Former P.O.W. is remembered as a great listener
By Deacon Tom Picciano
BINGHAMTON — A simple wooden casket held the body of Father Paul J. Keebler. In the minutes before the funeral on May 2, several people walked up to say final goodbyes. The funeral was held at the Church of the Holy Trinity, formed of three parishes: St. Joseph’s, St. Stanislaus Kostka, and St. Ann’s where he served as pastor.
A priest for nearly 52 years, Father Keebler died on April 26 at the age of 92. Born and raised in Syracuse, he attended Nottingham High School. He served in the army in World War II and was a prisoner of war.
After he returned home, he was a member of Le Moyne College’s first graduating class in 1951, earning a bachelor of science degree in pure science. After teaching mathematics for nine years at Jamesville High School, he entered Christ the King Seminary and was ordained a priest in 1966.
Father Keebler taught math at Bishop Ludden High School in Syracuse between 1967 and 1980, where he also coached tennis, bowling, golf, and basketball. Five years of missionary service in South America followed. He was appointed pastor at St. Ann’s for a decade and then went to Our Lady of Lourdes in Windsor where he served the parish for part of his retirement. Father Keebler later moved to The Nottingham in Jamesville to live with other retired priests.
More than a dozen priests and retired Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Costello joined the principal celebrant, Bishop Robert J. Cunningham, for the funeral Mass.
“He was a man, a priest who was never looking for honor,” said homilist Father Frederick R. Mannara, pastor of Most Holy Rosary Church in Syracuse. “He had compassion, mercy, humility.”
“He was a listener more than a speaker,” Father Mannara said. The two had served together at Bishop Ludden.
Father Mannara spoke of Father Keebler’s military service. He said the young soldier was of small stature and was sent ahead to scout out the enemy. Once, while on a mission, he sought shelter from gunfire in a hole, was surrounded by German troops, and was taken prisoner. One of the troops spoke English.
“He was not calling them enemies, but brothers,” Father Mannara said, noting that the soldier spent much time conversing with those who guarded him.
“He had a gentleness about it,” said Father Mannara. “When he came back he called it a learning experience.”
Education was a big part of Father Keebler’s life, from his teaching in the public schools, to Bishop Ludden. That’s where he taught Father Mannara to drive a bus, as they took students on field trips and to sporting events.
There’s a memorable road trip the two priests took — camping their way to Alaska and back. When they started, Father Keebler told Father Mannara to keep checking the transmission fluid. They made it all the way to the north … but the car broke down. Father Mannara said he kept checking the fluid … but Father Keebler had mistakenly told him check the brake fluid instead, leading to the trouble.
That led to spending time sleeping inside for a couple of nights at the nearby chancery with fellow priests. And as a result, they were given a choice campsite with a spectacular view of nature.
Father Mannara remembered Father Keebler’s “patience and gentleness” and his devotion to faith.
“My image was of Paul carrying his breviary,” Father Mannara said. “He was delighted to spend time in prayer.”
“He recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread,” Father Mannara said.
He quoted 1 Corinthians 2:9: “‘What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him.’”
Concluding, he spoke of Father Keebler: “God loves him into eternal life.”
“Well done, Father Paul Keebler,” he added.
“Enter now into the joy of the Lord. Peace be with you.”
After the Mass, all in attendance gathered in a circle around the casket in the gathering space at Holy Trinity. Bright sunlight filtered through the stained-glass windows as the priests sang “Salve Regina.”
Father Keebler was predeceased by his sister, Eleanor Hastings. He is survived by his brother-in-law, Paul Hastings, of Endwell; his brotherhood of priests; and “multitudes of people who knew and loved him.”
Burial was at St. Mary’s Cemetery, DeWitt.
Deacon Tom Picciano is a journalist and longtime contributor to the Catholic Sun. He serves at St. Vincent de Paul Blessed Sacrament Parish in Vestal.