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Spotlight Report

VIRGIN ISLANDS

Humility renewed a frayed faith

By Thomas Farragher, Globe Staff, 7/27/2003

 Related stories
Part one:
O'Malley's path of quiet conviction
D.C.: Unity found in 'Padre Sean'
Virgin Islands: A renewed faith
Fall River: Uneasy compromise

Part two:
Taking mission beyond friary

Part three:
Parishes replenish from abroad

CHARLOTTE AMALIE, US Virgin Islands - She'd been a spiritual wanderer for 20 years, studying century-old teachings of a Russian philosopher, seeking tranquility in Zen and Hinduism. For Charlene Kehoe, Catholicism was a relic of a past she thought she'd left far behind.

Her bond with the Catholic Church of her youth had frayed to little more than a seasonal reflex - one token visit at Christmas that was more social than religious. And even that one service could be a sharp reminder of why she'd left.

"I was so disgusted, I think I walked out after Communion," Kehoe said of a holiday Mass she attended here in the mid-1980s.

But a year later, it was Christmas Eve in the Caribbean again -- and again she took a chance on a Midnight Mass. Only this time, she said, a bearded bishop in a brown robe and sandals transported her back to the faith she had fervently held in her native Iowa before it was spoiled, she said, by the hypocrisy of church leaders, and whispers about clergy sexual misconduct.

The 155-year-old Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul was filled with the sweet smell of incense, an angelic choir, and the words of Sean P. O'Malley, a Franciscan friar who spoke softly about rejoicing and redemption and the inner strength that humility can instill.

"And I thought: Oh my God. There is really a Catholic priest who gets it and can share it like it is real," said Kehoe, who is 55. "Right from that moment, it renewed me. I said, `Now there's a guy who could make me go back to the church."'

It was O'Malley's first Christmas in the Virgin Islands, the tiny missionary diocese where he began his life as a bishop. He lived in a gritty neighborhood that schoolchildren and laborers share with prostitutes and drug dealers. It's a block and a world away from the tourist shops deluged by day-trippers from the luxury cruise ships docked in the nearby harbor.

Like many former parishioners, Kehoe recalls O'Malley's early days as bishop here in reverential terms. After his installation in 1985, he conducted himself with such obvious self-denial on the sun-beaten sidewalks outside the cathedral, they said, that it lent him unassailable credibility when he spoke from the pulpit on Sunday mornings.

The snapshot images of him here have not faded.

He drove a subcompact "bomb." Invited to dinner by O'Malley, a new priest showed up in crisp, freshly pressed clothes only to be escorted by the bishop to a table at nearby Pizza Hut. A banker recalls seeing O'Malley standing in long lines on Monday with the receipts from Sunday's collection. When the banker tried to steer the prelate to a private queue, he said, O'Malley quietly resisted.

When chickens roosted in a tree above the entrance to the chancery, O'Malley consulted with two omnipresent street people about the best, most harmless way to scatter the birds, whose droppings on the church's doorstep threatened to spoil the visit of guests.

When he opened an 18-bed hospice for AIDS and cancer patients in a former convent on a steep hill above the cathedral, some local business leaders, worried about the effect on the tourist trade, resisted. O'Malley fought for St. Francis House and won.

"He walked like a shepherd," said Dr. Alfred O. Heath, a former local health commissioner. "and he really treated the folks as if he was here to care for them."

And that was the man Kehoe said she found in her first chancery meeting with O'Malley, the priest who had inspired her at midnight Mass and to whom she looked for spiritual renewal.

She had attended his Sunday services in the month after her epiphanic Christmas encounter. After a few weeks, she approached him outside church and said she would like to talk. He said he would like to listen. And then Kehoe had his attention at a chancery conference table for more than an hour.

Kehoe, now an advertising account manager, grew up in Waterloo, Iowa, the oldest of three children of a painting contractor. She went to Mass with her family on Sundays. Her mother, she said, held a special devotion to the Franciscans.

She attended the local parochial school and a private Catholic high school whose principal she remembered as autocratic and severe. Kehoe said boys in her class had complained that the priest was propositioning them after summoning them to his office. Weeks before graduation, the principal arbitrarily dismissed several students, including Kehoe, from that year's senior class theatrical production.

He charged them with insubordination. "It was just a power trip," Kehoe said.

Kehoe had had enough. "I lost any confidence or any respect really for him or for those under him because I felt they were allowing him to be a dictator when, if they had had any brains, they would know that what he was doing was wrong," Kehoe said in an interview.

As O'Malley sat quietly, Kehoe described her search for spiritual enlightenment. She stopped going to church. She studied the ancient teachings of obscure mystics and explored esoteric Christianity. A deeply devout aunt wrote to Kehoe's mother and worried that Kehoe had sold her soul to the devil.

O'Malley listened to the story. He read the fretful letter from Kehoe's aunt. He nodded when she said her faith required more than just Mass on Sunday morning.

"Give the church another chance," the bishop finally told Kehoe, she recalled. He steered her toward a retreat hosted by the secular Franciscans, a religious order of lay men and women committed to the simple life of St. Francis.

"There was an opportunity to go to confession, which I hadn't done for 20 years, and I said, `Father, you'd better sit down and I hope you've got a good heart,"' Kehoe said.

Just four months after her first meeting with O'Malley, Kehoe took her first vows as a secular Franciscan. She volunteered on Saturdays at a hospice opened by the bishop and staffed by the Missionaries of Charity, a congregation of nuns founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

"I would never have come back to the church except for him," Kehoe said. "I thought I had found something better than the church. It wasn't until that night that I saw that, aha, the church can be really spiritual -- to really have truth within it. He has the ability to connect emotionally with people and to really hear them -- to let them say their piece and to figure out what the next step would be with a deep spiritual understanding."

Kehoe said the proof of O'Malley's devotion is found in the soup kitchens and the Bethlehem House shelters he opened and in the work he did in impoverished neighborhoods miles from the terraces of the island's resort hotels.

With about 15 priests and just a handful of parishes to administer, O'Malley's first responsibilities as bishop were hardly as daunting as those he will inherit from one of Charlotte Amalie High School's most famous students: Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who was president of his senior class here. Still, they were hardly unremarkable.

For more than 150 years, the territories had been ministered by Redemptorist missionaries, a congregation of priests founded by St. Alphonsus Liguori who built the cathedral here and who preached to parishes in what would become the diocese. O'Malley, confronted with dwindling number of missionaries and with his desire to place his imprimatur on his diocese, began to assign diocesan priests to churches that had been sole terrrain of the missionaries.

"There was some tension," said Richard P. Bourne-Vanneck a lawyer and the chairman of the local Catholic Charities board of directors. "Some of the Redemptorists had their nose out of joint. But he was very sensitive to it."

When the diocese said goodbye to the missionaries at a farewell ball at a local hotel, O'Malley sought to defuse the tension with humor.

"He walked to the podium and said, `Well if you can bear it, here I am. And, just for the record, I asked them to stay, you know?"' said Lillia E. King, daughter of the US Virgin Islands' second elected governor. "And he had such a pitiful look on his face. The whole audience, 500 people in the ballroom that night, just defrosted at once."

Penny Feuerzeig, former executive editor of the Virgin Islands Daily News, said O'Malley was not a prominent newsmaker here. "But he was politically savvy," she said. "He was able to see that he could use his brown robes and sandals and his genuine humility and genuine intelligence to get where he wanted to get. He certainly does come across as a refreshing contrast to most of his colleagues who have made it that high."

Mary Conway, who was recruited by O'Malley to edit the local Catholic newspaper here after she covered his installation, said O'Malley's humble bearing is genuine. "You meet your fair share of phonies," she said. "But, no, this isn't an act. People on the street aren't afraid to approach him. He has what I once heard described as a `yes face.' If you're in need, this is a person who is going to say yes to you."

Kehoe, who maintains a friendship with O'Malley, agrees.

Before O'Malley left the Virgin Islands for Fall River in 1992, the bishop celebrated Mass in her studio apartment here, shortly after her sister married a man outside of the Catholic Church. The gesture greatly comforted Kehoe's mother, who wanted some Catholic recognition -- however glancing -- of the nuptials and who fretted about her son, who had also fallen away from his faith, Kehoe said.

For his homily that day, O'Malley cho se the familiar biblical story about a man who orders a joyous celebration to welcome home his wayward son.

"The sermon he gave was about the prodigal son," Kehoe said. "I guess it was aimed for my brother and my sister, just to say, `Welcome back. You've never gone so far that you can't come back."'

This story ran on page B10 of the Boston Globe on 7/27/2003.
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