TUCSON, AZ - Msgr. Richard O’Keeffe, long-time pastor at Immaculate Conception Parish in Yuma, died May 2 at age 84.
Richard O’Keeffe, a proud son of an Irish politician Thomas and Nora (Elwood) O’Keeffe, was born April 4, 1935, in Kildare, Ireland. He attended Athenry Boys National School and St. Jarlath College in Tuam before entering St. Patrick College and Seminary in County Tipperary. He was ordained a priest in 1959 by Bishop Joseph J. Byrne of Moshi, Tanzania, in the Thurles Cathedral for the Diocese of Tucson and moved to the US. He became a US citizen on Aug. 23, 1964.
He often invoked his “politician lineage” when telling stories, and was well-known by many local, state and national politicians, including former Secretary of Homeland Security and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano and Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
He was considered a dominant figure in the world of Yuma politics, particularly when the needs of the poor or marginalized were involved.
Diocese of Tucson Bishop Edward J. Weisenburger noted that it is hard to overestimate Msgr. O'Keeffe's contribution to the Church at large, and most especially the Church of Yuma.
Msgr. O’Keeffe was assistant pastor of Immaculate Conception, Douglas, from 1959-61, and taught ninth grade theology at Loretto Catholic School.
“He was young and energetic. He was totally involved with the people, especially the youth,” said Dominican Sister Charlotte Swift, who taught at the school at the time and later served as
executive secretary to Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas. “He had a wonderful, jovial spirit. Everyone loved him.”
Msgr. O’Keeffe was assistant pastor at St. Bartholomew’s, San Manuel, from 1961-64; St. Cyril’s Catholic Church in Tucson from 1964-67; Holy Family Parish in Tucson, from 1967-68; and All Saints Parish, also in Tucson, from 1968-69. He was pastor at Sacred Heart Parish in Willcox, Arizona, from 1969-71. He was assistant pastor at Immaculate Conception Parish in Yuma, in 1972, before he took over as pastor nine years later. He retired on July 1, 2010.
He was diocesan Catholic Youth Organization Director (1967-69), a member of the Bishop’s Task Force on Urban Affairs, and vicar for Yuma/La Paz from 1983-89. He was also chairman of the Priests’ Council in 1984.
He received the title of monsignor from Pope Paul VI in 1968, at age 32. At the time, he was the youngest US priest to ever have that title. He traveled with Bishop Manuel Moreno to the Vatican in 1988 to meet St. John Paul II.
In 2001, Msgr. O’Keeffe was named Episcopal Vicar of Yuma-La Paz, having taken a leadership role in the creation of Yuma Catholic High School and the Yuma County Interfaith Council.
Known for his quick wit, Msgr. O’Keeffe was active in civil and political organizations and met with several national and state officials including the late Sen. Robert Kennedy and many of Arizona’s governors. He served as Arizona chairman of the US Commission for Civil Rights, chairman of the Tucson Human Relations Board and as a trustee of the Yuma County Library District. He founded Yuma County Interfaith Council in 1999 and was a member of the Governor’s Military Affairs Commission.
Msgr. O’Keeffe received numerous honors including a US Army Certificate of Achievement for Outstanding Religious Leadership; a Department of the Army’s Civilian Service Award and TECOM, the Marine Corps. Training and Command Professional Award; the Chicanos Por la Causa Community Involvement Award; and the Andy Nichols Humanitarian Award for service to the poor. He received the Liberty Bell Award as an outstanding naturalized citizen from the Pima County Bar Association in 1969.
“Msgr. Richard O’Keeffe is a true churchman and schoolman. He dedicated his life to spreading God’s word through Catholic education,” said Father John Lyons, pastor at St. Thomas Parish in Tucson, when Msgr. O’Keeffe received the Seton Award for Catholic education from Salpointe Catholic High School.
“He sustained his own school at Immaculate Conception (in Yuma) through good times and bad. . . . he became the principle founder of Yuma Catholic High School. It’s no mistake that they are called the Yuma Shamrocks.”
“Msgr. O’Keeffe was an integral part of Yuma Catholic. He was our biggest fan,” said Rhett Stallworth, the school’s principal and former varsity football coach. “Monsignor was definitely a blessing for the Yuma Catholic community.”
A golf tournament is held in Msgr. O’Keeffe’s honor for his years of service to Immaculate Conception School. He was also recognized in Congress by Rep. Raul Grijalva for his service as chaplain at the US Army Yuma Proving Ground.
He had been in good health well into his late 70s, when he was injured standing on the sidelines at a Yuma Catholic High School football game on Nov. 10, 2012. Upon returning home, he subsequently fell in his residence and hit his head. He went to a rehabilitation center but was never quite the same afterward.
Msgr. Thomas Cahalane, retiring pastor at Our Mother of Sorrows Church in Tucson and contemporary of Msgr. O’Keeffe, praised the priest for his strong positions on behalf of the Church’s teaching on social justice.
“He was political, but only as far as it was aligned with Catholic social teaching,” Msgr. Cahalane said. “He was very involved in social advocacy.”
Msgr. Cahalane said the passing of priests like Msgr. O’Keeffe comes at a time when the Church needs more voices advocating on behalf of the poor. “He will be very much missed. There is a great need for that kind of advocacy today.”