- The Washington Times - Monday, July 29, 2002

NEW YORK (AP) The Rev. Chris Keenan walked into a Manhattan firehouse 10 months ago to find his sad premonition proved true: His friend of 38 years, Fire Department Chaplain Mychal Judge, was killed at the World Trade Center.
"Father Mike" quickly became a September 11 icon, and Father Keenan just as swiftly emerged as a candidate to replace the martyred Father Judge a thought that left the successor designate "anxious and afraid."
How to follow a putative saint? How to handle all the grief and loss?
Barely two months later, Father Keenan, 60, found that "serenity and peace" had replaced his fears. In a ceremony at fire headquarters, he received FDNY chaplain's shield No. 24 becoming the department's Friar Tuck, as he wrote in a letter to friends.
The Franciscan priest soon was pulling a rake through the rubble at ground zero, working nights with a group of retired firefighters desperately hunting for their sons' remains.
Now eight months on the job, Father Keenan views his change of heart as a kind of destiny. Father Keenan has embraced the family of 11,000 surviving firefighters, hundreds of fire widows and 1,335 fatherless children.
"Who has it better than me, being with awesome people like them?" he asks with a smile. "It's an honor and a gift, it truly is."
It's also an odd match. Father Keenan was never a fire buff, couldn't tell the difference between an engine and a ladder truck. As a suburban child, he had no knowledge of the city's firehouse culture.
And he was not sure whether he was ready for the hectic job of chaplain, handled by a seven-member team representing various religions.
At the Franciscans' 31st Street friary, Father Keenan performed quieter work with the dispossessed: helping homeless children in city shelters, working the daily bread line.
But it turned out the chaplain's job in the post-September 11 world had changed, and had little to do with fire.
"It's the morgue, and notifications, and wakes and funerals," he says, reciting the sad litany of duties. "Burn units, counseling centers, meetings with the 343 families who lost firefighters.
"It's like fires are a footnote."
Born at a Salvation Army hospital in Manhattan, Father Keenan grew up in New Jersey. Like his Irish immigrant father, he worked as a Teamster. But Father Keenan found his vocation during talks with a local Franciscan working his first parish: Mychal Judge.
Father Judge was a fastidious soul, a dandy in a brown friar's robe and sandals, a man who loved the spotlight.
Even in death, he was at center stage: Killed by a falling object, he was the first official victim of the terrorist attacks on the trade center. A photo of rescue workers carrying Father Judge's body away from the site was compared with the Pieta; a contingent of New York firefighters delivered Father Judge's fire helmet to Pope John Paul II in the Vatican.
Father Keenan's style is more casual. On a warm July day, he wears shorts and a short-sleeved shirt, his sandals the only sign of his order.
Father Keenan has befriended the firefighters across the street at Engine Co. 1/Ladder Co. 24.
Although his rank is technically deputy chief, Father Keenan considers himself the FDNY's oldest "probie" the department's term for its rookies, probationary firefighters.
The firehouse guys recently gave Father Keenan the traditional probie hazing: They dumped a bucket of water on the priest from a second-floor window.
"There could be no better replacement for Father Mychal," says firefighter Jimmy Hosford.
Up the block is a sign of Father Judge's new status. At the corner of Seventh Avenue and 31st Street, a signpost designates the block as "Father Mychal F. Judge Street."
Father Keenan is certain that his predecessor would support his decision to become chaplain.
"I know Mike would say to me, 'Chris, don't worry about filling anyone's sandals, particularly my own.'"


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