In the fifties a book appeared entitled “The Manner Is Ordinary”. No better title captures my vocation story with one possible exception. The story of my birth has a permanent niche in our family’s folklore. On August 19, 1929 I decided that my time had come to the surprise of my mother. Word of the crisis got to my father at the firehouse. In the chiefs car with bell clanging and lights flashing he took my Mom across the Queensborough Bridge to a hospital somewhere on the East Side of Manhattan. There my mother delivered me in a room off the main lobby. After that my life unfolded in a very ordinary manner.
In Flushing, NY I attended St. Andrew Avellino School taught by Dominican Sisters whose Mother House is in Columbus, OH. Confreres from Groveport served as confessors for these sisters. I became an altar boy under a great pastor, Msgr. Francis J. Oechsler, a close friend of our Father William Hocter, C.M. I learned the Latin letter-perfect and gradually mastered the intricacies of acolyte, thurifer and master of ceremonies of funerals and Solemn High Mass.
In 1943 I entered St. Johns Prep, not my first choice. I wanted to attend a Jesuit high school with my friends. But I did not travel to corner of Lewis and Hart with a heavy heart. I threw myself into many different activities. I tried out for the sports teams, never made them but enjoyed intramural sports. I was on the staff of the Red Owl, the school newspaper for four years.
Here I met the Vincentians. Priesthood had always hovered in the back of my mind as a possibility. During these years that possibility expanded to include the Vincentians who taught me, cheered with me at games and guided me in extracurricular activities. I hesitate to name any for fear of slighting others. Most are now with the Lord. But I must cite Father Joe Dunne, my confessor during my junior and senior years. He guided me in my decision to give it [priesthood as a Vincentian] a try.
September 1947 found me at St. Josephs Seminary, Princeton, NJ to begin my decade-long trek to ordination. I found the priests supportive, my fellow seminarians congenial and the discipline not overbearing. Only once was I told that I was in trouble. I was at MIS [Mary Immaculate Seminary, Northampton, PA] and in temporary vows. But I talked with the professor who spoke the threatening words. He explained to me a behavior in class that nettled him and others. I tried to eliminate it.
In May 1957 I was ordained and sent to Louvain University, Belgium to study church history. In 1961 I returned to teach at MIS where I remained for twenty-nine years. In addition to church history and patrology, I also taught liturgy. Vatican II moved the liturgy to center stage. I became responsible for implementing the liturgical changes at MIS and teaching the historical and theological principles for them. These were years of great personal growth in appreciation of the liturgy that I shall always treasure.
Vatican II rediscovered the homily as part of the liturgy itself. In addition, the council declared that the first task of the priest is to preach the gospel. These insights intensified an interest in preaching I had nursed as a seminarian. I felt a weakness of the program at MIS was homiletics. The community prepared men to teach dogmatic and moral theology, canon law and scripture, church music and philosophy. But it never trained a man to teach homiletics!
I brought the concern to Father Bob Maloney, the rector. I urged him to advise the provincial to send a confrere to study homiletics. He challenged me to get the training. Therefore I entered Temple University to study Rhetoric and communication. I eventually earned a doctorate. Like Louvain, Temple was a great experience, my first contact with American secular education. I found that both my seminary education and faith convictions were more than tolerated; they were respected.
While at MIS I became involved in the Diocese of Allentown. I helped implement Vatican II. I was a secretary of the Liturgical Committee for the Diocese Synod, became a member of the Diocesan Ecumenical Committee and later became chairman of the Diocesan Liturgical Commission. This involved me in the life of the larger church and provided an opportunity to work with many fine diocesan priests.
One of the saddest days in my life came when I stood before the students at MIS to tell them that the seminary would close in June 1990. In fact, I broke down in the midst of reading a prepared statement. Fr. Pat Griffin had to complete the announcement. Our market had disappeared. A seminary cannot run without seminarians and the drying up of the pool of seminarians made the MIS superannuated.
The next eleven years stand in stark contrast to the stability of the previous twenty-nine years. In 1991 I went to Christ the King Seminary, East Aurora, NY. That year the Franciscans handed over the administration to the Diocese of Buffalo. Three Vincentians, Joe Morris, Mike Whalen and I, joined the faculty in the transition. 1991 found me on the faculty at St. Johns University, Jamaica, NY.
September 1993 found me in Tanzania with a fine Indian confrere, Chacko Panathara. We began an intense study of Swahili. I memorized the Eucharistic Prayer and was able to read Swahili well enough to celebrate Mass by December. I will never forget the first time I preached in Swahili. On the feast of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton I prepared a two-paragraph sermon that a native priest corrected. I read it at Mass violating a cardinal rule that I had imposed on seminarians. After that I preached regularly with a wonderful African priest as my tutor.
The anopheles mosquitoes developed a liking for me. I got malaria four times. I should mention that everyone gets malaria in Tanzania. But in my case, the number of attacks caused a concern that I might not have gotten rid of it. I also lost much weight. I must add that I found the loneliness a trial. Bob Maloney visited the mission in August 1994 and decided that I should return to the USA. A proverb in Swahili says, “Better to be a live jackass than a dead lion.” I see the wisdom in that adage.
St. Johns University welcomed me back. I became chaplain in the Law School and did some part time teaching. In addition I served as Director of the Vincentian Mission Appeal that provided the opportunity to visit many parishes. I discovered that many had not had a parish mission for years. This convinced me of the market for parish missions especially in rural areas and small towns and cities – precisely the places when St. Vincent and our first confreres evangelized the poor.
With this in mind I asked to go to St. Lazare, Spring Lake, MI in order to become acquainted with the spiritual needs and challenges of Catholics outside academia, have the opportunity to preach to them and hear confessions regularly. I remained three years and had the unexpected blessings of teaching Adult Bible Study in the local parish and going to the county jail once, sometimes twice a week for ministry.
This year Tom McKenna gave me the green light to begin parish missions. I have contacted many former students who are now pastors. Their response has been gratifying. I have ten missions scheduled between September and December and the calendar for the first half of next year is filling out. I discern in this a sign of Gods blessing.
My motto is, Seventy-two and something new! In June I celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of my vows. I am filled with gratitude for the gift of fidelity. This anniversary emboldens me to become one of those old men [who] dream dreams. My dream is that other confreres will share this same dream for the primordial Vincentian work, preaching missions in rural areas, small town and cities.
Richard Kehoe, C.M.