Fr Hugh McKeown SMA
Homily preached by Fr Damian Bresnahan SMA, Provincial Councillor, at the Funeral Mass for Fr Hugh Mc Keown SMA on Wednesday 12 October 2011 at the African Missions Chapel, Dromantine, Newry, Co Down.
Isaiah 61:1-3, 6, 8-9
Romans 6:3-4, 8-9
Over the last number of years Fr. Hugh Mc Keown was not able to travel very far because of his condition if health – apart from the occasional drive to Newry, he didn’t move very far from Dromantine.
However, over the last few weeks there was no doubt that Fr. Hugh was prepared for and ready to take on a lot of traveling.
I suppose this last journey began a month ago when Fr. Hugh was admitted to Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry – while there, surprisingly he initiated the conversation about moving to the SMA community at Blackrock Road in Cork. He knew that he was going to need additional help for the last lap of his journey. Hugh had time to pack his loads and to say his goodbye to Dromantine – with a sense of freedom he let go and shared some of his prized possessions – namely his carpentry tools.
Having bade farewell he set off for Cork. I believe that Hugh knew clearly that Cork was only going to be visited as part of his goodbyes… another Fr. Hugh in the SMA while visiting Dromantine called into his room to greet him before his departure to Cork and to wish him well – Fr. Hugh Mc Keown’s response was ‘sure I’m going home shortly anyway’. He knew that he was being called home to God and he was ready for the journey.
The Gospel reading from St. John, chosen for today’s celebration, speaks of many rooms in God’s house – and reminds us that a room has been made ready for Fr. Hugh. From his room in Dromantine – to the room in SMA Community, Blackrock Rd., Cork to his final room in Heaven. Hugh Mc Keown has known the way to this room in heaven and in a very ordinary, gentle manner he moved rooms on Saturday night. Yes it was recognized on Saturday that he wasn’t very well but his day wasn’t very different from previous days. He had his meals, he sat out on his chair for a few hours and after supper he had his usual wee drop of whiskey. At bedtime he left us quietly just as he had lived his life.
May he rest peacefully for ever in this new life that St. Paul has spoken of in the second reading, the new life where death has no power any more.
Of course for Hugh the journey with God really started 86 years ago on the Glen Road, Belfast when he was born as the third child to Hugh P. and Anne Mc Keown and grew up with his three sisters: Marie, Frances and Ethna and his brother Gabriel.
His primary and secondary education was at CBS Barrack Street in Belfast and Hugh carried with him fond memories of his time spent with the Christian Brothers and the education they provided for him.
Hugh’s first contact with the SMA was through a letter he and a school friend wrote to the SMA Novitiate at Cloughballymore, Co. Galway. Hugh used to tell how he and a friend were cycling home from school one Saturday morning when another friend told them of the great place in the West of Ireland where they could join and get to Africa. They received a reply which they thought indicated that they should get the next train out of Belfast for Galway. Of course their schoolboy adventurousness didn’t extend to taking the offer seriously. However, one morning the following summer Fr. Joe Donaghy SMA called to Hugh’s home to visit. Hugh was anxious to get rid of him as quickly as possible but still he listened to him and in the end thought him to be a very nice person. Afterwards when Hugh got his exam results he decided to write again to the SMA and was accepted. Things took off from there and Hugh began his missionary formation at Cloughballymore, Co. Galway before proceeding here to Dromantine for his theological studies in preparation for Ordination.
Hugh was in a class of 15 who were ordained on 13th June 1948 in St. Colman’s Cathedral, Newry by Bishop Eugene O’ Doherty. Fr. Sean Mac Carthy is the last surviving member of this SMA ordination class and our prayers are with him today as he prays Mass in Cork for Hugh.
Fr. Hugh celebrated his first Mass at St. John’s Parish Church on the Falls Road, Belfast.
After ordination he was enrolled at University College Cork and graduated in 1952 with a BA in history and geography. Having an Arts Degree it was inevitable that he would spend most of his missionary life in the field of education.
In October 1952 he set sail for Nigeria, West Africa where he took up his first appointment at St. Gregory’s College, Lagos. Who knows, maybe these missionary journeys by boat to West Africa was the beginning of his intrigue and interest in the creative hobby of model ship building which he took up in retirement.
In 1956 Hugh was transferred to St. Leo’s Teacher Training College in Abeokuta and in 1968 he became Principal and helped nurse the College through a transition period when it became co-ed until he was succeeded by a Nigerian Principal.
Hugh enjoyed his years in education in Nigeria – especially as a teacher in the classroom. He enjoyed a good, respectful relationship with the students who used to tick him off in a way that he kind of enjoyed…… when he’d come out of the classroom and out in to the compound he’d put his two hands up to his two breast pockets … one for his cigarettes and the other for his lighter. When the students would be mimicking him they’d put their two hands up to their chest as Hugh would have done.
When Hugh handed over the reins of St. Leo’s College in Abeokuta he was asked then to work as Bursar in Ballinafad SMA College, Co. Mayo before moving to the newly constructed SMA House of Studies in Maynooth, Co. Kildare in 1973. The teething problems associated with a modern new building provided Hugh with a range of challenges which his maintenance skills couldn’t resist. Throughout his life it was known and acknowledged that Hugh has a good competency for electrical, radio and photography work. During his years in Maynooth the SMA students had an affectionate and complimentary nickname on him: he was known as ‘Sparky’ Mc Keown because of all the work he did with electrics.
It was here in Maynooth that I first met Hugh in 1981. I had arrived as a student to this big house which was quite bare in its decor. I thought it would be good to acquire some plants for the corridors and so I went off to speak to Fr. Hugh. When I told him my request the only question he asked me was if I was prepared to look after them. When I gave my assurance he had no problem giving me some money to go and buy them. I had planned to ask for £20 but when I opened my mouth £10 came out. It was a beginning which grew in time. What I remember was how he encouraged me and his easy manner.
In 1982 Hugh decided to face a fresh challenge and took up an appointment in Gbargna, Liberia where he spent a few years before transferring to Cape Palmas, Liberia. He was so pleased at the opportunity of returning to Africa that in his reply to the Provincial Superior he wrote ‘I feel 10 years younger’.
In 1989 he returned to Ireland and took up pastoral work in Killough Parish in the Diocese of Down and Connor. In 1992 he returned to Africa – this time to Zambia, East Africa where he remained until 1996 when sickness forced him home. In his appointment to Zambia the Provincial acknowledged Hugh’s indomitable missionary spirit. We heard today from the Prophet Isaiah of the missionary spirit that God has called us all to share in – the missionary spirit that we celebrate in a particular way during this Mission Month of October. It is this same spirit and determination which characterizes Hugh’s entire life.
He seemed to put his heart and soul in to everything he did – he never wanted to give in. In his retirement here in Dromantine he was ever active in mind and body and set about devoting a lot of his time to the most creative hobby of model boat building. Even his workshop itself was a work of art. He had his own unique filing system – one that everyone might not appreciate but I certainly do… He himself knew where everything was. His boat creations adorn side tables in our SMA communities around Ireland.
One could say that Hugh never really enjoyed great health all his adult life – still he kept going and applied himself to his best…. in a sense he made things work for him. In recent years he’d head off in his car to Newry to B&Q to buy wood for his boats… this was really an act of great determination on Hugh’s part and I suppose in God’s providence because to rig himself up with oxygen in the car and then transfer it on to a trolley in the supermarket and then reload again and get everything back to his workshop… this was not a small task but he did it because he was determined to make it work.
Of course his retirement here in Dromantine was greatly helped by the nurses and carers who came daily and we are very grateful to them all. However I make special mention of Margaret Gilmore who works in the housekeeping of Dromantine. I think Margaret and Fr. Hugh understood themselves. Fr. Mc Keown appreciated the smallest thing that was done for him – he might not always have expressed his appreciation to the person – maybe he didn’t even have the language to do so but he did speak of his appreciation to others. Margaret, the SMA Community is very grateful to you for your care – thank you.
Even though he was an independent person – maybe even stubborn at times – he was a happy person – he was good company when he had the opportunity of one to one because of his hearing difficulty – of course he enjoyed company for the odd game of chess …as long as he could win – he didn’t like to lose but sure then who does?
So, today as we celebrate this funeral Mass for Fr Hugh Mc Keown, we give thanks to God for his long, distinguished and faithful service for over 60 years as a missionary priest in the Society of African Missions.
To the God who gave him to Hugh P. and Anne Mc Keown over 86 years ago – we return him today to take up the room in heaven that God has prepared for him.
May he rest there in perfect peace. May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace. Amen.