Sister Mary Philippa Keough, MM

Born: September 3, 1909
Entered: December 12, 1932
Died: May 9, 2004

At 9:30 on Sunday morning, May 9, 2004, our much loved Sister Philippa Keough died peacefully in the Residential Care IV at Maryknoll, N.Y. She was 94 years of age and had been a Maryknoll Sister for 71 years.

Elsie Bridget Keough was born on Fogo Island, Newfoundland, Canada, on September 3, 1909, to Martin and Julia Thoms Keough. She had one younger brother, Dan, who was born not long after Elsie. Their mother died when she was two years old. At that time Elsie was taken to the other side of Fogo Island, to the home of Tom and Mary Ann Shea who took her in as their own daughter. Her brother Dan went with their father to Boston where he was raised by a paternal aunt. Both her father and brother are now deceased. Elsie was eighteen when her adopted mother died. She then moved to Boston with other members of the Shea family. However, she always called herself a “newfee.” Over the years Elsie remained close to an extended family of nieces and nephews and their children, as well as her ‘adopted siblings’ and their children. Elsie attended Star of the Sea Grammar School in Fogo Island. As a young woman in South Boston she did domestic and child care work for three years, and worked for another three years as a clerk in Sears Roebuck.

Elsie entered Maryknoll from Sacred Heart Parish, South Boston, on December 12, 1932. She received the religious name of Sister Mary Philippa, which she retained throughout her life. She made her First Profession of Vows on June 30, 1935, and Final Profession three years later on the same date, both times in ceremonies at Maryknoll, NY. Her early years were spent in ministry at Bethany, Maryknoll, NY, and at the Maryknoll Society’s Junior Seminary, Clark Summit, PA. In 1945, she was among the first Maryknoll Sisters to work in Boston Chinatown. She loved this mission and when she was assigned to the Procurator’s Office at Maryknoll in 1949 the people showed their love for her as well by organizing a petition with numerous signatures, begging that Sister Philippa be allowed to stay in Boston. From 1950 to 1957, she was assigned to St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Bronx, NY, and then spent a year in Monrovia, CA, before being assigned to Hawaii in 1958 where she remained until 1967.

While serving as cook or housekeeper in these various missions, Sister Philippa not only took good care of the Sisters, but she was well known for the way she reached out to the neighborhood wherever she lived. In Hawaii she began her own nearly new store. She knew those “who had” and those “who needed,” and as she often said of herself, “I have been a good beggar for the poor.” She is also remembered in Hawaii for founding the Filipino Catholic Club.

In 1967, Sister Philippa was reassigned to St. Anthony’s in the Bronx, and was happy to be back in the city she loved as well as among people she knew and loved. In this second period in the Bronx, her outreach efforts included fighting drug dealing on the streets, even at her own personal risk. Though she returned to Maryknoll, NY, in 1971, she continued working with the people of the Bronx until 1973. That same year, in a ceremony at Fordham University, Sister Philippa received the Fr. LaFarge Brotherhood Award from the Catholic Interracial Council of the Bronx for her “dedication to every need of the people of that community.” She was embraced as a friend and as a “permanent Bronxite” no matter where she lived.

Many are the Maryknoll Sisters who benefitted from her kindnesses. Newly returned from missions, we would find ourselves recipients of handsome outfits, carefully selected by Sister Philippa from among donations to the “Nearly New Shop” here at Maryknoll. Not only did she look out for the Sisters in this regard, she was known to collect and distribute men’s clothing to members of the Maryknoll Society as well when they returned from missions. For many years she was active in the Charismatic renewal movement, in the organization entitled Handicapped Encounter Christ (HEC), and in an extensive telephone ministry of support and counseling. When she could no longer go out to others, her many friends kept coming back to visit her.

Due to increased needs for nursing assistance, Sister Philippa moved to Residential Care IV on October 25, 1994. Fewer were the times that we saw her in the main dining room or around the house, wearing any one of her many wonderful, brightly colored hats! She continued to write and share her poetry in these years. Particularly memorable for all of us is her poem entitled “My New York City,” written in 1970 and posted on our bulletin boards following the 9/11 tragedy at the Twin Towers in New York City. We can take heart from lines in her poem where she speaks of the City: Let all take heart for ‘ere tomorrow, a bright new day will dawn for one and all. That bright new day has now dawned for Sister Philippa herself, and she shines like a bright jewel for all of us who mourn her passing.

Sister Phillipa is survived by nieces and nephews from her extended families who are unable to be here today. We welcome many of her friends who are with us this morning. We are also happy to welcome Father Roberto Perez, a Carmelite priest and former Maryknoll student in the Bronx who is currently Parochial Vicar at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Middleton, New York. He will preside at this morning’s Liturgy of Christian Burial.