By DEIRDRE C. MAYS
CLEMSON — A two-hour hike turned into a two-day ordeal for Paulist Father John Kenny, pastor of St. Andrew’s Church.
On Aug. 25, the 66-year-old priest headed out to nearby Whiteside Mountain in Cashiers, N.C., to enjoy nature on his day off but wandered from the trail and spent two nights in the woods. The jovial priest did not tell anyone where he was going because he expected to be home in time for lunch, so police searched only South Carolina parks the first day.
“Usually when I’m leaving in the morning, Fr. Gerry Aylward will ask me where I will be hiking and I’ll tell him,” Father Kenny explained, “but that morning only Father Gus McGuire was there and he just kidded me about carrying the small volume, A Way to Love by Anthony De Mello (a Jesuit spiritual writer whose work was recently condemned by the Vatican).
Father Kenny, who is a diabetic requiring two insulin shots a day, only carried a peach, a plum, a canteen of water and four small peppermints in a backpack. After an hour-and-a-half drive, he arrived at the trailhead at 10:30 a.m. He expected to be finished in time to have lunch in nearby Highlands, N.C. The trail, however, was crowded and when Father Kenny passed a group slowing his pace he moved off the main trail, and didn’t realize it for some time until it came to a halt at a cliff. He spent the next several hours trying to find his way back.
“By 4:30 p.m. I was bruised, torn and exhausted, and all of my food and water was gone, so I decided to find a place for the night,” he said. The optimistic priest, inspired from having seen a helicopter earlier in the day, chose an outcropping of rock in the hopes that he could be seen by a rescue plane or helicopter.
He spent a restless night accompanied by the roar of insects and occasionally jarred by the sounds of something he perceived as a sniffing animal.
“I shouted and waved my hat but now I think it was just another insect sound,” he explained. He also learned that his new watch glowed in the dark.
“I’m not sure that was a plus or a minus,” he joked, “that was a long night.”
In the long hours he said his rosary twice, without beads, and began praying for people whom he had known throughout his life, starting with his childhood in Chicago.
That morning, his fellow priests called the police who expanded the search.
During that second day, now feeling the effects of missing his insulin, Father Kenny read for a while and then pulled out his wallet. He found eight business cards on which he began writing farewells, the directions to find his will and whom he would like to preach at his funeral. He said he was not afraid, just worried.
The second night was cooler, his book became a pillow, and branches became his blankets. He was cold and said he began to hallucinate, but he felt he had made his peace with God.
“I wasn’t sure about whether I thought I would die,” he said, “I was just really worried about doing a third night.”
The state police had taken the initiative to start checking North Carolina parks and found the priest’s car on Thursday in the Whiteside Mountain parking lot. Father Jim Brucz and Sister Janet Carr were searching on their own and Father Brucz took it upon himself to climb to the top of the trail and shout for Father Kenny. About 1:30 p.m. the ailing priest heard someone shout his name and he responded.
The Glenview-Cashiers Rescue Team reached the priest and helped him climb the steep slope back to the trail. He was taken to the Highlands-Cashiers Hospital and kept overnight to replenish his fluids and monitor his blood sugar level.
“When I finally came home on Friday, I was amazed and humbled by all the concern expressed by so many, the newspaper and TV accounts and especially by all the prayers offered for my safety. I guess the Lord expects to get some more work out of me before I go.” he said.
Though, he says, everyone is scolding him for not saying where he was going or carrying more items in his backpack, he candidly said he will “probably” tell people where he is off to next time.