Category: Archive

New York’s Bravest choose Franciscan as new chaplain

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Stephen McKinley

On Sept. 11, firefighters laid the body of their chaplain, Father Mychal Judge, on the altar of St Peter’s Church, just as he, too, had laid down his life in sacrifice for the Fire Department he loved.

But time has passed, and as the life of the Fire Department of New York goes on, so the firefighters have found a new chaplain — Father Christopher Keenan, a brown-cassocked Franciscan brother like Mychal Judge, also based at St Francis of Assisi on West 31st Street.

That alone, Keenan acknowledges, is far from enough to fill the shoes of the man beloved all over the city, of whom one eulogist recalled, “he had friends in the White House and the poorhouse.” But already, the Fire Department seems to be embracing its new chaplain.

“There could be no better replacement for Father Mychal,” said one firefighter, Jimmy Hosford of Ladder 24, “because Father Chris is in the same mold. Franciscans are the salt of the earth, and that’s good, because firefighters are ordinary people.”

Keenan was born one of six children, the son of Irish immigrants who had come to New York in the 1920s. A graduate of St. Bonaventure College and the New York Theological Seminary, he became a Franciscan at the age of 22. Like Judge, Keenan ministered extensively to AIDS patients in the 1980s at two hospices he helped set up in Boston.

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As a young man, he had worked as a teamster loading and unloading trucks. Judge had also known manual work, having been a shoe-shine boy for a time outside Penn Station. Their families also knew each other as the two men grew up.

But Keenan has no illusions about emulating Judge’s unique and iconoclastic life, and has said that he is determined to plow his own path in the new job. Unlike Judge, he will not be assigned full time to the Fire Department but will share his duties with six other chaplains.

Since Sept, 11, duties for chaplains and priests have expanded — there are firefighters to counsel, the families and children of the missing and dead to console. At first, Keenan, who recently recovered from cancer surgery, wondered how he could find the strength.

In the end, he said, speaking to firefighters “challenged my narrow sense of faith,” and he rose to the occasion.

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