Jesuit Father James M. Keegan died on Oct. 9, 2018, at Campion Center in Weston, Massachusetts.
He was born on July 19, 1940, in Franklin, a small city in central New Hampshire. His Polish grandparents had settled there as sponsored immigrants during the first years of World War II. His Irish grandparents had come earlier. His father was part-owner of a hardware store; his mother was a high-school math teacher until Fr. Keegan was born and state regulation required her to give up teaching. Both were born in Franklin and met while skiing. There was also a grocery store in the family, opened by his Irish grandfather and Fr. Keegan worked there as a boy.
Fr. Keegan attended local Catholic schools and then went to Boston College. He was fond of theater on campus and in Boston, and in fact had already written a play that had been performed in his high school. At B.C. he wrote for the campus literary publication, Stylus, and hung around the Stylus office with students who would later make their way as wordsmiths—Marty Nolan, who would become editor of the Boston Globe, and George Higgins, who would write The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Jesuits at B.C.–Francis Sweeney, Joe Shea, Leo Fahey, who was a scholastic—had a big influence on Fr. Keegan’s decision about his future. When he graduated, in 1962, he painted houses for his father’s business for the summer and then entered the novitiate at Shadowbrook in Lenox, Massachusetts, on Aug. 14, 1962.
Fr. Keegan said that he adapted fairly well to a rather strict Director of Novices, but also discovered that if you followed all the rules there was a kind of peace at the end of the day. Because he had graduated from B.C. as an English major, he went directly to Weston and philosophy studies. Fr. Keegan taught English and theology at Cheverus High School for two years, and then was assigned to Weston Jesuit School of Theology, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for theology studies. Fr. Keegan said that this was where he learned to pray, under the influence of Bill Barry, who was finishing his doctoral studies in psychology at the University of Michigan. With Bill Barry’s help Fr. Keegan developed a relationship with Jesus, which made studies a prayer in themselves. These were joyful years for Fr. Keegan, culminating in his ordination as a priest on June 5, 1971 at St. Ignatius Church in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.
From 1971 to 1975 he taught English and religion at Fairfield Preparatory School. In 1975, he then became assistant director of Novices at the New England novitiate, on Newbury Street in Boston. In 1975-1976 He did his tertianship in the province’s two-summer program. The first summer was spent making the long retreat at Gloucester, the second summer he spent in India, before returning to the novitiate. In 1978 Fr. Keegan felt the need for more training as a spiritual director, and so went to the Center for Religious Development in Cambridge, a year-long practicum in spiritual direction. Fr. Keegan found this a difficult and emotionally intense time as he listened and learned how to listen. In 1979 he became the director of the Campion Renewal Center which the province had established at the old Weston. In 1985 he taught spirituality and retreat ministry at the Center for Religious Development.
In 1990 he was invited to become the Associate Director of the Louisville Archdiocesan Spirituality Office, which trained priests and spiritual directors. His work there had an impact that is still remembered in the church at Louisville. In these years, too, he was closely involved with the formation and direction of Spiritual Directors International, which led to his giving retreats and workshops around the world. In 2002, Fr. Keegan was appointed director of the retreat program at Eastern Point Retreat House and superior of the Jesuit community there. Subsequently he worked with the Jesuit Collaborative, a program sponsored by the three East Coast Jesuit provinces, that worked with laypeople to develop forms of Ignatian spirituality in daily life.
In 2009, the first signs of Parkinson’s appeared, and he moved to Campion Health Center, where he continued to provide spiritual direction and consulting to a wide variety of people, including his fellow Jesuits. The consequences of Parkinson’s grew more evident, but Fr. Keegan continued to welcome visitors with his engaging smile and willingness to listen. For years he had written poetry, drawn in good part from his wrestling with his unrelenting diminishment. One of these he called “A Farewell to All of Us”:
Before my teeth fall out
and more joints start to click
like metronomes collecting silence
I want to say, “I love you,” once
and have it understood
the way the mirror
understands my face.”
In recent years, the illness took its toll more relentlessly, but Fr. Keegan accepted it with wit and a light-heartedness that drew on his deep faith and his understanding of how gently and respectfully God deals with those he loves. He died peacefully on the afternoon of Oct. 9, 2018.