Joseph Peter Kenny was a man of dual citizenship - an American by birth and a Nigerian by naturalization. He would have celebrated his 50 years as an ordained priest in 2013, 48 of which were spent in the service of the Catholic Church of Nigeria. He was ordained a Catholic Priest of the Order of the Preachers, otherwise known as the Dominicans, and sincerely served Nigeria both within the Church and the intellectual circle until his death on January 28, 2013.
Kenny was born in Chicago, USA, on January 12, 1936. His grandparents came to the USA from Ireland, thus his parents were born in the USA. He studied at a Catholic Parochial Primary School in Chicago and then went to the Archdiocesan Minor Seminary for his secondary education. From there he proceeded to the Major Seminary of the Chicago Archdiocese. Out of the aspiration to achieve a sound spiritual and academic life, he discovered that for him the Dominican Order was the way to go. Consequently, after two years in the Major Seminary, he was accepted by the Dominicans and started his novitiate in 1956. He made his first profession of vows in 1957 in Winona, Minnesota and his final vows in 1960 and was ordained a priest in 1963.
He studied diligently during his formative years as a Dominican and earned a Bachelor and Master of Arts Degrees in Philosophy from the Aquinas Institute, River Forest, USA in 1959 and 1960 respectively. He also earned a Master of Arts in Theology at the Aquinas Institute, Dubuque in 1964. Kenny also had qualifications in Arabic and Islamic Studies. He obtained a Certificate in the discipline at the Pontifical Institute of Arabic Studies in 1967, a Diploma from the University of Tunis in 1967, and a Ph.D from the University of Edinburgh in 1970. He had a very good academic formation, including learning the Latin and Greek languages.
The Dominicans had arrived Nigeria in 1952. After settling at Yaba, Lagos in the St. Dominic Parish, they were asked to go to take on the work in the Sokoto Prefecture, which at that time was the Province of Sokoto, and the Province of Katsina, of the then Northern Region of Nigeria. Kenny arrived in Nigeria on November 13, 1964. At the time he was not sure in which direction his life would go or where his superior would send him when he spoke with Edward T. Lawson, the then Prefect Apostolic of the Sokoto Prefecture, who eventually became Bishop Lawton of Sokoto Diocese. Lawson understood that missionaries should have a good knowledge of Islam, given the fact that there were many Muslims in Nigeria and the importance of Sokoto and its Sultan. Consequently, after the study of Arabic in Rome and Tunis, and having made some research in Cairo, Kenny went for further studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, for his Ph.D. He returned to Nigeria in 1970 and his first assignment was in Malumfashi, in Katsina Province. It was here he learned Hausa. He then worked in Sokoto for a number of years, before he was seconded to Ibadan in the Southwestern part of Nigeria to assist in the academic work and to also help develop the Dominican Institute there. He was thus one of the founding fathers of the Dominican Institute, the Centre of Institutional Studies of the Nigeria Province and he taught there all his life. Even after retiring from the University of Ibadan he served as the Dean of Studies and Professor of the Dominican Institute, Ibadan, Oyo state and up to the day of his death, he labored earnestly for the realization of the Dominican University project of the Province.
On being seconded to Ibadan, Kenny was also offered an appointment to teach in the Department of Religious Studies, University of Ibadan. He joined the services of the University in 1976 as Lecturer 1 and rose to the position of Professor in 1994. He served the University for 22 years, was the Head of Department of Religious Studies from 1995-1998 and represented the Dean of the Faculty of Arts at different occassions. He bought the first computer for the department in 1995. He retired from the University on September 30, 2001 to join the Dominican Institute fully. He was a Visiting Professor at Les Facultes Catholiques de Kinshasha and Lecturer at SS. Peter and Paul Seminary and Dominican Institute (1971-1979).
His contribution to the birth and subsequent development of the Dominican Institute of Philosophy and Theology, Ibadan was monumental. In fact, his contribution was so significant that for all practical purposes it could be said that he earned the status of an “institution” of sorts at the Dominican Institute (DI for short). Such is the case that not to know Joseph Kenny was not to know the DI. He was wholly involved in all the efforts that eventually made the DI what it is today.
Just like the 13th century Dominican St. Albert the Great was versed and well known for his love of nature, Kenny was also very much interested in the world of nature. He belonged to the Nigerian Field Society (NFS) for many years. This organization is a national organization founded in 1930 with branches in several cities across the country that depend entirely on local interest and volunteer commitment. He volunteered his time, which included working on their publication. He had a lively interest in apiary work (bees) and helped the community to develop some 40 active hives, which produced a lot of honey and contributed to the finances of the community. He was interested in trees, especially fruit trees that are endemic in the equatorial region like Nigeria. He planted several different species in the Ibadan community.
Virtually everyone who speaks of Kenny eulogizes the virtues of the departed priest and professor. The Catholic Archbishop of Ibadan Diocese, Felix Alaba Job, said that Kenny led a life worthy of emulation. Talking about his simple lifestyle, Charles Ukwe, his next door neighbor for nine years at the DI, said that Kenny rode a Honda motorcycle for several years and was always in bathroom slippers, stressing that he only put on sandals when travelling out of Ibadan or out of the country even as a professor. The late professor was said to always wash his own clothes by himself. Kenny said his cassock was always sewn by himself in order not to put the burden on the Dominican Community, a situation he said always made his different from the others. Kenny was said not to be title crazy as he was so much at home with everybody, including his students who fondly called him Alhaji and his friends and admirers who referred to him as Avejoe.
Spiritually, Kenny was said to be highly prayerful and committed to his vows as a priest. Ukwe testified that, “Fr. Kenny didn’t allow the things of the world to disturb his vows. All his salary at the University of Ibadan was always donated to the Dominican Community and he depended on whatever was given to him. He was down to earth, could eat anything called food, he loved this nation, and gave it his service for a lifetime. Ukwe finally admonished the congregation to be of good cheers despite the demise of the late priest, who he said accepted the call, persevered in the vocation, and touched many lives.
The Catholic Bishop Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) via Gabriel Abegunrin, spoke very highly of Kenny. He described him as a consultant to the Conference on inter-religious matters and who, apart from Bishop Alaba Job, touched the lives of everybody from Warri-Lagos, adding that he was not just a teacher, but a friend, a father, a person who lived productively, one to emulate, and one whose name will remain in the heart of many for a very long time. Another Catholic priest in the person of Felix Ajakaiye described Kenny as a true child of God, a man of God, a wonderful priest and one who worked his faith as well as his prayers. Speaking further, Ajakaiye thanked God that he knew and also served under Kenny, for he was at a time his altar servant. According to him, “he [Kenny] taught me to be industrous and to be a lover of books”.
Academically, he was an erudite scholar and a Catholic priest who sought religious harmony by becoming an Islamic and Arabic Scholar, while teaching the discipline for 22 years at the Department of Religious Studies, University of Ibadan, Nigeria. He was not just a scholar, but perhaps had one of the biggest Islamic libraries in Nigeria. He was a genius, a sound researcher and one who was faithful to his work. Testifying to his ingenuity, his colleagues at the University of Ibadan said he was a model in the Christian-Muslim discourse in Africa and an ardent promoter of inter-religious dialogue. Thus, he was closely associated with the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies, University of Ibadan. As an expert in Islamic Studies he served in various capacities on various commissions for Inter-Religious Dialogue for the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria and Association of Episcopal Conference of West Africa. He was proficient in thirteen languages: English, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, French, German, Spanish, Hausa, Arabic, Yoruba, Dutch, and Portuguese. He had several books and over 200 articles on various areas of theology and philosophy, Thomism, metaphysics, liturgical music, Islam, inter-religious dialogue, and various other social issues. He was a lover of liturgical music, especially the Gregorian chants.
He was an eloquent preacher and missionary. He remains one of the greatest intellectual colossi of the Order of Preachers in the twenty-first century. He was a scholar and a keen researcher who possessed a profound knowledge of the major issues in almost all disciplines. He was a profitable resource person in matters of inter-religious dialogue, whose numerous publications of books, journals and articles both on the electronic and print media today constitute a gold mine. During his teaching career both at the University of Ibadan and the DI, he never failed to encourage any student in whom he noticed a spark of brilliance. He wanted to replicate his intellectual prowess in his students. Indeed, he was simply a genius making geniuses.
His manner of ministration was highly admirable. Whether he was singing or speaking one could not help but admire the conviction in his tone. He was ever punctual at masses. He was there just before prayer began and gone soon as it was over. His relatively brisk and short masses and homiles won him the name - “Father Sharp Sharp.” He was a brother, teacher, and mentor to many.
Before his final call home he was working on an international conference that had a Lebanese delegation of Sunni, Shiites, and Christians (both Orthodox and Catholic), which was intended to bring Muslim and Christian thinkers together and to be held at the University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria. Unfortunately, his illness prevented him from attending. He finally died on January 28, 2013 after a brief illness.
Michael Adeleke Ogunewu
Ogunsola, Oladele. “Dominicans Mourn Rev. Fr. Alhaji Kenny.” Daily Independent Newspaper (March 20, 2013).
“Special Release and Obituary of Rev. Father (Professor) Joseph Kenny, OP.” University of Ibadan Bulletin 3071 (February 2013).
This article, received in 2014, was researched and written by Dr. Michael Leke Ogunewu, a visiting lecturer in Church History at Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary in Ogbomoso, Nigeria.