In mid-November, as the media attention of 9/11 died down, Christopher Keenan, OFM, quietly marked 10 years of service to the Fire Department of New York as one of six chaplains.
“It’s an honor and a gift to continue the friar tradition,” he said. Franciscans have been in the FDNY chaplain office for more than 20 years, according to Chris. He was assigned to the chaplaincy after the death of his friend, Mychal Judge, OFM, on 9/11. Before Mychal, HNP’s Julian Deeken, OFM, was chaplain.
Since friars had held the position twice in recent history, Chris said that Thomas Van Essen, fire commissioner in 2001, wanted to keep the Franciscan tradition. “He said to me that he wanted another friar to honor the tradition of Julian and Mychal.” Today, he continues to serve on a team of chaplains representing both Christian and Jewish faiths.
Working on the Pile
He was sworn in on Nov. 16, 2001, as the smoke and dust continued to rise from the devastation at Ground Zero. Once he was installed, he immediately began digging on the ruins beside the men and women to whom he ministered.
Chris took time to reflect on the past 10 years during his interview with Larry McShane, writer for the New York Daily News. McShane wrote in a Sunday article: “There was a time, as the twin towers still smoldered and the city reeled, when Father Chris Keenan could not imagine serving as FDNY chaplain. The pain. The loss. The devastation. Ten years down the road, the Franciscan priest can’t imagine life without the blessings brought by his embrace of the 11,000 bravest — and their return of his affection.”
While the needs of the firefighters in New York City are different now, Chris said many are still dealing with the trauma and loss, and others are coping with illnesses attributed to digging in the toxic rubble and remains.
“Being a chaplain after 9/11 was different than before with the incredible loss of leadership and firefighters,” he laments. “There were 342 line-of-duty deaths.”
In his first two years on the job, according to the Nov. 13 Daily News article titled “His Cloak to Bare,” Chris took part in more than 500 funerals and memorials for FDNY victims, as remains were recovered daily.
Today, at age 69 and with two recent knee replacements, Chris still maintains a rigorous schedule. In addition to his 20 hours a week as FDNY chaplain, and regular on-call 24-hour shifts, he serves as chaplain at the College of Mount St. Vincent in the Bronx, where he also lives.
Ministering to Sick Workers
Some of his biggest challenges today in ministering to the FDNY, he said, are the increasing numbers of workers developing terminal illnesses as a result of participating in Sept. 11 recovery efforts.
“Of the 70 who have already died from illnesses related to 9/11, I’ve buried 10 of the people I used to dig with myself in the pile,” he said. “I journeyed with them from diagnosis to death with cancer and respiratory illnesses and I am journeying with at least another 20 as we speak.” He, himself, is in a medical monitoring program for health issues.
Another challenge, he said, is the turnover in the department since 9/11, with more than 70 percent of the firefighters and emergency medical staff personnel having joined since 2001.
“But the big challenge as we move forward in New York City is not ‘if,’ but ‘when’ another attack will occur. Now it’s a whole new world of new hazards that are biological and nuclear in addition to terrorism. We’re in a whole new era.”
A major development with the FDNY chaplaincy is its participation in preparedness for chemical, biological, radioactive, nuclear and incendiary exposures, he said.
But aside from the challenges and fears, Chris enjoys his role. “It has been an honor and a gift to myself as a member of HNP to continue this wonderful ministry that friars have lived before me. I really feel strongly about being a member of Holy Name Province.”
While he’s quick to recognize that his predecessors, Julian and Mychal, died while in this role as chaplain, he has perspective and says he hopes to have another 10 years to give to this ministry.
Keenan hasn’t been back to Ground Zero since he left in 2002, when the search for remains ended. He is quoted in the Daily News: “I avoid it. When I left the site, I thought, ‘I’m not renting space in my head for this. It’s going to become a political football.’ This was the choice I made.” He does plan to return to see the Freedom Tower, however, when construction is complete.
Remembering his Roots
Chris moved to New York in 1997 to work with St. Francis Cares, helping to develop the Province’s programs for the homeless and mentally ill. Four years later, he became an FDNY chaplain.
Born in the Bronx, the fourth of six children, his parents, Tom and Mary, hailed from Galway and Roscommon, Ireland. The Keenans moved from the Bronx to Wood-Ridge, N.J., and Chris attended Assumption Church and School staffed by the Province. Working as a Teamster, Chris went to Seton Hall University in New Jersey at night and joined the Franciscans in 1962. He was recruited by Mychal, who was a parish priest in New Jersey.
Chris is quoted in the Daily News as saying that Mychal got him into the “business.” McShane writes: “Rarely a day passes without somebody mentioning Judge’s name to his successor. For some, it might prove a burden; for Keenan, it’s a delight.”
“I rejoice that his name comes alive in people’s hearts and memories,” Keenan says affectionately. “We deserve to have a story of a good priest, filled with passion and compassion for those in need.”
— Wendy Healy, a freelance writer living in Connecticut, is a frequent contributor to HNP Today. She is the author of Life is Too Short: Stories of Transformation & Renewal After 9/11, in which Chris wrote an endorsement.