Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
Maryknoll missioner from Pomeroy marks 65 years of priesthood
by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the May 18, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)
Father McKeirnan in Kowloon, 1963. (IR photo courtesy of Maryknoll)
“All my thanks to all the people in the Spokane diocese who have helped me for 65 years with your prayers and support.”
The words are those of Father Michael McKeirnan, a Maryknoll priest; Pomeroy, Wash., born and bred, who celebrates the 65th anniversary of his ordination on Sunday, June 25, 2006.
No one will ever accuse Father McKeirnan of being a slacker, that’s for sure. He only retired and returned to Maryknoll from Hong Kong last April, seven months after his 91st birthday.
Michael Joseph McKeirnan was born in Pomeroy on Sept. 20, 1914. Speaking with the Inland Register by phone from St. Teresa’s Residence, at Maryknoll headquarters near the village of Ossining, N.Y., Father McKeirnan explained that his parents originally had a farm near Pomeroy but later went into what was known as the mercantile business, selling farming supplies and the like.
He grew up breathing clean country air, exploring the countryside, and eating fresh farm foods. He graduated from Pomeroy’s Holy Rosary School, which closed in the mid-1960s, and recalls with great fondness the Benedictine nuns who taught there. “I think they had a lot to do with my vocation,” he said.
After graduating in 1934 from St. Joseph College, near San Francisco, he went to Maryknoll and began seminary studies. He was ordained a Maryknoll priest June 22, 1941, and began his career with an assignment to Maryknoll’s mission in Wuchow, South China.
Upon his arrival in Hong Kong, however, Father McKeir-nan was taken prisoner by the occupying Japanese forces and held for nine months. After being released, he went to the mission to which he had been assigned in Wuchow, but soon the Japanese army took over the town and he was forced to flee. He left the town with U.S. Army Air Force personnel and served as a temporary military chaplain.
In 1949, Father McKeirnan was named pastor of St. Theresa Chinese Misson in Chicago, and he returned to Hong Kong in 1956, where he stayed until his retirement.
“Establishing liturgical celebrations for Chinese New Year at St. Teresa Mission, and later taking care of the refugees who fled China for Hong Kong after 1956 were the high points of my mission career,” Father McKeirnan says.
The Diocese of Spokane has never lost track of Father McKeirnan. The Inland Register’s archives include an envelope stuffed with clippings yellow and brittle with age. The oldest clippings are from October and November, 1943. The IR published a series of articles based on letters Father McKeirnan wrote home to his parents in Pomeroy. The series reads today like a non-fiction thriller. Here is the concluding paragraph from an article in the middle of the series, published Oct. 29, 1943:
“After the long violent night in which British wounded were brought into the mission house, Father McKeirnan and Father O’Connell dressed and prepared to say Mass. They had dropped off to sleep towards morning and now found the house strangely empty until they began to go down stairs. Father McKeirnan looked over the banister and saw the house below was full of guests. He thought the whole Japanese army was there, milling around and evidently still in the heat of battle. One soldier with bayonet ready began coming upstairs. Writes Father McKeir-nan: ‘We waited until he was nearly on the second floor and then called from around a corner, “Who’s there?” as if we didn’t know – but anyway we didn’t want to frighten him. He looked like a man from Mars with his low helmet, dark face, staccato language, and bunches of leaves, straw, and grass camouflaging him from top to bottom. He barked at us, but I couldn’t recall having heard any of those words in Father Ray’s class, so I just put up my hands and marched downstairs.... The soldiers directed us by grunts and gestures to the front room; and what a blessed relief – there on the floor was our whole crowd. I was never so glad to see anybody in all my life.’”
A short article in the Dec. 8, 1944 issue of the IR noted that “Mr. and Mrs. J.M. McKeirnan have received word from their son, Father Michael McKeirnan, M.M., that he has left the danger zone in China and is in Kunming on the Burma Road.”
The May 27, 1949, issue reported that Father McKeirnan was scheduled to return to the U.S. that summer “after serving eight years in the mission fields of China.” The following September, IR readers learned that the missionary priest from Pomeroy had been appointed pastor of “the Chinese Station of St. Therese in Chicago....”
In 1956, Father McKeirnan returned to Hong Kong, and in April, 1967, the IR noted that he had been “elected to one of six new deaneries recently erected in the diocese of Hong Kong.”
Father McKeirnan today. He celebrates 65 years of priesthood next month. (IR photo courtesy of Maryknoll)
Much more recently, in January, 2001, Msgr. John Steiner, of the Diocese of Spokane, reported for the IR on his visit with Father McKeirnan, the third in 10 years “at his home on the top of a hill in Kowloon in the city of Hong Kong.” Msgr. Steiner’s concluding words remain as true today as when he wrote them: “His heart is now and always will be in Hong Kong.”
If Father McKeirnan took anything into retirement, it was his stories from many, many years as a missioner in China. In a recent letter written by hand in a script still firm and clear, he shared one story to illustrate what the prayerful support he received from the Diocese of Spokane accomplished:
“In the remote village in China where I lived,” Father McKeirnan wrote, “there were three shops selling women and girls. A poor farmer who lived way back in the mountains came to buy a girl who when his oldest son was ready to marry, this girl would be his bride, a very cheap way to have a marriage.
“So she was brought to their distant mountain home. She worked like part of the family – until she got sick, then because she was not part of the family and because there were no herb doctors anywhere, she was left alone and when she got real sick, they took her out and left her to die on the mountain.
“In her desperate situation she wondered what to do. Then she remembered that the family had talked about the Catholic church where a couple of foreigners helped people in trouble, giving medicine to the sick, clothes to big families, even food for the hungry. She thought, ‘The Catholic church is my only hope to survive. If I can find it, I can live!’
“So she asked some people walking along the mountain path how to get to the Catholic church, and so she set off. How many days she walked without food or water nobody knows. When she did get to the Catholic church she was just a walking mud pie, dirt from top to bottom.
“Our catechists were mountain people used to suffering. They knew at once what to do. First of all to bathe her, put some wet cotton in her mouth and keep sprinkling water on her body, especially her stomach, which was swollen tight as a drum. They did this for three days while she was unconscious. On the third day she opened her eyes and the catechists were overcome with joy. They won!
“Eventually she blossomed into a charming girl and she remembered her father’s name and address. After several months daddy came with the letter (the girl had written) and took his daughter home – I hope to live happily ever after.
“That was just one of many incidents where your help and your prayers went, and we thank you for giving them to us for 65 years!”