Fr Tom Keyes was a great inspiration for priests

5 Fr Tom crop


Fr Thomas Gerard Keyes, who was recognised as a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1971 for the rehabilitation of young offenders, passed away on May 10. He was 95.

At a requiem Mass celebrated at St Mary’s Basilica in Invercargill on May 15, Dunedin Bishop Michael Dooley called Fr Keyes  “a great inspiration to the rest of us priests”, and prayed that he [Fr Keyes] will be brought “to the Lord that he loved, and to the reward for all his great work and love and care, and the way he practised in a very deep and sincere way the following of Jesus”.

Fr Pat McGettigan, who gave the homily at the Mass, said that he met Fr Keyes in the mid 1960s while he [Fr McGettigan] was at Holy Cross College in Mosgiel.

“I first went to help him at Marysville during my Christmas holiday. Fr Tom was putting into practice probably a revolutionary way of helping young men, young boys who got in trouble with the law,” Fr McGettigan said. Marysville was a rehabilitation home set up by Fr Keyes for teenaged offenders who were sentenced to the Invercargill Borstal.

“He [Fr Keyes] managed to get them on pre-release from the boys’ school, and they were able to come and stay with him, and he put into practice a method of helping them in their rehabilitation.”

One of the methods, according to Fr McGettigan, was to take the boys on a long walk through the hills to “exhaust them out of trouble”.

Fr McGettigan said that Fr Keyes suffered from depression, and “quite a large dose of scrupulosity”. Scrupulosity is defined as having obsessive guilt associated with moral and/or religious issues.

“This manifested itself, as he told us several times, that he had spent the night before his ordination, he knocked on the door of the bishop, and he told that bishop that he (the bishop) shouldn’t ordain him (Fr Keyes). That he (Fr Keyes) was totally unworthy,” Fr McGettigan said.

Fortunately, the bishop sent Fr Keyes home, and ordained him the following day.

Fr McGettigan said that, while Fr Keyes saw himself as “just a poor sinner, God was able to work great things through his life.”

He said that Fr Keyes had empathy for those who are on the fringes of society: those afflicted with mental illness, alcoholics, drug addicts, and those who are living alone.

He said that Fr Keyes also broke down barriers with the other churches in Invercargill by befriending every pastor and minister.

Fr Keyes was also a great correspondent, Fr McGettigan said.

“He wrote throughout his life. He must have written thousands of letters . . . to people in prison, letters to the families of his Marysville boys, to his benefactors. He wrote to me while I was overseas, kept me in touch with the diocese,” Fr McGettigan said, joking that he is afraid that NZ Post might now collapse.

Fr McGettigan said that Fr Keyes received many accolades in his life, but “these sort of things didn’t actually mean that much to Fr Tom because he had his eyes set on only one prize. And that prize was to be with the God that he loved, and to be with him always”.

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Rowena Orejana

Reader Interactions


  1. Michael says

    Fr Tom Keyes was special. I knew him well at Marysville. He was there when my father died . He heard his death bed confession. God rest His soul in Peace

  2. Tony Jenkinson says

    Fr Tom Keyes was a good Christian and a great Catholic. He had a heart for the lost sheep. He was a loyal friend. I will miss him.
    Godspeed Fr Tom. Love. Tony.