Kenney, Peter (1779–1841), Jesuit priest and educationist, was born in Dublin, probably at 28 Drogheda Street, on 7 July 1779, the son of Peter Kenney, a businessman, and his wife, Ellen (née Molloy). He had one sister (who became a nun) and a much older brother (possibly a half-brother by a previous marriage of his father). Kenney attended schools conducted by the former Jesuit Thomas Betagh (qv), who became his principal mentor, at Saul's Court and Skinner's Row; after being briefly apprenticed to a coach-maker, he became Betagh's assistant in his schools. In 1799 Kenney took a leading role in the foundation of the first Young Men's Confraternity in Dublin.
On 6 June 1801 Kenney entered St Patrick's College, Carlow, to study for the priesthood. He was one of a group of young men who had their fees paid from the residual funds of the Irish Jesuit mission (administered by Irish former Jesuits) in return for a commitment to enter a revived Society of Jesus. The Jesuit order had been suppressed by the papacy in 1773, but survived unofficially in Russia. In 1801 the holy see granted official recognition to the Russian province of the order and allowed Jesuits elsewhere to attach themselves to it. Former Jesuits in England took advantage of this dispensation to reestablish the English province of the society under the jurisdiction of the vicar general in Russia, but the legality of this remained uncertain until the formal restoration of the society in 1814.
In September 1804 Kenney went to Stonyhurst College, Lancashire (founded 1794), to undertake his novitiate. He was recognised as an outstanding student, particularly in theology and philosophy. After developing asthma and eye problems he was sent to Palermo in April 1808 to complete his studies. This also allowed him to take his vows with the surety of being recognised as a Jesuit by church law, since the society had been formally reestablished in the kingdom of Naples in 1804. Shortly after his arrival Kenney served as interpreter on a secret and unsuccessful mission to persuade Pope Pius VII to leave French-occupied Rome and place himself under the protection of British forces in Sicily. Kenney received his tonsure and minor orders in June 1808, was ordained deacon and subdeacon in November, and received priestly orders on 4 December 1808. He carried on his studies at the Jesuit college in Palermo (completing them in April 1811, though he did not receive a degree for technical reasons), while ministering to catholics in the British garrison, despite obstruction from their superior officers.
Kenney returned to Ireland in August 1811 as acting superior of the Jesuits’ Irish mission (whose independence from the English province he successfully asserted). He ministered in Dublin with three other newly admitted Jesuits, and rapidly acquired a reputation as a calmly eloquent preacher. For the rest of his life he was much in demand as a preacher of charity sermons and as principal speaker on major ecclesiastical occasions; the Maynooth professor Patrick Murray (qv) compared his style and eminence as a pulpit orator to those of Daniel O'Connell (qv) as a public speaker. Between August 1812 and 1813 Kenney acted as vice-president of Maynooth at the insistence of Daniel Murray (qv), co-adjutor archbishop of Dublin, who had been asked to serve as temporary president. Kenney appears to have undertaken most of the administrative duties because of Murray's other commitments, but his principal impact was as a spiritual guide and retreat leader to the seminarians.
In 1813 Kenney used much of the money inherited from the former Irish Jesuit funds to purchase Castle Browne House, Clane, Co. Kildare; in summer 1814 this opened as Clongowes Wood College, which became the most celebrated school run by Irish Jesuits. In managing the new school and overseeing the implementation of the traditional Jesuit curriculum, Kenney showed himself a capable organiser. At the same time he lobbied against calls by ultra-protestant politicians for the passage of new anti-Jesuit legislation, acquired a chapel in Hardwicke Street, Dublin (from which Gardiner Street church and Belvedere College later developed), and negotiated the purchase of the site of the future Jesuit novitiate at Tullabeg, near Tullamore, King's County (Offaly).
In September 1817 Kenney (whose career was punctuated by lamentations over the burdens of leadership and expressions of desire to devote himself to pastoral work) resigned as rector of Clongowes and superior of the mission. The acceptance of his resignation was encouraged by tensions among the Irish Jesuits, which were aggravated by his frequent absences owing to other commitments. He spent the next year and a half at the Jesuit chapel in Hardwicke Street, adding to his lifelong reputation as a skilled (though perhaps somewhat strict) confessor to all classes of penitents and a leader of retreats.
In April 1819 Kenney was appointed visitor to the North American Jesuits. As a preliminary, he took his four solemn vows as a fully professed Jesuit on 16 June 1819 and sailed on 31 July, thereby avoiding an attempt by the secular clergy of Kerry to secure him for their vacant bishopric. During his first mission to America (September 1819 to August 1820) Kenney reorganised the struggling Jesuit college at Georgetown, and reported on the financial and pastoral problems created by the American Jesuits’ badly managed slave plantations in Maryland. His Irish and continental experience enabled him to mediate effectively between older European-born Jesuits and their Native American confreres (who combined ignorance of Europe with pride in republican institutions). Evading efforts to nominate him for the sees of Philadelphia and New York, Kenney returned to Europe in August 1820 to participate in the election of a new Jesuit general and report to the general congregation on the state of the order in America.
Kenney returned to Ireland in 1821 and in 1822 was reappointed to the rectorship of Clongowes and the leadership of the Irish Jesuits (whose status had been raised to that of a vice-province in 1819). In this period he experienced tensions with Bishop James Warren Doyle (qv) on such issues as Jesuit social aspirations and the perceived desertion of parish clergy by penitents seeking lenient Jesuit confessors. He testified before a royal commission on Irish education and advised Edmund Ignatius Rice (qv), Mother Mary Teresa (Frances) Ball (qv), and Mary Aikenhead (qv) on drawing up the constitutions of their nascent religious orders. He later experienced tensions with Aikenhead and Rice over disputes within the Irish Sisters of Charity and the Christian Brothers.
In 1830 Kenney was relieved of his offices at his own request and thereafter the positions of Clongowes rector and vice-provincial were separated. But this respite was brief as he was promptly sent on a second mission to America as temporary Jesuit superior as well as visitor. On this visit, which concluded with his receipt and formal promulgation of the Vatican decree constituting the Maryland Jesuits a full province, covering much of the eastern United States, he implemented further reforms in Georgetown, reclaimed a church formerly run by the Jesuits in Philadelphia, and visited the Jesuit mission in Missouri, which had been founded by Belgian Jesuits in 1823 with the intention of evangelising the indigenous population. In Missouri he greatly raised the standing of the Jesuit college at St Louis, which became the first university west of the Mississippi, and attempted to diminish the harsh discipline exercised by the local superiors. His support for the continuing independence of the Missouri mission from the Maryland province was one of the achievements that mark his two visitations as a watershed in the development of the American Jesuits and, by extension, of the whole catholic church in America. His memory was revered among his American brethren for decades.
After his return to Ireland in September 1833 (having refused the bishopric of Cincinnati on health grounds) Kenney was reappointed vice-provincial in 1834, but stepped down in 1836 as he was no longer able to combine this role with his pastoral duties as superior of the Gardiner Street community, where the Dublin Jesuits had moved when their new church was constructed in the early 1830s; the Hardwicke Street chapel became the site of a school, which later moved to Belvedere House. Kenney remained superior at Gardiner Street until 1840, though he was now suffering from heart problems complicated by asthma, overwork, and obesity. In this period he strongly supported Archbishop Murray's acceptance of the national schools, writing to Rome in rebuttal of the position of Archbishop MacHale (qv).
In 1840 Kenney was relieved of his superiorship, having asked permission to spend some time in southern Italy for the good of his health and to undertake historical research on the history of the Irish Jesuits. He reached Rome in October 1841 but died on 19 November 1841 of a stroke, his condition exacerbated by poor medical treatment; he was buried at the Jesuit church of the Gesù in Rome. Kenney was a significant force in the nineteenth-century revival of institutional Irish catholicism, the key figure in the revival of the Irish Jesuits, and an important presence in the American church; but perhaps his greatest influence was wielded through his labours in pulpit and confessional, which led Archbishop Murray's eulogist to call Kenney ‘the apostle of modern Dublin’.