Christopher Keenan, OFM, is widely known as a chaplain of the Fire Department of New York, a role he accepted after his friend Mychal Judge, OFM, perished on Sept. 11. The affable friar is humble, preferring to focus on the people he serves rather than the publicity that has come with his job.
This high-profile assignment is only one of his many ministries. The New York City native has spent most of his life partnering with others, especially the homeless, the unemployed and those struggling with addictions and other problems. This year, he marks half a century as a friar.
“I am the most loved person in the world that I know,” said Christopher. “I have been blessed to be a friar presence in gospel fraternities with those most in need.”
Chris, who has held many positions within Holy Name over the years, considers himself someone who connects people with resources, calling himself “a bridge.” He said, “Ministry is not to people, but with people.”
Partnering with Others
For the past four years, Chris has lived with three Sisters of Charity in the senior students’ dormitory of the College of Mount Saint Vincent in the Bronx. There, he is the chaplain on the campus ministry team with two laypersons, Matthew Shields and Kathryn O’Loughlin.
Throughout his religious life, he has served in parishes, service churches, graduate schools of theology and ministry, has held Provincial leadership roles, and been a chaplain to a medical center, college campus ministry and the Fire Department of New York.
“I see myself as a friar of Holy Name Province who is networking and partnering in ministry with persons of various constituencies,” Chris said. He lists among those groups:
- The Create Young Adult Center (CYAC), the only New York City shelter for homeless 18- to 25-year-old men
- A Harlem food pantry developed by the friars, when the Province staffed All Saints Church in New York City. The pantry serves more than 1,200 families.
- New York City’s St. Francis Breadline, Franciscans Deliver, the Franciscan Volunteer Ministry, and Philadelphia’s St. Francis Inn
- The Life Experience Faith Sharing Associates, which holds monthly Leadership Study Days for 150 homeless persons in the Province’s San Damiano Hall on West 31st Street
Chris’s encouragement has led thousands of people to become partners-in-ministry. For example, every semester, he, Shields and O’Loughlin have rallied and accompanied 1,000 Mount Saint Vincent students to volunteer more than 4,000 hours of service work at 200 locations, including St. Francis Inn. Chris also encourages firefighters to be mentors at CYAC with homeless young men, who, in turn, are the staff for the 1,200-family pantry in Harlem. Graduates are making commitments to the friars, Franciscan Volunteer Ministry, AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps.
The son of Irish immigrants who met and married in New York City, Chris grew up attending Assumption Parish and School in Wood-Ridge, N.J. He was working a Teamster job when he felt himself called to religious life. Chris professed his first vows as a friar on July 15, 1965, and continued his education at St. Francis College in Rye Beach, N.H., earning a bachelor’s degree from St. Bonaventure University in 1967.
Chris, who holds a master’s degree from the Washington Theological Union and a master’s and doctorate from the New York Theological Seminary, professed his final vows in 1969 and was ordained in 1971.
He has also participated in post-doctoral studies in pastoral supervision and education-formation for ministry at Boston Theological Institute. He remembers, among many other friars, Benedict Taylor, OFM, and the late Alexius Mulrenan, OFM, for their friendship and fraternity when he began his Franciscan journey, and, of course, Mychal, who he also met as a young adult.
Chris’s first assignment was to the new team ministry at St. Joseph Church in East Rutherford, N.J., where he helped establish the Worldwide Marriage Encounter Movement. In 1973, he went to New York City, where he served as assistant director of ministries for the Province. After a three-year stint as guardian and co-director of initial formation at St. Patrick’s Friary in Buffalo, N.Y., Chris moved to St. Anthony Shrine, Boston, in 1979. For the next decade, he served in various roles. He was a founding member of Boston’s AIDS Action Committee and journeyed with more than 200 persons with AIDS from diagnosis to death. Chris also served as a director of pastoral and field education at both Weston Jesuit School of Theology at Cambridge, Mass., and Boston College. He facilitated both of their sabbatical programs.
Chris left Boston in 1989 to be co-director of continuing education and sabbaticals at Washington Theological Union, and in 1996 he took a sabbatical himself, traveling to Italy, Australia and Korea. He returned to New York City one year later to found and direct the 300-member St. Francis Cares partner-in-ministry program. He also worked with the friars on poverty programs at Harlem’s All Saints Church and CREATE, Inc.
In 2001, after Sept. 11, he was chosen to serve as a chaplain to the Fire Department of New York. Chris recalled, “When I was commissioned in the fire department after 9/11, the firefighters met with me in the firehouse and told me, ‘We know that you have offered your life for us as our chaplain. What you need to know is that all 11,000 of us are yours. Whatever you need, just say it and it will be done. We know you’re ours. Don’t you ever forget that all 11,000 of us are yours.”
Gratitude for 50-Year Journey
“It’s all been a fascinating gospel life journey,” said Chris, who was one of six first-generation siblings. Chris enjoys visiting his remaining siblings, Brian and Ann, as well as his 26 nieces and nephews.
He said he also likes hosting home-cooked dinners for 16 to 25 college students on campus. He considers these biweekly events with the sisters in the dorm his hobby. Many of the participating students, often from the college’s sports teams and clubs, experience Franciscan hospitality at these gatherings.
It’s easy to see that Chris knows a lot of people and has many friends, and although he lives singly as a friar, in what is called an Emmaus style of fraternity, he enjoys meeting regularly with his other Emmaus brothers, Ben, David Bossman, OFM, Peter Chepaitis, OFM, John J. Coughlin, OFM, Francis Kim, OFM, and Neil O’Connell, OFM.
“As friars in fraternity in Holy Name Province, there’s nothing we can’t be or do,” he noted. “Who I am and what I have become as a human being has been possible only because, by God’s grace, I am a ‘grate-full’ friar of Holy Name Province. I could never have imagined the fraternal life and ministry I have been blessed with these 50 years.”