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Fr Frank Keenan SJ – ‘a faithful servant’

Fr Francis (Frank) Keenan SJ died peacefully in Cherryfield Lodge nursing home, Dublin, on 22 April, 2020. He was an Irish Jesuit missionary who spent 30 years in Zambia. Due to government guidelines regarding public gatherings, a private funeral took place at Gardiner Street Church, Dublin, on 25 April followed by burial at the Jesuit grave in Glasnevin Cemetery. The main celebrant at the funeral Mass was the Gardiner Street Superior, Fr Richard O’Dwyer SJ, while Irish Provincial Fr Leonard Moloney SJ and Parish Priest Fr Gerry Clarke SJ concelebrated. His death is deeply regretted by his loving sister Bernadette, by his nephew John and his wife, Sally, and family, and by his Jesuit confreres and friends in Ireland and Zambia.

Francis was born on 4 October, 1929, in Portrush, County Antrim. He was raised in Belfast and in the village of Glenavy and attended St Mary’s CBS before entering the Society of Jesus at St Mary’s, Emo, County Laois, in 1950. After taking his first vows, he studied in Laval, France, for two years followed by philosophy studies in Tullabeg and regency as a teacher in Monze, Zambia. Upon further Jesuit formation in Ireland, he studied Catechetics in Brussels, Belgium, and then returned to Zambia where he was a teacher of the local language at Mukasa Secondary School.

From 1967 to 1979, he worked in a variety of roles in Monze including Director of Catechetics, Parish Priest, Retreat Director and as Vicar General for Religious in the Archdiocese of Lusaka. He also studied Pastoral Theology at St Louis University, Missouri, USA. Later, he directed the Spiritual Exercises at the Jesuit Education Centre in Lusaka and worked in the Kizito Pastoral Centre in Monze before returning to Ireland in 1993.

Fr Francis was Director of the Jesuit Mission Office, Spiritual Director and Parish Assistant while living in Gardiner Street Jesuit community in Dublin. He was also a community member of St Bueno’s retreat centre in Wales for 11 years and directed the Spiritual Exercises there. From 2007 to 2017, he continued active ministry in Gardiner Street as Spiritual Director, Parish Assistant, Chaplain, Assistant Treasurer and Pastoral Worker. He prayed for the Church and the Society at Cherryfield Lodge nursing home right up until his death.

Fr Richard O’Dwyer SJ, who gave the homily at the funeral Mass, noted that Francis grew up in difficult circumstances. He experienced the death of his father when very young and witnessed bombing in Belfast during the Second World War. His family supported each other and moved to Glenavy village about 15 miles outside of Belfast. He came to appreciate the gift of life and told his sister Bernadette in later years, “I have loved every day of my life”.

Fr O’Dwyer said that Fr Francis became very proficient in the Zambian language of Tonga and taught it for a number of years and wrote a book on grammar. He said, “Francis was very humorous and a very kind, considerate man.”

Fr O’Dwyer noted that when Fr Francis came home to Ireland after 30 years in Zambia he was a very committed presence among his community and very much appreciated. He said, “He was always very willing to offer Mass, hear confessions, and he had a very good reputation as a very compassionate and understanding confessor”.

“He was also a very sympathetic preacher and explained the Good News in a very compassionate and understanding way”. Fr O’Dwyer referred to his chaplaincy work at St Monica’s Nursing Home in Dublin City, saying he was “utterly reliable and very faithful in his ministry with the elderly”.

Fr O’Dwyer said, “He was a very faithful servant. Any work he undertook he did so with a great spirit of service and dedication. I’m sure now the Lord will welcome him with these words: ‘Well done my good and faithful servant, come and enter your master’s happiness.'”

Mr Colm Brophy, art psychotherapist and former Jesuit missionary in Zambia, paid tribute to his late friend.

“Frank, as we called him in Zambia always wanted to be known as Francis. This I only discovered in Cherryfield. He was renowned for his sharp, even acerbic, wit coupled with kindness, hospitality and generosity. He did not suffer fools gladly and hated hypocrisy as the gospel hates it.

And so he could bring a person down to earth with a brilliant, yet highly humorous thrust of the verbal dagger. He was kindly towards wisdom and kept another person’s honesty close to his heart. I always enjoyed joining him for a meal over his years in Kizito.

He had four roles in Kizito’s. First, Kizito’s was built as a compound of family cottages where Monze diocese catechists and their families lived while following a two-year program. Then it became a diocesan pastoral training and retreat centre for a wide variety of groups. Francis was the director. One of the groups was the ciTonga language school. He wrote a grammar of, and taught, the local language for a period.

He also wrote a book for those directing the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius for retreats in daily life. He was also a great confident of Bishop James Corboy and a member of the diocesan consult. He dealt with a great number of different people coming through the centre and had a gracious ability to adapt.

His other time in Zambia was a number of years he spent in Lusaka archdiocese in the role of Vicar General for religious. It meant having the listening skills to sort out two sides of an argument where strong personalities were involved.

I miss meeting Francis in Cherryfield. May he rest in peace.”

A recording of the funeral Mass is temporarily available on the Gardiner Street website. Under recordings, see the funeral Mass for 25 April. Click here for the link ».

Fr Frank spoke about his missionary work in Zambia with Irish Jesuit Missions in 2010. Click here to watch the video ».

A Memorial Mass will be held at a future date.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanam dílis.

Full text of the homily at the funeral Mass

Francis Keenan was born in Portrush, Co Antrim, and grew up in north Belfast, the second youngest in a happy, close-knit and united family of 5 children with his parents John and Mary Agnes.

When Frank was only 7 years old, his Dad, John died suddenly at the age of 39. Just 2 years later, World War 2 began. As you know Belfast was heavily bombed especially in 1940 and the area where Francis and his family lived at the intersection of the bottom of the Cliftonville/Duncairn Gardens had a number of houses destroyed and badly damaged. I remember Francis mentioning to me once that sadly the local school survived unscathed and I said to Frank that his story reminded me of John Boorman’s film Hope and Glory set in London during World War 2. John’s school was destroyed in the London blitz and when he sees the bombed-out school, he murmurs “thank you Adolf”. Francis said to me I would have liked to have uttered the same words about my school!

Francis’ sister Bernadette said that because of the danger of bombing, she and Frank were evacuated from Belfast out into the country to the village of Glenavy about 15 miles west of Belfast very close to Lough Neagh. Bernadette was 5 and Frank was 10. They grew very close to each other and forged a deep bond between them. It would have been easy for Francis to opt to play with boys his own age but after the death of his father, under the care of his mother, the family grew very close and supported each other in their loss and grief. They had to pull together to survive. Out in the country, Francis grew to love nature and the countryside, something which never left him.

I can only imagine how the death of his father and his experiences of the mortal danger and evacuation had a profound effect on the young Francis and I believe it gave him a profound appreciation of how precious the gift of life is and that that gift is there to be fully appreciated and lived to the full. Frank much later in life told his sister Bernadette, “I have loved every day of my life”. At his birthday last year when he turned 90, Francis told his nephew, “Life is a gift from God, enjoy every moment”.

At age of 20 in March 1950, Francis entered the Society of Jesus, at Emo, County Laois. Bernadette told me that she and his family missed Francis during those 2 years. Francis spent 2 years in France, followed by 3 years philosophy in Tullabeg and then he went to Zambia, or as it was then Northern Rhodesia in 1957 where he spent 3 years. That was the beginning of 30 years spent as a missionary in Zambia, as a teacher as director of training of catechists, working closely with Bishop James Corboy in Monze. Francis became very proficient in the Tonga language and taught it for a number of years and wrote a grammar book of Citing.

I just want to turn to our gospel reading for today. “That is why I am telling you not to worry about your life and what you are to eat, nor about your body and how you are to clothe it. Surely life means more than food and the body more than clothing. Look at the birds of the sky. They do not sow or reap or gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” I wonder when Francis walked on the shores of Lough Neagh or on the savannah of Zambia, did he ponder and treasure those words of Jesus, knowing that with the love and support of family, of his fellow missionaries and lay catechists that one can keep going, and continue with our life’s journey and mission, despite the loss of a beloved father, despite have one’s home badly damaged by Nazi bombing. Those words of Jesus, “Will not my heavenly Father not much more look after you?” I believe that no missionary, Jesuit or lay could never undertake work anywhere in the world, without a sense of being called and accompanied by God and the prayers of family, fellow Jesuits and friends.

When Francis came home on leave from Zambia to his beloved family in Belfast, to visit the wee Ma and his sisters and his brother in England he regaled them with wonderful stories of the people he worked for in Zambia, whom he greatly loved. Francis was a very considerate and kind man. He referred to their houseman in Zambia as his gentleman’s gentleman!

After his 30 years of service in Zambia, he returned go Ireland. He continued his mission as director of the Jesuit Mission Office, working in spirituality and as a retreat director on the staff of St Beuno’s in north Wales for 11 years. He then came back to Gardiner Street and Francis was a committed presence and church priest. Always obliging for Mass and confessions, and a reputation as a preacher with a good message, and a compassionate confessor both in the confessional and for people who called to the parlour for confession. I am deeply grateful for his ministry when I was parish priest. Latterly, he was chaplain in St Monica’s Nursing Home around the corner from us in Belvedere Place and again he was utterly reliable and very faithful in his ministry to the elderly.

Almost up to the end of his life, Francis continued to visit his family in Belfast, and in particular, his sister Bernadette. He always travelled on the Dublin-Belfast Enterprise train and he was on first name terms with the train staff and was usually given an upgrade to the First Class carriage. This had many advantages, and one time he met the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins. Bernadette as she awaited Francis’ arrival was amazed to see him coming down the platform accompanied by the Irish President!

Frank lived a long life, he saw the darker side of life in the premature death of his beloved father and he learned to appreciate, rejoice and be glad. He was grateful for the most important aspects of life and loved both his natural and Jesuit families. He was a faithful servant who loved those who were entrusted to him. He trusted in God and in God’s providence.

I’m sure now the Lord will welcome him with these words, “Well done good and faithful servant, come and enter your master’s happiness”.

Fr Richard O’Dwyer SJ