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Settling Back in at The Heights

Photo credit: Gary Gilbert

By Reid Oslin | Chronicle Staff

Published: Dec. 4, 2014

Perhaps the most appropriate greeting for Rev. Robert L. Keane, SJ, the newly appointed rector of the Jesuit Community at Boston College, would be “Welcome Aboard!”

Fr. Keane, who entered the Society of Jesus in 1965 and earned his undergraduate degrees from Boston College in 1971, served more than two decades as a United States Navy chaplain (“Twenty-three, years, two months and 16 days,” Fr. Keane notes more precisely) before retiring from military service as a Navy captain.

During his time as a chaplain, Fr. Keane served with a variety of Marine Corps ground units, ranging from stateside assignments to Operation Desert Storm and earthquake relief efforts in the San Francisco area in 1989.

On the Navy side, he was senior chaplain aboard USS Boxer, an amphibious landing ship; staff chaplain at a Navy air base in Iceland; senior Catholic chaplain at the US Naval Academy; and command chaplain on board the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz.

He retired as command chaplain of the sprawling Marine Corps Base at Quantico, Va. Back in civilian life in 2013, Fr. Keane spent a yearlong sabbatical devoted to writing a memoir of his experiences with Navy and Marine Corps units. Last year, Fr. Keane was director of special projects in mission at the College of the Holy Cross.

As rector, Fr. Keane will serve as the chief administrator for the 62-member community – one of the largest groups of Jesuit priests in the world – and, in coming months, oversee the transition of the BC-based priests back into their newly-renovated quarters in St. Mary’s Hall.

He recently spoke with Boston College Chronicle correspondent Reid Oslin.

What influenced you to join the Jesuits?

I grew up in Dorchester, right up the street from Boston College High School – Columbia Road and Dorchester Avenue, the former St. Mark’s Parish. At the beginning of the eighth grade, the nun who was teaching called my mother and said, “Robert will be going to BC High and we will prepare him for the exam.” My mother just said, “Yes, Sister,” and that’s how I got there.

I graduated from BC High in 1965 and my intent was to come to Boston College; I had already applied and been accepted as a history major in the College of Arts and Sciences. I wanted to be a high school teacher. But, in the spring semester of my senior year in high school, I got the idea of becoming a Jesuit. I deferred my admission to BC for the first two years, so that I could go through the whole cultivation in the novitiate, and then I came to BC.

There were 92 of us here at that time in the [Jesuit] philosophy program. In my first year, we lived at Campion Center in Weston. We commuted to campus in yellow school buses. In my second and third years, I lived in the Back Bay section of Boston and took the Riverside T line out to Hammond Street every day. I did the degree program though the Jesuit College of Liberal Arts. I majored in history with a minor in modern languages, primarily French.

I had grown up in the Church; I was an altar server. I had a cousin who was a diocesan priest. I initially experienced the call to priesthood, but then I had to figure out if I wanted to be a diocesan priest or join an order. I really had a great admiration for the Jesuits and I realized that by becoming a Jesuit, I could still become a teacher. I still had in mind that I wanted to be a teacher, and I thought that the Jesuits would give me more opportunities to do that. Once you get in, though, you learn that there is so much more to the order.  That’s what tipped the scales.

What stands out in your mind in your own experiences as a Boston College undergraduate?

I was at BC in the time of tremendous turmoil. Two things that I remember very clearly happened in both of my spring semesters on campus, 1970 and 1971: Classes were disrupted, one year for the raise in tuition, the second year for the US incursion into Cambodia. People were surreptitiously running around, trying to find where there class was meeting in secret. You couldn’t tell anybody, because you didn’t want the protesters to come in and upset it. Then there was all of the anxiety and final exams and “Will I graduate?” It was a very difficult time. On the humorous side, there were the “temporary Mods” that were put up while I was here. Of course, they are still here [laughter]. Those were very interesting times.

You started your teaching career at Holy Cross in 1986. What made you decide to join the Navy?

When I arrived at Holy Cross, I was teaching in the modern language department and helping out in campus ministry. They asked me if I would look after the midshipmen in the Navy ROTC unit. I went down to see the commanding officer and we struck up a good friendship right away.

A year-and-a-half later, he called me in “for a cup of coffee” but he recruited me into the Navy. There was a severe shortage of priests. I told him that at my age, a lot of people were retiring from the military, but he said it made no difference. I said to him “What is a Southern Baptist doing recruiting a Catholic priest?” Again, he said it didn’t make any difference. I said, “All of a sudden, nothing seems to make any difference.” He said, “That’s right – as long as I can get you in the Navy!”   

At that time, there were 38 priests at Holy Cross, so I thought that one would not be missed. I thought I would try it. I signed up, and I went. I figured that I wanted to do a “green tour” [with the Marine Corps] and a “blue tour” [with the Navy at sea]. My first tour was with the Marines in Desert Storm. Then I was at the Navy’s Officer Candidate School in Newport, RI, when I was pulled away for five months to sail around South America.

After that, I became a “lifer.” It was great. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I ran into Jesuit alumni all over the place. When word got out that I was a Jesuit, people starting introducing themselves.

What was it like serving in the military at the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks?

At the time, I was at the Naval Academy [as senior Catholic chaplain] and on Sept. 11, we were having our morning conference when someone came in and said that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. Right away, we knew it was not an accident. They locked down the Yard [campus].

By dinnertime, my phone rang and I was ordered to put on my uniform and get down to the Pentagon where another plane had struck. It was like a war zone. Our initial mission was to go out and notify families [of the deceased], but legally, we couldn’t do that right away because we didn’t have evidence of just who was dead, and we didn’t know where some of them lived, because the records were burned in the fire. The next morning, we got a call to change into our civilian clothes again and we then spent three or four days at the White House, working with psychologists and counselors offering assistance and support to the White House staff.

It brought the reality home to the midshipmen very quickly. Yes, you are at the lovely Naval Academy for four years, but now you have to think beyond that. It got them – right away – to think, “What am I really signing up for?” It’s not just looking good in the uniform, it’s “what will I be called upon to do?”

We did not know at that time what the full extent of 9/11 was or how long it would last. The assumption was that we would be in it for the long haul. There were many conversations – good ones, I might add – with the kids.

You served in a forward deployment aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz in the Persian Gulf during Operation Iraqi Freedom. What was that like?  

We spent about four months on station there. Everybody knew that it was a volatile environment. Even being on an aircraft carrier, you weren’t protected. Those who were launching off the decks were clearly going into harm’s way, but every person on the ship was at risk. When they announced that we were getting ready to transit the Strait of Hormuz, everybody knew: This is where it really begins.

Do Jesuits have a history of serving as military chaplains?

In 1989, when I joined, there were about 16 Jesuits in the Navy. Today there are only two. The New England Province, in particular – because the First Naval District used to be right here in Boston – has had a tradition since World War II of having people on active duty primarily in the Navy. I knew a number of Jesuits who had previously served in the Navy.

Jesuits are very suited for this type of ministry: We are transient; we are used to packing up and moving and travelling light; we are used to moving into crowds of people that we don’t know; we are used to meeting people who don’t have any great familiarity with Catholicism, or celibate priests, or religious life; we have kind of a broader world view because of our education and our training.
I think in many ways, we are very well suited for this. And, you know, St. Ignatius was a soldier. He knew and understood discipline and rigor and self-denial - the “mission comes first” sort of thing. I very quickly felt comfortable in the [military] environment. I was warmly received by the people that I was sent to minister to.

Where else did you serve after the Persian Gulf deployment?

 I was the command [senior] chaplain at the last two or three bases where I served. In Okinawa and Japan, I was responsible for four Marine bases. In my last tour, I was senior chaplain at Marine Corps Development Command and the Marine Corps Base at Quantico, Va. This meant that I was supervising about 10 other chaplains. In Japan, it was about 30 chaplains and as many sailors.

This gave me a chance to mentor junior chaplains. Being a teacher by trade, that plays right into it. It was a great opportunity to work with the younger chaplains, who will be here for 25 or 30 more years after me, to make sure that they get started off on the right foot. In that sense, I enjoyed it very much.

How to do you see your role as rector of the Boston College Jesuit Community?

 It’s a very interesting role because of the diversification. At the moment, we have 62 Jesuits in the community; 38 of them are at the University, but another 17 are graduate students, 16 of them here and one at the other university down Commonwealth Avenue. So you have 54 Jesuits involved with Boston College in a variety of capacities, and then there are another nine in various positions elsewhere.
Then we have the whole issue of St. Mary’s Hall and vacating 2000 Commonwealth Avenue [the current community residence] and moving back. Of course, half the building now has been taken for office space, so not everyone who was previously living at St. Mary’s is getting back in. We have to distribute about a dozen members through the satellite houses around the campus. We are going through all that right now. We expect to move in December.

What do you think of the renovations at St. Mary’s?

They have done a phenomenal job. It is going to look every bit as good as Gasson Hall did when Gasson opened its doors again. On the ground floor, people will not notice a lot of [spatial] changes, but all of the wooden paneling is new, all of the windows have been replaced, new light fixtures, all of the stonework has been cleaned, all of the heavy wooden beams have been cleaned, stained glass lights have been installed. It is going to be magnificent.

I was just doing a little research, and Jan. 5, 1917, was the day that the Jesuit Community took possession of St. Mary’s Hall. Here we are coming up on the 98th anniversary of that, and I would say that it is “good to go” for at least another hundred!

How will you approach your assignment as rector?

The Jesuits are marvelous because they are involved in so many different things. As you know, no two Jesuits are alike [laughter]. We have a lot in common but we are not clones. There is a real richness of opportunities, experiences and contributions that they can provide.

Once I got over the shock of the appointment, I thought, “Well, this could be interesting,” and like so many other things I have done in my life, this will be interesting. It will be.