Father Keane, a master story-teller, was talking about his final days in an Irish seminary a couple Sundays ago. At the seminary, it was almost impossible to get away for the Easter holidays. Father said he thought up an excuse that seemed plausible and tried it out on a couple of fellow seminarians.
After a few minor adjustments, he used the excuse to ask for the weekend off. It worked.“When I got home, my mother’s first words when I walked in the door were, ‘I knew you’d never make it.’” Guess again, mom. Last Sunday, a huge crowd at St. Agnes Church celebrated the 50th anniversary of the ordination of Father Denis Keane. After his ordination at St. Patrick’s College in Thurles, Ireland, Father Keane was assigned to serve in Montana, joining several other Irish priests in that state. That started a 50-year tour of the eastern half of the Big Sky Country. His tour began with a brief assignment in Lewistown and moved on to Great Falls and to Livingston and to Ekalaka and to Baker and back to Great Falls and on to Wolf Point and to Roundup and to Chester and to Chinook and to Columbus and to Stanford and to Fort Benton. His pastoral journey finally brought him to Red Lodge on June 30, 2001 as he began the longest assignment of his career. It’s been 12 years now, and we’re all hoping there will be many, many more years at St. Agnes. Father is a quiet, humble man -- even a bit shy. He loves a good joke and tells many of them -- most of them about himself. He has made his way into most of our hearts through his homilies.
I have had many wonderful priests in my lifetime, and more often than not my mind would start to wander as they read their sermons from a script. When Father Keane gives his homily, you listen to every word and get the feeling that he is talking directly to you and only you. Everyone I talk to has the same feeling. Father doesn’t read from a script but stands in front of the altar, seemingly giving his homily spontaneously. On occasion, I have attended both the Saturday night and Sunday Masses, and his homilies are almost word for word. I asked him about that once, and he told me that he can’t do a sermon from a script. When he tried, he ended up stumbling through his message. “I was associate pastor at one church and the pastor insisted on reading your homily before you gave it,” he said. “I didn’t have it written out, so I never did the homily.”
That parish missed out on some wonderful words from a wonderful man who goes out of his way to make visitors feel welcome. If he sees strange faces before Mass, Father talks to them and finds out where they’re from. At the beginning of the Mass, he always points out the visitors he knows are attending and asks if there are any others from out of state in attendance. Father Keane doesn’t sit in the big chair on the altar during the readings and after communion. He sits on a pew with his parishioners. During the peace handshake, he moves around the church shaking hands with friends and parishioners -- some old, some new. Like so many of us, Father isn’t always happy with some of the rulings from the hierarchy of the church.
Unlike most of us, he isn’t reluctant to speak out. I once told him, “Father, I think you would be a good candidate for sainthood after you die. The only problem is I don’t think we could ever get it past the bishop.” He laughed his wonderful Irish laugh. We’re so lucky to have him. Although most of us are hoping Father Keane will be here for many, many more years, there have been a few members of the parish who weren’t always happy with the genial priest who prefers to be called Deny, instead of Father. Most of the disgruntled are the old-line Catholics who like to kneel a lot and keep waiting for the recital of the Mass to return to Latin.
They cringe when they see a woman on the altar, serving communion and cross the aisle to avoid being served communion by one of them. One former parishioner pointed out to Father Keane that there were only two steps leading up to the church’s altar. Church doctrine calls for three steps to the altar. “I told him, ‘Don’t worry about it. In a few years, all of the priests are going to be too old to climb the two steps.’ ” Father responded. Even Father Keane’s humor sends out a message.