Story by Lois Rogers, Correspondent
If years of priestly devotion can be measured by the number of tears parishioners shed at his retirement, then Father Bernard J. Keigher’s ministry has been one for the books.
Indeed, there was hardly a dry eye as more than 800 parishioners of all generations gathered to bid him farewell June 25 in Lakehurst’s St. John Church, where he had served as their shepherd for 18 years.
During the Mass of Thanksgiving celebrated by Msgr. Richard A. Rusconi, a longtime weekend assistant, Father Keigher, known for his love of singing and musical composition, played his guitar and sang a piece he had written long ago called “I Wish You Peace.”
Bearing wishes of their own for Father Keigher, present and former parishioners and friends waited in a long line following the Mass. Many, including parishioner Jean Burrillo, said his warm and personal farewell reflected his pastoral sensibility.
Burrillo, who needs assistance to get around, had asked her daughter to bring her to the farewell Mass. “I wanted to say goodbye” in person, she said. “He knew us so well and made it his business to know everyone.”
“He deserves his retirement,” she acknowledged, “but he will be greatly missed.”
Answering the Call
Born in 1948 to Mr. and Mrs. Bernard J. Keigher Sr., Father Keigher grew up in Long Branch and graduated from St. James School and Red Bank Catholic High School in neighboring Red Bank. In an interview, he credited his family and the clergy and religious in both schools for creating an atmosphere where a budding call to the priesthood could blossom.
“The whole process started in grade school,” he said. “By second grade in St. James School, I had an inkling that I wanted to be a priest. All along the way, my family and the sisters at St. James fostered that option,” as did Father Richard Leadem, a parochial vicar there, he said.
Interests he had to work in the medical field or further develop his talent for music paled in comparison to entering the priesthood, he said.
After graduation from Red Bank Catholic, he went to St. Charles Borromeo Seminary and St. Mary Seminary and University, both Baltimore, in preparation for ordination to the priesthood. In 1970, he received his baccalaureate degree from St. Mary Seminary and University and completed his theological studies at the seminary.
He recalled that “when I went into the seminary, every summer, I would evaluate the situation and ask, ‘Is this where the Lord wants me to be?’” The answer, he said, was always yes.
His year as a transitional deacon was spent in Sacred Heart Parish, New Brunswick, with his priestly ordination taking place May 18, 1974, by Bishop John C. Reiss in his home parish of St. James. As a parochial vicar, he served in Corpus Christi Parish, Willingboro, and St. Dominic Parish, Brick. Father Keigher was appointed to his first pastorate in Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish, Maple Shade, in 1985, where he served for 14 years.
During his time in Maple Shade, he served a three-year term on the diocesan Council for Ecumenism and Interreligious Affairs and as moderator of the Burlington County Catholic Youth Organization. He also served on several other diocesan committees for the continuing education of priests and the priests’ council.
On July 31, 1999, Father Keigher was named pastor of St. John Parish, Lakehurst. The faith community was situated in the heart of the Pinelands amid a burgeoning number of adult communities and the historic Lakehurst Naval Air Base, now a central component of the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.
With roots going back to the creation of the Manchester Mission in 1868, St. John the Apostle Parish is one of the oldest Catholic parishes in Ocean County. Its 5,000 families largely reflect the area’s significant population of senior citizens, said Father Keigher.
“Three-quarters of the members are senior citizens and a lot of the ministries reflect that,” said Father Keigher. He said it’s been an honor and privilege to have ministered to generations of seniors who have, in turn, devoted themselves to the parish.
Father Keigher called it a blessing to share this part of the human journey with its prevalence of hospital visits, wake services and funerals. “The priorities of older folks are different. Their direction is toward God and heaven.”
While Father Keigher has had a special connection to seniors, his parting words were meant to parishioners of all ages: “All of you who come together year in and year out and bring your prayers together to the table… you are the spiritual base of the parish, and it’s a wonderful base.”
Christine Weiner, who attended with her sons, Blake, 14 and Dale, 8, shared her feelings at the end of Mass. “I can’t stop crying. I’ve known him since we moved to Manchester in 2002. When I was pregnant, he came to the hospital and prayed for a safe delivery.”
He was there for her, she said, when she “came into the Church through [the Rite of Christian Initiation] and received all my Sacraments six years ago. He makes everything special and he is extremely good with kids. … He’s a true presence, very down to earth,” said Weiner, who teaches religious education in the parish. “He makes you want to get involved and stay involved.”