From Bolivia to Christendom

Jan 30, 2018

Chaplain’s Life of Service Inspires Alumni

Honoring Fr. O’Kielty

Motivated by the tremendous impact Fr. O’Kielty has had on their lives, a group of alumni has come together to start a fund to dedicate the sacristy in the new Christ the King Chapel in honor of Father O’Kielty. The alumni are looking to raise another $100,000 for the effort by next April. To make a gift to this special fund, please contact David Costanzo at david.costanzo@christendom.edu or 703.869.1169.

The jungles of Bolivia. The green hills of Scotland. The marketplaces of Morocco. The rolling waves of the Atlantic. These sound like locations for the next Indiana Jones movie, not places visited during a real person’s lifetime. But it’s true: each of these places has been touched by the presence of Fr. Seamus O’Kielty.

Today, Christendom’s long-serving Irish priest can be found still offering Mass, still distributing Communion, and still hearing confessions at the college’s Christ the King Chapel, even at the age of 87. His wry wit still emanates from the pulpit during his homilies, as does his intense love for the Holy Eucharist during the Consecration, just as it has for the past 15 years that he has served at the college.

Fr. Seamus O’Kielty has been a beloved member of the Christendom community for close to 20 years now.

For many, this is all they know of Fr. O’Kielty. Stories are passed around now and again, of him serving as chaplain to the Bolivian army when “Che” Guevara was causing havoc, or of him being awarded the Meritorious Service Medal by the Navy. These are not just stories, however — they’re all true, and make his life, which he has now devoted completely to the students, faculty, and staff of Christendom, that much more extraordinary.

Born in County Mayo, Ireland (near to where Christendom now hosts its annual St. Columcille Institute summer program), Fr. O’Kielty was the 8th of ten children. At a young age, he knew he wanted to become a priest, and so he went about studying in seminaries all across Europe, from England to Belgium to Germany and finally to Scotland. He was ordained a priest (a White Father Missionary) in 1954, a moment that marked the real start of his great journey.

For the next 11 years, Fr. O’Kielty served not in his native Ireland but instead in Tanganyika as a missionary, before it became the United Republic of Tanzania in 1964. Fr. O’Kielty was a powerful force in the region, thanks to his passion and his charisma — facets of his personality that still impact souls to this day. Following Tanganyika’s unification in 1964, Fr. O’Kielty made his first stop in the United States, where he taught high school in the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey.

Fr. O’Kielty has lived an incredible life, serving as missionary in war-torn countries and more.

Within a year, he was back in a foreign country as a missionary, this time in war-torn Bolivia. He served in the missions there, before becoming temporary chaplain to the Bolivian army when “Che” Guevara was attempting to establish an insurgency. While in this role, Fr. O’Kielty also created a catechetical program — despite being forbidden to by the government — to evangelize the Aymara Indians. In the end, he trained more than 100 catechists before leaving the country, even at the risk of his own life.

When he had been in America prior to Bolivia, Fr. O’Kielty fell in love with teaching, and chose to continue pursuing it upon returning to the States. He attended Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey, where he earned a master’s in education and became certified by the state as an accredited teacher of German, French, and Spanish. He earned a master’s in linguistics at New York University as well, and became a doctoral candidate while there.

In 1974, he returned to Tanganyika, now Burundi, to become a parish pastor, taking on a role left abandoned after the massacre of Hutu priests in the region. The bravery of Fr. O’Kielty cannot be overstated here — while other priests were being killed, he willingly entered the region for the sake of souls, bringing them the Body and Blood of Christ in dangerous times.

Five years later, Fr. O’Kielty found himself as a Navy chaplain, serving sailors in Libya, Lebanon, Turkey, Morocco, and near Cuba. He qualified as an expert marksman with a pistol and M16, and engaged in Jungle Fighting Training. For all of his service, Fr. O’Kielty was awarded Sea Service Deployment medals, the Navy Achievement Medal, the Navy Commendation Medal, and the Meritorious Service Medal, all before retiring from the Navy in 1995. An illustrious career, for an increasingly illustrious priest.

Fr. O’Kielty even served as a Navy chaplain. Here he is meeting Pope Saint John Paul II.

With his duty done, Fr. O’Kielty returned to education, serving as an adjunct professor at Fairleigh Dickenson University’s School of Education before returning to the Paterson Diocese as an assistant priest at various parishes.

In 2002, Fr. O’Kielty made his final stop, becoming an assistant chaplain at Christendom. In 2004, he took on the role of head chaplain, holding that role for a number of years before becoming an assisting priest to the present day. His love of Christendom, particularly of its students, has changed thousands of lives during his fifteen years. Imagining Christendom without the impact of Fr. O’Kielty is like imagining Christendom without the impact of professor (and founding faculty member) Raymund O’Herron or registrar Walter Janaro — the institution would not be the same otherwise.

For alumni, the man’s force in their lives inspired them to be better Catholics, both in and outside of the Chapel, an inspiration that carries on through the present day.

“Fr. O’Kielty has been an immense blessing to Christendom for over 15 years,” says Ken Furlong ’05. “His wit, wisdom, perseverance, and dedication to the spiritual well-being of the community are inspiring.  His love of the students is matched only by their love of him. [My wife] Alaina and I are so happy that it was he who officiated our betrothal, witnessed our marriage, and baptized our children. We, like countless others, will always be grateful that Fr. O’Kielty is part of Christendom.”

Today, Fr. O’Kielty still continues to serve Mass and hear confessions for the Christendom College community.

Sam Phillips ’08 who is currently Christendom’s director of admissions, refers to Fr. O’Kielty as one of the most treasured and beloved members of the Christendom community.

“He has achieved a status that is practically legendary here on campus and among all alumni,” Phillips says. “I consider it one of my greatest privileges and fondest memories during my time as a student at Christendom to have assisted Fr. O’Kielty at the Mass as an altar server. Father’s sharp Irish wit was unstoppable and irrepressible. But what was and continues to be truly remarkable is his deep love of the Mass and of Our Lord in the Eucharist, which is so apparent whenever he celebrates Mass. Even when at times he has experienced temporary physical setbacks, his piety and reverence on the altar never ceased. Fr. O’Kielty’s deep love of Our Lord and the Faith continue to be a true inspiration to the entire Christendom community, and on a personal level he is a great example to my own children and family.”

Ireland. Burundi. Bolivia. Christendom. Each place touched by Fr. O’Kielty. Each place, never the same again because of his love for people, for education, and for Christ.

About Christendom

Christendom College is a Catholic liberal arts college offering a time-tested and rigorous education that develops the student’s intellect in such a powerful way that he graduates with the ability to master any subject—no matter how complex the vocational calling.
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An Announcement from Christendom College President
Dr. Timothy T. O'Donnell