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With sadness, but with faith in the Resurrection, we announce that our brother, Rev. William J. Keech, OSFS, passed away at the age of 97 on Saturday, October 14, 2023. He was a professed member of the Oblates for 75 years and a priest for 66 years and held the distinction as the oldest Oblate in North America. A teacher, pastor, formator, counselor, and artist, Fr. Keech was a dedicated Oblate and priest.
Born in Wilmington, Delaware on February 22, 1926, William was the son of Harry Keech and Nellie (Gallagher) Keech. He attended St. Peter’s Cathedral school and then entered Salesianum School and enjoyed his three years there. He recalled participating in the plays directed by Rev. Joseph McCoy, OSFS. A favorite memory from young Bill’s Salesianum years was when a picture that he drew of Fr. McCoy was pinned on the school bulletin board by a classmate. Upon discovery of this, Fr. McCoy asked Bill to illustrate a booklet of poems. This may have been the beginning of Bill’s recognition of his artistic talent.
Bill joined the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales after graduation in 1943. After a year as an Oblate postulant, he needed to return home to care for his aging parents. Like so many young men of his generation, Bill was drafted into the U.S. Army at the end of World War II. He served in Northern Italy from 1945 to 1947. He was part of the mechanized cavalry and, after taking classes to become a radio operator, he earned the rank of T/4 Technical Sergeant. After being honorably discharged, Bill rejoined the Oblate community and made his First Profession of vows in 1948 and his Perpetual Profession in 1951.
His first assignment as an Oblate seminarian was teaching biology and English at Oblate-run Northeast Catholic High School in Philadelphia. With an enrollment of 4,000 boys in 1949, Bill had 50 students in his classes, including the biology lab where boys had to sit on the windowsills.
At the conclusion of his assignment at North, Bill returned to the seminary and earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy from The Catholic University of America (CUA) and a graduate degree in theology from De Sales School of Theology in Washington, DC. He also received a master’s degree in world history from CUA and a master’s in pastoral counseling from Iona College in New Rochelle, NY. On June 8, 1957, Bill was ordained a priest by Bishop Hubert J. Cartwright at St. Anthony’s Church in Wilmington, DE.
Following ordination, Fr. Keech taught history, biology, and religion at Salesianum School. One of his favorite memories during this time was assisting with the drama program, where he worked closely with the legendary Fr. John Spragg, OSFS. It was during this time that Fr. Keech earned the admiration and loyalty of legions of students, many of whom maintained lifelong friendships with him. Fr. Keech celebrated the marriages, baptisms, and other sacraments for many former students. He buried parents, spouses, and friends of his Salesianum family. The Class of 1964, especially, took their former teacher under their wing and continued to take him to breakfast on a regular basis until he went into the hospital last month. Like his patron, St. Francis de Sales, Fr. Bill treasured his friendships and devoted much time and energy to nurturing them.
Fr. Keech left Salesianum in 1967 when the new Oblate seminary on the campus of Allentown College (now DeSales University) was built in Center Valley, PA. While at Brisson Seminary, Fr. Keech served in various posts, including director of vocations, director of formation, and director of religious brothers. During that period, Fr. Keech was a marriage counselor at the Pastoral Institute of Lehigh Valley in Allentown.
Fr. Keech was assigned to the Oblate community at St. Anthony of Padua Parish from 1973-1982. While there, Fr. Keech also served as teacher, vice principal, and religion department chair at Padua Academy. Fr. Keech had a new experience at the all-girls environment at Padua earned. He enjoyed his time at Padua and, just like the students at Salesianum, he remained connected with many of his Padua students over the years. Fr. Keech also taught marriage and family life to the students at St. Francis Hospital School of Nursing.
Fr. Keech left Wilmington in 1982 to become the first Oblate pastor at St. Cecilia Parish in Fort Myers, Florida. He completed his term in Florida and was appointed associate pastor at St. Anthony’s in 1986 and then pastor in 1988, spending a total of 18 years at the parish.
After his tenure as pastor ended in 1994, Fr. Keech stayed in Wilmington and worked with the Oblate Development Office as support staff and director of planned-giving until 2000. Even though he was “officially” retired, he continued to volunteer his time to the development office until 2014.
In 2014 he moved to the Oblate Residence at Salesianum. This allowed Fr. Keech to become more involved in the life of the alumni association. He helped organize the Salesianum Alumni Veteran Committee and was inducted into the Salesianum Hall of Fame in 2014. While living at Salesianum, Fr. Keech continued to help at local parishes, especially at St. Helena’s in Claymont.
During these retirement years, Fr. Keech returned to drawing and painting. He set up a portion of his bedroom as a studio and painted hundreds of pictures over the years. He gave many of his paintings to family and friends but also sold some of his art as a contribution to Oblate development efforts.
This past summer, Fr. Keech had some health issues that necessitated a move to the Oblate assisted-living community. He continued to read, paint, and enjoy life. Fr. Keech once said about his later years: “it is a time to take inventory of my own person and to assess what I have done or what I need to do to keep me close to God and in a loving relationship with those around me.”
The famous French artist Henri Matisse once said, “creativity takes courage.” Throughout his long life, Fr. Bill Keech showed both creativity and courage. He also showed compassion and commitment. Most importantly, Fr. Keech lived these virtues. One former student said about Fr. Keech: “he not only practiced what he preached; he lived what he preached.” In the language of St. Francis de Sales, he “lived Jesus.”
The visitation for Fr. Keech will be held from 9:00 AM to 11:00 AM on Tuesday, October 24, at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Wilmington (901 North DuPont Street). The Mass of Christian Burial will begin at 11:00 AM. Burial will be in the Oblate Cemetery at Childs, MD at 1:30 PM. A light reception will follow.
Father Keech is survived by his Oblate confreres, many nieces, nephews, former students, life-long friends, and grateful parishioners.
Condolences may be sent to Bill’s nephew:
Mr. Joseph W. Keech
2702 Tanager Drive
Wilmington, DE 19808