Sister Mary Brigida Keily, MM

Born: November 15, 1905
Entered: October 15, 1926
Died: February 17, 1997

“Wouldst thou know thy Lord’s meaning in this thing? Wit it well. Love is His meaning.” These were words of the English mystic, Juliana of Norwich, that Sr. Mary Brigida Keily quoted which serve to summarize her life. She died at the age of ninety-one, Monday, February 17, 1997 at 2:50 A.M.

“Love is His meaning.” Love was the meaning of her life, a rich tapestry of service and interests: teaching, counseling, library work, music, sewing and administration. She wrote plays and used this talent generously as a teaching method and for entertainment in Maryknoll. Her love of study and her knowledge were used in service to the Congregation. She had the rare distinction of having worked and taught in the four novitiates – at Maryknoll, NY, Topsfield, MA, Valley Park, MO and Rosary House, Philippines.

“Love is His meaning” was what gave her energy for relationships. Many Sisters recall good times with her in the Baguio house, which during summers was transformed into a vacation haven, providing nourishment for the tired missioners who needed rest and recreation. Her good sense of humor and welcoming hospitality were well appreciated. Her versatility flowed into simplicity nights for which she could always whip up a play or song to bring out laughter and joy. She was an excellent teacher on all levels and of novices who remember her for her love for the Scriptures. She was a good mentor for fledgling teachers who learned much from her enthusiasm and effective teaching methods. She cared for the poor, encouraging them to study and helping them find employment.

Her deep faith and big doses of wisdom carried her through difficult times. We know of her forgiving heart for her wartime interrogators. Like one who is moved by love’s meaning, Sr. Brigida found peace and confidence in God in whom she had given her all and because of her generous self-gift, she lived to be many things to many people – in joy or in pain, in stimulating classroom routine or overcrowded war prison cells, in libraries or retirement communities.

Ann Cecilia Keily was born on November 15, 1905 in Brooklyn, NY to Brigid Mernin and Patrick J. Keily. She had two brothers, John and Brother James of the Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd, both deceased, and one sister who presently resides in New Mexico. She attended Sacred Heart Institute for eight years and graduated from St. James Academy High School in 1924. Her sister, who is unable to be with us today, recalls that when Ann Cecilia was a student at St. James, they had to wear black stockings. Ann wore them but also wore holes through them playing softball. Their mother, embarrassed, would always say: “Look at her coming up the street – white knees!” Ann also wrote plays and one of these was about people in the South making moonshine and hiding it. When the officer of the law came along and could not find it, suddenly a parrot said, “The still is hidden in the cellar on the left-hand side.”

In 1924, Ann obtained her certificate at the Heffley Business School after which the Sinclair Oil Company in New York employed her for two years doing bookkeeping, stenography, typing and payroll work.

Ann Cecilia came to Maryknoll on October 15, 1926 from Sacred Heart Parish in the Brooklyn Diocese. She wished to become a religious because she felt that “it is God’s will and…to bring souls to love Him.” She later received the religious name of Sister Mary Brigida and made her first profession on March 30, 1929 at Maryknoll, NY. During her novitiate, she attended Mount Saint Vincent’s College from 1928-29. She made her final profession on March 30, 1932 in Baguio, Philippines.

Sister Mary Brigida’s first assignment was to work at St. Mary’s Hall, a dormitory for Catholic university students in Manila, Philippines. For eight years, she served as an organist, taught music and did counseling. In 1937, she earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Education from Santo Tomas University in Manila after which she taught Grade School in Baguio City. Sister Carmencita Gabriel remembers the play she produced on the “Sacraments” for her Grade 4 class for which she sewed the priest’s vestment. She also worked with the Igorots, a highland people in Baguio City.

When the war came, Sr. Brigida was Assistant Superior in the Baguio Community. Only two weeks after Sr. Trinita was taken, the Japanese soldiers came and took her to Fort Santiago for questioning. Although she and Sr. Trinita were in the same prison, they did not see each other until months later. This harrowing experience that entailed sleepless nights, endless persistent interrogation and torture took a heavy toll on her health. She was released for medical reasons to the Philippine General Hospital and stayed there until the American Forces recaptured Manila in early 1945.

In the midst of what seemed to be an endlessly harrowing experience. Sr. Brigida remembered that once she was asked, “Who is this Jesus that you always call on? Stop calling on Him,” A military police officer named Mon, who seemed to understand her said, “Let her alone. She is praying.” In the hospital where she was taken was also a Fort Santiago victim, Mr. Sinclair, also a friend of Fr. Hurley, a Jesuit priest. Mr. Sinclair offered her accommodations in the pay ward preparing clean beds and hot tea for her and the two nurses who came with her. Along the way, were angels, good people, including a young helper at St. Mary’s Hall where she used to work, our own Maryknoll Sisters Claver Sanglap and Concepcion Kalaw and Miss Ceferina Jamias, a close lay associate. Sister Brigida wrote that although she did not see Sr. Concepcion, she knew that she smuggled in food to her and the Sisters at the Los Banos camp. There were also priests who came for Mass that was well attended though held under the stairs to avoid the bullets winging through the hospital walls. Later, when she and Sr. Trinita were reunited, both shared their belief that “the Sacred Heart had been watching over them” and that “God has permitted it all and we come out loving the Japanese as much or more than ever.”

In 1945, after the war, she and Sr. Trinita rejoined the other Maryknoll Sisters from Los Banos, later leaving the Philippines for the US on the S.S. Eberle for a much needed recuperation. Sister Mary Brigida was assigned to the Venard, the Maryknoll Fathers Junior Seminary in Scranton, PA, where she helped as organist and seamstress. The following years she taught in Transfiguration School in Chinatown, NYC and in San Juan Capistrano, CA. After this brief mission in the US, Sr. Mary Brigida was assigned back to Baguio in 1952 where she was Superior. In 1955, she was sent to Lucena, Quezon to teach high school English until 1960. She was also First Councillor in the Region. It was during the Summers of 1957-60 that she pursued a Masters of Science Degree in Sacred Doctrine at the School of Theology for Sisters in Baguio City affiliated with the Pontifical Institute “Regina Mundi,” Rome.

After Decennial in 1961, Sr. Mary Brigida went to St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, IN and obtained a Master of Arts in Sacred Doctrine in 1962. She was assigned to teach Scripture, Church History and Psychology in the novitiates in the Motherhouse, Topsfield and Valley Park until 1967 and the Quezon City Novitiate in 1968. This was the end of her ministry to the novices.

Planning for a ministry for pre-retirement years, she obtained a Masters Degree in Library Science in 1970 after which she worked in the Maryknoll College Library in Quezon City supervising the Child Study Center, elementary and high school libraries until 1976. During this time, Sr. Mary Brigida became interested in the Adult Education Program at Maryknoll College that provided training for young men and women in vocational skills. On September 23, 1975, Mary Brigida also received the International Women’s Year Award–Certificate of Recognition from the United Nations Association of the Philippines for “distinguished service and outstanding contribution to the educational, social, civic, cultural and economic amelioration of the Philippines.”

Leaving the Philippines for good in 1976, she was assigned to Monrovia where she used her skills as librarian. While there, she used her own creative talent to produce simple homey plays, calling forth the acting talents of the Sisters, providing many delightful community gatherings. These were so successful that she felt affirmed by the Sisters’ response. She also spent two periods in Chichiltah and Tohatchi, NM as companion to other Sisters who were in ministry there. In 1991, when failing health demanded an increased level of care, she was transferred to the Center.

Throughout her active mission life, she accepted every assignment as a “complete oblation” to do God’s will. Because she believed that God “seems to have accepted the oblation,” the result for her was a certain joy about the assignment. Inspired by her wholehearted gifting of self for mission, Sr. Marisa Lichauco, then at Topsfield, wrote to her the following words of appreciation that also resonates with ours:

“Through you, I saw an excellent example of the importance of identifying oneself through love with the people among whom one works. Your love for the Philippines and its people is so genuine, so true, it touched me to the very core.”

We welcome Fr. Bill Galvin, our Maryknoll brother, who will preside at this Liturgy of the Resurrection. Let us give thanks for the life of Sr. Mary Brigida, who in peacetime and wartime, in laughter and suffering, has found profound meaning in these words: “Wouldst thou know thy Lord’s meaning in this thing? Wit it well. Love is His meaning.”