PROSPECT HEIGHTS — Journeying on a safari on the plains of the Serengeti often brings a traveler to Arusha, a city in northeastern Tanzania near the base of the dormant volcano, Mount Kilimanjaro.
According to Father Charles Keeney, one can witness the full spectrum of humanity, from the well-off to the very poor: “It’s got everything that an Eastern African city would have, from hotels for Westerners to places that are, for the most part, mud and sticks put together.”
He said there are also a lot of Maasai people who live very close to nature. And while there are banks and supermarkets, there are also many vendors selling their wares on the roadside: “Africa is an interesting experience.”
But this mosaic holds no government-run place for children who are forced to live with their incarcerated mothers who are either awaiting trial or serving sentences. The Sisters of St. Gemma Galgani offer an alternative with their mission, St. Gabriel’s Home and School.
Father Keeney has helped the mission for 16 years, organizing fundraisers in the U.S. and returning to Arusha to reassess its needs. For his work and friendship, the sisters have christened a new building in his name — The Keeney House at St. Gabriel’s.
Father Keeney is eager to see the new dormitory. His work with St. Gabriel’s Home and School equipped him to serve three years as director of the Diocese of Brooklyn’s Office of Faith Propagation, connecting parishes with missions around the world.
He retired on June 30, but his involvement with the Tanzanian mission is far from over.
“I’m doing something I never expected to,” he said. “I didn’t go to Africa to do that. I went to Africa to look at the wild animals on the safari. And I ended up with a calling from God to help this particular little ministry.”
That safari was in 2006 while Father Keeney was Newman Center chaplain at Long Island University. He accompanied students on an LIU-sponsored trip to Africa, where he photographed wildlife on the Serengeti. That brought him to Arusha.
On the last day there, he met a Polish-born priest, Father Jacek Rejman, who described a small home he started for little children whose mothers were in jail. Father Rejman said he was about to close the home because of costs, but Father Keeney said he “felt a call from God to help him.”
He soon met Sister Flora Ndwata, who is now director of St. Gabriel Home and School. In 2006, however, there was no school, but Sister Flora knew one was needed. Father Keeney, with LIU students, got busy making appeals for the mission. Through fundraisers like the annual “Rock-a-thon,” they took in hundreds of thousands of dollars for St. Gabriel’s.
More money rolled in from fundraisers in the diocese and direct appeals at the parishes. Sister Flora traveled to Brooklyn to attend a couple of the fundraisers.
“We had a big fundraiser many years ago at Douglaston,” Father Keeney said. “And the people that were invited … were taken by her. She sang in Swahili, and they loved that, plus she smiles so nice.
“When people see where the money goes, it is a little bit easier to raise it. When you ask for contributions to the general pot, it’s a little harder.”
School buildings sprang up on the campus. Nearly 600 children now attend the Catholic school. Father Keeney said that most are from surrounding neighborhoods, but about 30 are the children of mothers in jail.
“These are people who have at least been accused of doing something wrong,” he explained. “Some of them have done nothing, and others have done horrific crimes, so it goes across the board.”
“But what we’re looking at is how can we make a difference for these little children who should not be in that jail — no matter if the mother is a mass murderer or completely innocent,” he added. “In either case, a child should not be in jail.”
Father Keeney called Sister Flora a “dynamic” and creative woman who pursues revenue streams for the mission to become financially self-sufficient. For a while the sisters raised poultry and sold the eggs, but the return on all their hard work contributed very little to the mission.
Sister Flora subsequently seized upon the more lucrative local volunteer-tourism industry.
Father Keeney said a lot of youth and young adults from European countries come to Tanzania to do service work. The new Keeney House provides a “hostel” for them. They pay for room and board there while working on campus or in other parts of Arusha.
Sister Flora called Father Keeney “our best friend.”
“Father Charles continues to be remembered for all generations to come for his great contributions,” she said in an email to The Tablet. “Hence, all daily life is going well.
“May the Omnipotent continue to bless him abundantly in his service and grant him good health and strength so that he may not get tired of helping us!”
While not raising money for the mission, Father Keeney is happy to contribute his own dollars to the cause. He has been asked why.
His response: “I tell them, ‘Well, I suppose if you’ve been to Africa, and you saw what I saw, and heard what I heard, and you didn’t do anything — I wouldn’t say you weren’t a Christian. But I would say you weren’t a human.’
“I’m not upset about it at all. It has made me a much better and happier, more fulfilled person,” he added. “I will say, for the last 16 years it has been the most fulfilling part of my ministry.”