Continuing our series on Irish Men behind the Missions, Fr Joe Keaney looks back over his life in Zambia and the happy life he has lived amongst the people there.
On 24th October 2014, Zambia celebrated 50 years of independence. On that same day I handed over the parish of St Ignatius in Lusaka to Fr John Mwelwa SJ. John becomes the first Zambian Jesuit to be in charge of this church.
For years I had assumed the duties and responsibilities at this busy parish without a bother. In earlier years I had the help of good older men: notably Fr Des O’Loghlen and Fr Bob Kelly. In later years I was blessed to be assisted by more energetic younger Zambian and Malawian Jesuits.
About three years ago I developed trouble with my back: spontaneous collapse of a few vertebrae due to osteoporosis. While the fractures have healed, my back remains weak with the muscles protesting at the end of each day. Increasingly, I have been feeling that I am not up to the task being Parish Priest anymore and would gladly have handed over when the back trouble began. However, until Independence Day this year, no one was willing to take up the challenge.
Looking back to my first parish in Namwala
I have served nearly all of my priestly life (ordination in 1978) in the Province of Zambia/Malawi, having always worked in a parish. My first appointment was as Parish Priest in Namwala, a remote area on the flood plain of the Kafue River. I loved it there. The nearest parish was about 80km away, across the river and accessible only during the dry season. The nearest town was 160km away down a bumpy, sandy road. I have great memories of crossing the river on a very basic pontoon to minister to the small fishing communities on the far side. Holy Week and Easter always occurred when the water was high. Someone would be sent to fetch me in a dugout canoe for ceremonies in the outstations and sometimes the journey took several hours in both directions.
Moving on to Kitwe and to Lusaka
In 1983 I was appointed to Kitwe, one of Zambia’s Copperbelt towns. In the suburb of Riverside was a 3rd level college called The Zambia Institute of Technology (later to become the Copperbelt University). Being about 8km from town and the nearest Catholic Church, the local resident Catholics began to congregate at the Sunday chaplaincy mass on the campus. Around the time that I arrived, they asked the Bishop of Ndola if they could have their own independent parish. After consultation with the Jesuit Provincial I was assigned as the first Parish Priest: my job was to establish the parish, build the church and run it.
I spent 10 very happy years in Our Lady of Africa Parish, Kitwe. To see it grow from nothing to becoming a vibrant Christian community was a unique experience. It was during these years I learned the value of allowing the laity to express and use their gifts. I worried about the bricks and mortar but it was the families together who built the Church, the People of God.
In 1993 the Provincial transferred me to Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, to become Parish Priest of St Ignatius. Once again God was blessing me with a very different experience. Little did I know then that my term of office would stretch to 21 years. I used my experience at Kitwe of depending on the people and consequently there has been wonderful participation at every level of parish life.
Buoyancy in the spirit
I wish the Catholic Church in Ireland, where I grew up, even a small share of the joy that exists in the African Church. Even though we have many more pressing social and economic problems there is buoyancy in the spirit of the people here. They have a wonderful ability to celebrate life and have constantly lifted me up and away from doom and gloom.
I would always say there is so much job satisfaction for a priest working here and am very happy to stay on in St Ignatius as assistant Parish Priest.