His wife of 32 years is a pharmacy technician, and they care for her 62-year-old sister, who has mental disabilities.

In a letter of termination two days after the festival incident, Gutgsell wrote to Kenney: “None of the florists and none of the volunteers, any number of whom took time off their work or traveled some distance, had the slightest intention or reason to dishonor the Cathedral. You assigned the word ‘desecration’ to the entire project and as a result slandered anyone associated with it.”

Dwayne Ibsen, who provided the costumes, said Kenney tossed out an “Elizabeth I” outfit that had won six awards at national costumer conventions. Insurance companies are assessing the damage to mannequins and costumes, Ibsen said, adding that it appeared to be between $5,000 and $6,000.

“None of it was his property, and he went through it like a streak of lightning,” Ibsen said. “It was a beautiful show, and nothing was inappropriate.”

Kenney, who said he confessed his sin to a priest at another Catholic church, feels “closer to God than ever.” He could have handled things differently, he said, and recalls walking through the cathedral in the immediate aftermath and thinking, “What did I do now?”

But he says he is at peace with it, and in a letter to the archbishop objected to “pop art” and “absurd, secular cultural icons” in the cathedral.

Kenney hopes that people who agree with him will speak up and that the incident sparks “conversation” about what is appropriate in a church.

Christ overturned the money-changers’ tables in the temple, and eventually He was arrested, too.

There is a time and a place for direct action.

The time is now.

The place is everywhere.


11 responses to “Custodian cuts down Mary Poppins figure suspended from cathedral ceiling; gets arrested and fired

  1. infowarrior1

    March 14, 2016 at 5:25 am

    The rainbow was burned in Poland and the dildo was deflated in France if I recall.

    • Will S.

      March 14, 2016 at 10:56 am

      Yes, that’s right. See my link above, and read Mark Citadel’s comment.

  2. AureliusMoner

    March 14, 2016 at 1:29 pm

    This speaks to the utterly banal and desacralized mindset of neo-“catholic,” conciliar types.

    The words in Latin for “consecrate” and “hallow” (consecrare, sacrare), mean “to set apart.” Something holy is set apart for God, and may not be returned to profane and regular usage. The priest should not have “day job” apart from his priesthood; the tonsured monk should not live a worldly life; the chalice consecrated for celebration of the Mysteries, should not be used at the dinner table even for the fanciest of occasions. This is something that even Pagans understand, and Catholics should understand it even more so.

    Just because there is nothing inherently idolatrous or blasphemous about a movie-themed floral display in a generic setting, does not mean it is suitable for use in the Church. The Church has been hallowed unto God; the building may no longer be used for profane and worldly purposes; it is an icon of heaven on earth, the icons and architecture drawing the mind up to the realities with which the Faith has put us in contact. Are the people who come into the Cathedral to pray in the middle of the day, as I often do in our Cathedral when I’m downtown, supposed to wade past the cardboard cut-outs of Buddha only to lift their eyes up to their Maker, and find themselves looking up Mary Poppins’s skirt, instead? That bishop should be publicly whipped and defrocked; in a sane age in the Church, he would be.

    • Will S.

      March 14, 2016 at 1:37 pm

      I’m a Protestant, and I’m completely in agreement with you.

      It’s one thing to rent a fellowship / parish hall to be used for a benign, secular purpose like a flower show (though I’d still not allow Buddhist cutouts); it’s another to have it in the sanctuary.

      A shame the priest couldn’t see that; hopefully the archbishop will see the rightness of Kenney’s opposition.

  3. zorroprimo

    March 14, 2016 at 5:09 pm

    Over in England there are more mosques than churches, and quite a number of those mosques began as churches which were FREELY handed over to the muzzies from the English clergy (in what one assumes was a faggoty display of Christian generosity and cultural retardation).

    And now the disease is catching on here.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am an atheist of over 35 years. I have no respect for the church, but I have never blamed anyone for their beliefs. But when I see members of a specific religion decorating its “place of worship” with…ahem…DISNEY CRAP, I can only conclude that the members of that religion have lost their f**king minds and are taking their religion with them.

    Anyone who would try to desecrate a mosque with such blatant and philistine kitsch would get their marbles cut off before they got out of the building.

    I spent 4 years in Saudi Arabia, and I loathe and detest Islam, but in my view this entire planet will be a giant Muslim caliphate in less than 200 years.

    Why? Because Muslims will gladly kill or die for their religion, while Christians rationalize the suicide of their own culture.

    • Will S.

      March 15, 2016 at 2:55 am

      It is mystifying to me how people can claim to be believers, yet tolerate idols in their holy places, and preaching from their pulpits that is absolutely contrary to what their Scriptures and traditions teach.

      Zorro, we here are not of the kind of Christians who will stand by and let ourselves be taken over / crushed. Unlike wussy mainlines, wussy evangelicals, and wussy post-Vatican-II queers in cassocks, we will fight. It may be futile, and maybe indeed the West will fall under a caliphate. But I can’t see the invigorated sub-Saharan African church falling, when it is booming today… Ditto the underground Chinese church…

      • feeriker

        March 15, 2016 at 8:28 am

        But I can’t see the invigorated sub-Saharan African church falling, when it is booming today… Ditto the underground Chinese church…

        No indeed, because these churches have grown out of persecution, privation, and suffering. The soil was perfect for germinating the seeds of faith. The decadent West, on the other hand, is a bed of sand.

        But not to lose hope. Prediction: as western society collapses and more and more people in the western world begin to suffer, people will begin to rediscover the faith.

      • Will S.

        March 15, 2016 at 11:17 am

        Indeed, that may be so, that we see a return to faith here in the West.


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