By George P. Matysek Jr.
CATONSVILLE – Julie Micheletti can still vividly recall a moment many decades ago when she watched her cousin, Billy, carefully apply a coat of white paint to a garage.
As Billy was completing his assigned chore, the then-5-year-old Julie asked him whether he planned to become a painter when he grew up.
“He stopped painting,” Micheletti recalled, “turned around with these big, wide glasses, looked down at me, and said, ‘I’m going to be a priest.’”
“Why are you going to be a priest?” Micheletti asked.
“Because God gave me life,” Billy responded, “and I’m going to give him something back.”
The boy – the future Cardinal William H. Keeler – kept his promise and was ordained to the priesthood July 17, 1955, at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Rome.
Sixty years later, Cardinal Keeler was joined by family and friends at his residence at St. Martin’s Home for the Aged Oct. 29 for a special jubilee Mass celebrated by Archbishop William E. Lori inside St. Martin’s recently renovated chapel.
Bishop Denis J. Madden, Bishop William C. Newman and several priests were also present for the liturgy, along with many Little Sisters of the Poor who minister to St. Martin’s residents.
Cardinal William H. Keeler, 14th archbishop of Baltimore, is shown in a 2011 file photo. (CR File)
St. John Paul II appointed Cardinal Keeler to be the 14th archbishop of Baltimore in 1989, raising him to the cardinalate in 1994. Cardinal Keeler retired in 2007.
“All over this Archdiocese of Baltimore, people love the cardinal because he reached out to them with such gentleness and such love,” Archbishop Lori said in his homily.
Looking at Cardinal Keeler, who sat near the front of the chapel, the archbishop thanked his 84-year-old predecessor for his priestly dedication.
“Pray that you will know our deep love for you,” Archbishop Lori said, “our deep respect for you and the love of the entire community.”
Archbishop Lori pointed out that as a newly ordained priest for the Diocese of Harrisburg, then-Father Keeler did some things priests don’t often do today, such as driving a school bus.
“I remember the cardinal telling me he learned how to do that maneuver which is called double-clutching to make the bus go,” Archbishop Lori said with a smile.
The archbishop cited a long list of accomplishments achieved by the cardinal. They included his service as an expert at the Second Vatican Council; his years as auxiliary bishop and then bishop of the Diocese of Harrisburg; his service in ecumenical and interfaith relations; and his years as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Archbishop Lori noted that Cardinal Keeler was a “visionary” leader in Baltimore, where he led major fundraising efforts; restored the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary; arranged the visit of St. John Paul II to Baltimore; and started the Partners in Excellence program that helps children from low-income families attend Catholic schools.
“If we didn’t have Partners in Excellence,” Archbishop Lori said, “we would not have our community schools. We could not still be in the ministry of helping educate Baltimore’s poorest children.”
At the conclusion of the Mass, priests surrounded the cardinal in a hallway and gave him a standing ovation. They also expressed their appreciation for his service.
Family members told the Catholic Review that Cardinal Keeler was devoted to the priesthood. They recalled many signs early on that the future-cardinal was bound for the religious life. Micheletti recalled that Margaret Keeler, the cardinal’s mother, often used to tell the story that she knew her son was destined for the priesthood following an incident in a sandbox when he was 4.
“Somebody bonked him on the head with a (toy) shovel,” Micheletti said. “He came in crying, and his mother said to him, ‘Now Billy, you go right back out and you give it to ’em good.’ Billy looked up and said, ‘But Mother, that wouldn’t be right.’”
Julia Keeler Graham, Cardinal Keeler’s sister, said she was thrilled to be with the cardinal on his special day.
“I’m very happy to be here and celebrate with him,” she said. “It’s a very joyous day.”