Matthew Keenan

Archive for July, 2016

When the Irish priests came to Western Kansas: KC Star article, Feb. 1

by on Jul.03, 2016, under Kansas City Star columns

The movie “Spotlight” was recently nominated for an Academy Award. I watched it, like I watch most movies these days, alone at the Leawood Theater in Ranch Mart Shopping Center. “Spotlight” is a movie about The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning stories about the priest abuse scandal in Boston. It’s both riveting and depressing.

The horrors of the priest abuse scandals have affected communities and families around the globe, leaving lives ruined, faith communities disjointed and taught us lessons we can never forget. But those scandals did something else, too:. They tarnished the reputation and character of countless other honorable priests who have dedicated their lives to the faith communities they have served.

On the heels of that experience, I watched the movie “Brooklyn,” a movie set in the 1950s, about a woman named Eilis from a small town in Ireland. One of the central characters is a Catholic priest who sponsors Eilis and helps her find a soft landing in the states. His name is Father Flood, played by Jim Broadbent, and is a caring and nurturing figure, who, like Eilis, was Irish.

My own family’s story had threads that ran true to “Brooklyn.” My dad’s grandfather Francis emigrated from Ireland in 1867, passed through New York but kept going, eventually settling in central Kansas. Dad’s parents and his 11 siblings sought fellowship with other Irish immigrants in their surrounding farm communities. In 1953, they found fellow Irishmen of the most unlikely sort — Irish priests.

This was the work of one Monsignor John Cody, born near Kilkenny, Ireland, and ordained in Denver in 1923. He settled in Wichita, and then later was assigned to my hometown of Great Bend. Cody was straight from Hollywood central casting: medium build, jet black, curly hair, hazel eyes, an abundance of personality and charm. His pedigree was bolstered by service as an Army chaplain in WWII in the Philippine islands. A decorated soldier, he ultimately retired with the rank of major. And when he returned to Kansas he gained a new, if not equally challenging task: recruiting Irish priests.

His efforts resulted in more than 20 priests coming to the Plains. Four from this group were assigned to parishes in and around our hometown.

Three of these were inextricably bound together as classmates in the seminary: Andrew McGovern, Ultan Murphy and Eugene Kenny, ordained onJune 7, 1953. McGovern was the oldest of nine when he left for Kansas. “The hardest part was leaving family,” he once told a reporter. Kenny’s service followed the path of two of his sisters who became nuns — one of whom served as a missionary in India for 56 years. Murphy was the youngest of seven. Five weeks after his birth, his father died from double pneumonia. His mother never remarried.

Murphy told a reporter years ago that Cody was very persuasive, but also adept at omitting details. For instance, Cody described Kansas this way: “He said that there were two climates, hot and cold. He said nothing about the wind.”

When these three landed in Kansas in October 1953, the Diocese of Dodge City was a mere 2 years old, having been divided from the Wichita diocese. The assignments were determined by selecting cards out of a biretta in the dining room of the Wichita rectory. There were two versions: “Bishop of Wichita” and “Bishop of Dodge City.” There were six newly ordained priests in the room. The three classmates all drew Dodge City. Father Murphy recounted the drive out west: “We got close to Dodge City — there was no such thing as a four-lane highway back then. It was near nightfall and I said to the other two guys in the back seat — Kenny and McGovern, ‘What are we getting into? That broke the silence. We laughed.’ 

In 2001, the year before Father McGovern passed away, my parents took us to Ireland. The agenda included paying a visit to one of Dublin’s finest pubs — The Goblet — owned by McGovern’s brother, James, who showed us the finest in Irish hospitality.

Father Kenny would later officiate my mother’s funeral and then later preside over my dad’s second marriage to another widow, Pat Degner. Father Kenny passed away two years ago at age 84. At his funeral the attendees included my dad and my siblings. It was the least we could do for someone who did so much for everyone else. And when dad celebrated his 86th birthday two months ago, the one clergy present to make the party official was Murphy . Now at the youthful age of 89, he is retired after 35 years serving the faith community of Olmitz, a one-stoplight town north of Great Bend. “Everyone here is polite and they would welcome me into their home and take me out to dinner, and only for that I probably wouldn’t have stayed. I would have gone back to New York,” he told me recently.

There was a fourth Irish priest in the mix — Dermot Tighe, the 10th of 10 siblings. From County Roscommon, he also drew the Dodge City assignment, and after several years in Liebenthal, Dodge City and Jetmore, he landed in Seward, Kansas — the home parish to my dad’s family farm. Later Tighe was assigned to the Dominican convent, which likewise had a geographic nexus to our family — as in, across the street. When Vietnam got hot, there was an urgent need for clergy, and Tighe enlisted as an Army chaplain in 1967. The following year he served in Vietnam on the front lines. He returned to serve another 25 years in the Army and retired as a full colonel.

These were the shepherds of the flock that inspired me in my faith. They were emblematic of the book of James: “Faith without works is dead.” Since those early years, we have intersected with other priests who lack the brogue but still bring their own interesting pasts, and they have helped lead our family to spiritual fulfillment. Sadly, that cannot be universally expressed.

Still, the sacrifices of those four men represent the finest qualities in the human spirit and will always challenge me to be the best person I can be.

father Kenny murphy mcgovern
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