Christopher Keenan, OFM, is widely known as a chaplain of the Fire Department of New York, a role he accepted after his friend Mychal Judge, OFM, perished on Sept. 11. The affable friar is humble, preferring to focus on the people he serves rather than the publicity that has come with his job.
This high-profile assignment is only one of his many ministries. The New York City native has spent most of his life partnering with others, especially the homeless, the unemployed and those struggling with addictions and other problems. This year, he marks half a century as a friar.
Fr. Chris considers himself someone who connects people with resources, calling himself “a bridge.” He said, “Ministry is not to people, but with people.” Throughout his religious life, he has served in parishes, service churches, and graduate schools of theology and ministry, in Provincial leadership roles, and as a chaplain to a medical center, college campus ministry and the Fire Department of New York.
The son of Irish immigrants who met and married in New York City, Fr. Chris grew up attending Assumption Parish and School in Wood-Ridge, N.J. He was working a Teamster job when he felt himself called to religious life. Fr. Chris professed his first vows as a friar on July 15, 1965, and continued his education at St. Francis College in Rye Beach, NH, earning a bachelor’s degree from St. Bonaventure University in 1967.
Fr. Chris, who holds a master’s degree from the Washington Theological Union and a master’s and doctorate from the New York Theological Seminary, professed his final vows in 1969 and was ordained in 1971.
Fr. Chris’s first assignment was at St. Joseph Church in East Rutherford, N.J., where he helped establish the Marriage Encounter Movement. In 1973, he went to New York City, where he served as assistant director of ministries for Holy Name Province. After a three-year stint as guardian and co-director of initial formation at St. Patrick’s Friary in Buffalo, N.Y., Fr. Chris moved to St. Anthony Shrine, Boston, in 1979. In Boston, Fr. Chris was a founding member of the AIDS Action Committee and served as a director of pastoral and field education at Weston Jesuit School of Theology and at Boston College.
Fr. Chris left Boston in 1989 to be co-director of continuing education and sabbaticals at Washington Theological Union, and in 1996 he took a sabbatical himself, traveling to Italy, Australia and Korea. He returned to New York City one year later to found and direct the St. Francis Cares Partner-in-Ministry Program.
In 2001, after Sept. 11, he was chosen to serve as a chaplain to the Fire Department of New York. Fr. Chris recalled, “When I was commissioned in the fire department after 9/11, the firefighters met with me in the firehouse and told me, ‘We know that you have offered your life for us as our chaplain. What you need to know is that all 11,000 of us firefighters are yours. Whatever you need, just say it and it will be done. We know you’re ours. Don’t you ever forget that all 11,000 of us are yours.”
“Who I am and what I have become as a human being has been possible only because, by God’s grace, I am a ‘grate-full’ late-accepted student at St. Mary High School. I could never have imagined the fraternal life and ministry I have been blessed with these 50 years.”