Christmas in Brazil has more than enough of its own charms to match what was once bone-numbingly familiar.
Try a searing tropical sun for starters.
The Co. Sligo native is about to spend his 11th Christmas in the land of Samba Claus.
He will spare a thought or two for family in Ireland, and friends in New York where he was once a pioneering immigrant chaplain.
But only one or two.
That’s because a priest’s work on a Brazilian Christmas Day is a dawn to dusk affair.
There is no rest for the virtuous, never mind the wicked.
“I’m well settled in at this point and I’m well used to the heat, the mosquitoes, the culture and the climate,” Keveny told the Irish Echo during a recent stopover in New York.
“In fact at this point, I like the heat,” he added with enthusiastic emphasis.
Keveny runs a mission in the town of Colinas in the Brazilian state of Tocantins.
The place is a dot on the map in a continent-sized nation, but it’s anything but empty.
The town is a market center in the expanding agricultural lands of the Greater Amazon Basin.
And the community that Keveny tends to would entirely populate some Irish counties.
“I am responsible for 35,000 people,” he said. “They live in the town and are scattered among twenty-five smaller rural communities.”
Keveny’s mission is sponsored by the diocese of Killala in Co. Mayo.
The vast area that he works in has a long relationship with Ireland. The first bishop for what was for years almost an uninhabited region was Bishop James Collins, a Co. Kerry native and a member of the Redemptorist order.
To give visitors an idea of how large his area of responsibility actually is, Keveny makes a comparison with his native island.
“Our diocese is the size of the Republic of Ireland,” he said.
“We’re only eight degrees south of the Equator in what is one of Brazil’s fastest growing farming regions. They raise cattle around here and grow rice, beans, corn and, more recently, soy. It was virgin land, but is now a sea of activity.”
Keveny’s diocese is home to a close community of Irish priests, lay missionaries and workers.
They all work under the guidance of Bishop John Joe Burke, who hails from the Franciscan church on 31st Street in Manhattan that was home to the late Fr. Mychal Judge.
Christmas in Colinas is rather different to what Keveny grew up with in Ireland, or remembers from his Bronx chaplain days.
“There are no sales and no Santa Claus; it’s more of a religious celebration,” he said. “It’s a nine-day Christmas novena, a very spiritual exercise.”
Christmas Day itself is dominated not so much by Mass for the area’s Catholics, but by baptisms — dozens of them.
“I’ll say about four Masses on the day, two in the town and two outside. But I’ll perform about a hundred baptisms. Christmas Day is a family day and the most popular for baptisms,” Keveny said.
Luckily, he can bless the newborns in groups and does not have to baptize each child in a separate ceremony.
For a native of Ireland’s West, Keveny is quick to recognize parallels with Irish history in a part of Brazil where control and ownership of the land – and what is done with it – can still be the root of social division and rancor.
“We have small farmers but now also large farms and often absentee landlords. And that’s only part of the problem. The smaller farmers often have trouble getting loans for the likes of cattle and seeds,” he said.
Sometimes it can take very little in order to make a big difference.
“The Irish government purchased a tractor for one of my communities and it resulted in profound change for its people,” said Keveny, who will celebrate 40 years in the priesthood in 2006.
Keveny and his fellow religious and lay missionaries helped open the first carpentry and technical schools in a town that is only about 300 miles from the Southern edge of the vast, though shrinking, Amazon rainforest.
Next year, a group of alumni from Fordham University in the Bronx is expected in Colinas to construct a community center in a project that is being planned in cooperation with Habitat for Humanity.
“We’re always looking for suitable volunteers, preferably those who can commit themselves to three years of work,’ said Keveny.
The Sligo priest is nothing if not committed himself.
And after a hundred baptisms on Dec. 25, he will certainly be reminded of this.
But Fr. Martin Keveny has found his spiritual home in the sun, no less so on Christmas Day.
“I really enjoy my work here,” he said.
Donations by check to that ongoing work can be made payable to the Colinas Fund and mailed to 976 McLean Avenue, Suite 348, Yonkers, NY 10704.