Fr. Matthew Keller has always wanted to grace the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, TN. Fr. Keller, a die-hard country music lover, hoped it might be music-related, but on August 1, 2022, at the Supreme Convention of the Knights of Columbus, he found himself walking across the stage for an altogether different reason: to accept the inaugural Blessed Michael McGivney Award, given by the Knights to a chaplain “whose priestly zeal and exemplary service are in the finest traditions of Blessed Michael McGivney.”
Blessed Michael McGivney, born to Irish immigrants in 1852, founded the Knights of Columbus in his parish to provide aid and financial assistance to the widows and orphans of deceased immigrant workers. Now a worldwide, laity-led organization, the Knights of Columbus now annually donates millions of dollars and volunteer hours to a myriad of charitable efforts, such as food banks, disaster recovery efforts, scholarships, and community projects.
Fr. Keller has been a member of the Knights since his ordination as a priest 20 years ago and served as the New Mexico state chaplain for nearly 10 years. But he never expected to receive any kind of recognition for his service.
“It was really a great honor, a surprise. Getting to go out onstage, even if it wasn’t for music. I can say that to a lot of my music friends now!” he says with a laugh.
Patrick Mason, a former parishioner of Fr. Keller’s who now serves as the Supreme Secretary, said that the national board of directors recognized the need to honor priests who dedicate their time to local councils throughout the nation.
“It’s sort of the lifetime achievement award as a chaplain,” Mason said. “If you have a lifetime of service to the Knights of Columbus and Knights of Columbus families, that’s what we’re looking at.”
The national selection committee saw what Mason, New Mexico Knights, and parishioners of Fr. Keller see every day: his dedication to his flock, his spearheading of the V8s for Vocations program, and his idea to establish a rosary walk and shrine to St. Kateri Tekakwitha in his own Diocese of Gallup, which serves nine unique Indigenous groups.
Fr. Keller also happens to share a birthday with Fr. McGivney, and very nearly a manner of death as well. Fr. McGivney died at the age of 38 in 1890 during a flu pandemic that swept the United States.
At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, chaplains like Fr. Keller were only allowed in to give last rites to patients who were dying. After anointing a man who died from covid, Fr. Keller caught the virus himself, severely enough that he spent five weeks in the hospital’s intensive care unit.
“And in that time, the only time they allowed anybody to visit me was when they thought I was dying – they called the parish to have Fr. Brown come and give me last rites,” Fr. Keller recalls, referring to the parochial vicar at the cathedral in Gallup.
As it happened, at the moment of that call, Mason had stopped by to show the priests a relic of Blessed McGivney that had been given to him as a new member of the national board. To this day, Fr. Keller still doesn’t know who made that providential call from the hospital.
“[Fr. Brown] just grabbed the relic and went. He gave me last rites and blessed me with the relic. That’s the only visitor I had in five weeks at hospital. I don’t know exactly what the timeline was because I was just barely on this side of the veil. But obviously it was the lowest point when they thought I was dying, so after that I bounced off the bottom and came back. It’s the grace of the sacrament, but I believe also the intercession of Fr. McGivney.”
Some of the after-effects of covid will likely be permanent. Fr. Keller can no longer do much of the restoration work on cars auctioned off for the V8s program.
“I can’t work with a respirator as easily, which is something you have to do if you’re sanding or painting on a car. My lung capacity is hampered, and so when I put on a filtering respirator, I just can’t breathe well enough to function.”
But the program has grown large enough that there are many volunteers on hand to help with the restoration work, just as all of Fr. Keller’s other ideas have turned into substantial projects – the St. Kateri Shrine, say, or the annual Sacred Heart Spanish Market. Or, as many men and their families can attest to – his years serving the Knights of Columbus.
“There are so many knights he’s affected as vocations director, or spiritual advisor, or pastor,” Mason said. “He’s a humble guy that’s dedicated his life to service, and that’s what McGivney did as well.”
Featured Photo: Father Michael Keller, former state chaplain of New Mexico, receives the inaugural Blessed Michael McGivney Medal from Supreme Chaplain Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore. (Photo by Tamino Petelinsek)