Fergus O’Keefe SJ – A ‘gentle and humble presence’
Fr Fergus O’Keefe SJ died peacefully, aged 89, in Cherryfield Lodge nursing home, Ranelagh, Dublin on 17 December 2022. His Funeral Mass took place in St Francis Xavier’s Church, Gardiner Street, Dublin on 21 December 2022, followed by burial in Glasnevin Cemetery. At the end of this article you can read the homily at the Funeral Mass by Fr Gerry Clarke SJ.
Fergus was born on 27 May 1933 in Dublin City. Raised in Arklow, Co Wicklow, his early education was at CBS Callan, Co Kilkenny, followed by Clongowes Wood College SJ, Co Kildare.
He entered the Jesuit novitiate at St Mary’s, Emo, Co Laois in 1950 and took his First Vows there on 8 September 1952. His Jesuit formation included studying arts at UCD; philosophy at Tullabeg; regency in Clongowes Wood College SJ and Crescent College SJ; and theology at Milltown Park, Dublin.
Upon ordination at Clongowes Wood College SJ on 24 May 1964, Fergus served in a number of roles including Socius to the Novice Master; Rector and teacher at Coláiste Iognáid SJ in Galway; Socius to the Provincial; and minister and bursar at Gonzaga College SJ, Dublin. He took his Final Vows in the Society of Jesus on 2 February 1977.
He continued to experience variety in his Jesuit life from 1977 to 2003 including acting as assistant provincial treasurer; revisor of the Irish Province; Parish curate in Church of the Virgin Mary, Ballymun, Dublin; and working in community development and reconciliation ministry in Portadown, Northern Ireland.
From 2003 onwards, Fergus lived in three other Jesuit communities at Clongowes Wood College SJ; Mulvey Park in Dundrum, Dublin; and Gardiner Street Parish in Dublin. He assisted in church and ministered the sacraments, guided people in the Spiritual Exercises, and was Director of the Lay Retreat Association.
Fergus moved to Cherryfield Lodge nursing home in 2021 where he prayed for the Church and the Society of Jesus. He accepted the situation with his usual serenity and calm, never complaining as his health declined. He died peacefully surrounded by his family on 17 December 2022.
Homily at Funeral Mass by Gerry Clarke SJ
There are, I know, many Jesuits who stand in the queue to make the homily at Fr Fergus’s Funeral Mass. And speaking to them over the last few days has brought back to mind the many and various ministries and communities where Fergus has lived and where he has graced people with his gentle and humble presence.
I had the privilege of sharing community life with Fergus in three locations:
- Iona Community in Portadown
- John Sullivan House in Mulvey Park, Dundrum
- St Francis Xavier’s Gardiner Street
I am consoled by the fact that no words can ever capture the richness of a person or of a person’s whole life. So this is my attempt to capture something of Fergus’s grace and gift as we gather to lay his mortal remains to rest.
Remembering Fergus brings us closer to the mystery of the Incarnation
Fergus has given us a gift as we approach Christmas because, remembering Fergus and his personality, brings us closer to the mystery of how God comes into the world: Christ’s Nativity.
Always speak well of others
I never, ever heard Fr Fergus utter a bad word about another person. I’ll repeat that: “I never, ever heard Fergus utter a bad word about another person.” It was part of his character never to indulge his anger or frustration by spreading gossip about others. It was just not part of his DNA. And in not gossiping about others, he forced those who might have a tendency to gossip to refrain. Being around Fergus meant only ever speaking well of others. And if you can’t speak well of others, then don’t speak at all.
Pope Francis is a past master at this too. He simply goes silent. And this is what Jesus does before the authorities who, sitting on the throne of judgment would condemn him and sentence him to death.
Pope Francis, Fergus, Jesus refuse to condemn others.
Always place others before you
We all knew Fergus as a shy person. He shunned the limelight and stuck to the shadows, doing his duty with the utmost dedication. And duty has to be the hallmark of his life as a priest. Placing himself after others and always placing others before himself.
And this is another feature of Fergus that leads us into the mystery of the Incarnation. As we read from an early Christian hymn in St Paul’s Letter to the Philippians:
“he humbled himself and became obedient” (Philippians 2)
It was a feature of his life that Fergus took on what he was asked to take on, one thing after another. Sometimes when it involved quite a challenge to his own personality and character:
In his breviary I find on the inside page, written in Fergus’s unmistakable hand … each with a line drawn neatly through it:
Ballymun Portadown Clongowes Mulvey Park
Gardiner Street (where there is no line yet drawn)
And then in his later years, Fergus was free and willing to proof-read texts for the Messenger and other Jesuit publications – dutifully, tirelessly and with great attention to detail. Sometimes he would present you with a really prickly problem in grammar, which you couldn’t solve and which he would have to slope off and solve in his own way!
One of the gifts of old age has to be a slowing down and a reflectiveness. Fergus embraced that generously. I remember him moving out of Mulvey Park, where, like the younger Jesuits in formation, he cooked and cleaned and kept house. But there was a moment when he realised that he wanted to and needed to move somewhere where there was a little more support and where he didn’t have to shop or prepare meals for 8! So, he moved to Gardiner Street. And when his sense of duty in the parish could no longer drive him strongly enough to celebrate daily Mass or hear confessions in the parish, Fergus, gracefully asked to be relieved of his responsibilities and step down from the daily rostering for masses and confessions.
This showed a freedom and knowledge of himself and a humility to accept the inevitable weakening of later life.
Fr Fergus, like his elder brother and Jesuit, Fr Ed O’Keefe had a great love for Blessed Fr John Sullivan. And it was Fergus who composed the prayers for the ceremony of beatification of Fr John which took place here at Gardiner Street on 13 May 2017. You’ll find those prayers on the wall display in the shrine at the back of the church. They remind us of Fergus’s own virtues and are, perhaps, his prayers for us today here:
We thank and praise God for every moment of this celebration; for everybody present here, especially those who are sick or unwell. May the Lord open our hearts to the needs of the poor that, like Fr John, we may be witnesses to the love of Christ Jesus, our Saviour and friend.
We pray for the leaders of our churches and for all those who serve the Christian community as pastors. We pray especially for Pope Francis, (for his representative here today, Cardinal Angelo Amato,) and for all the pastors leading us in prayer at this Mass. May they be strengthened in the gifts of leadership and service, humility and courage.
We pray for our young people facing decisions in life: that they may find in Blessed John the inspiration to be men and women for others, thoughtful, generous and kind.
Blessed Father John used to say “Be beginning. Be always beginning. The saints were always beginning.” We pray that the Lord will release us from the things that hold us down, the habits and ways in which our churches stifle growth and unity. May we “be always beginning”.
As we gather to pay tribute to Fergus, to thank God for his life and witness, we draw that line which he never drew through the final place on the list of his Jesuit life:
And we pray for him now, in the sure and certain hope that this humble, kind and self-effacing Christian, priest, brother, uncle and companion of Jesus is now beginning his new life with the Lord, meek and humble of heart.
May he rest in peace.