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Chaplain Matthew O'Keefe of Mahone's Brigade.

A famous priest-sketch of his noble and Beneficent career.

Towson, Md., January 28, 1906.
Rev. Matthew O'Keefe, pastor of the Roman Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception, died of pneumonia, contracted while responding to calls to attend the sick. He was seventy-eight years old and a native of Waterford, Ireland.

The oldest priest in the diocese, Father O'Keefe was the last surviving brigade chaplain of the Confederate Army, he having been chaplain of Mahone's Brigade of the Army of Northern Virginia, and a close personal friend of General Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis.

Father O'Keefe made himself famous throughout the South by his work during the outbreak of yellow fever at Norfolk and Portsmouth in 1855, and in 1869 won the red ribbon of the Legion of Honor by his attendance upon the officers and crew of a fever stricken French frigate that put in at Hampton Roads. He is said to have died practically penniless, having devoted his large fortune to Church work.

Was Mahone's chaplain.

Rev. Matthew O'Keefe, the chaplain of General Mahone's famous brigade of the Confederate Army; the warm personal friend of Jefferson Davis and General Robert E. Lee, yellow fever hero and member of the Legion of Honor of France, was born in the city of Waterford, Ireland, on May 1, 1828, and in January of 1902 celebrated the golden jubilee of his ordination as a priest. For thirty-five years he was stationed at Norfolk, Va., where he built the finest church edifice south of Baltimore.

He had been a priest of the Catholic Church for fifty-four years, and was one of the most widely known clergymen of the archdiocese. He was a ready debater and a quick, clear thinker. [177] He was educated at St. John's College, at Waterford, Ireland, where, after his graduation, he served three years as professor of theology and philosophy. In his native town, when he was in the twenty-fourth year of his age, he was ordained a priest by Bishop Foran. Several months afterward he came to Baltimore and was assigned to Frostburg, being the first pastor of that parish. He was there only a short time, and although his work promised rich results, he was recalled and sent to assist in the Diocese of Richmond, then under Bishop John McGill. He was placed in charge of the work at Norfolk, where he remained for thirty-five years.

In 1855 the yellow fever broke out in Norfolk and Portsmouth, just across the river. It was during this plague that Father O'Keefe did the work that made his name famous throughout the South. He worked among the people like a hero, nursing the sick, administering the last rites of the Church to the dying, and burying the dead. He buried more than half his congregation during the epidemic.

In 1856, the year after the yellow fever plague, his church (St. Patrick's) was burnt down, but he rebuilt it, and also commenced the present St. Mary's Church of the Immaculate Conception.

His gift from Napoleon.

An incident occurred in his career in 1869, which was recognized in the most substantial manner. A French frigate arrived in Hampton Roads from the Spanish Main with yellow fever on board. Father O'Keefe was sent for to attend the sick. He responded immediately, and remained on board the frigate several days, only going ashore to bury the dead. He buried twenty-two or twenty-three of the officers and crew of the frigate at Sewell's Point, near Newport News. The dread of the fever was still in the town, and Father O'Keefe was forbidden to return to Norfolk, it being feared that he would bring the terrible disease with him. He took all proper precautions to prevent the fever spreading and came to Baltimore, where he remained two weeks, and then returned to his parish. In the meantime the admiral of the French fleet arrived in Hampton Roads looking: for the fever ship. [178]

He was informed what Father O'Keefe had done, and when the priest returned there were two letters for him from the French admiral. One was a private note, in which the admiral expressed his personal thanks for what the priest had done; the other was an official letter thanking him, in the name of the Government, for his services to the navy when in distress.

In the following spring Father O'Keefe received, through Hon. Hamilton Fish, the Secretary of State, a magnificent gold watch and chain from the Emperor Napoleon, with a letter expressing his gratitude for Father O'Keefe's services. The value of the watch and chain is not less than $500. The watch is elaborately chased, bearing the imperial crown. On one side is engraved, in bold relief, this inscription: ‘Presented by the Imperial Government of France to Rev. M. O'Keefe, cure of Norfolk, Va., for services rendered to the Imperial Marine, 1869.’ He was also enrolled as a member of the Legion of Honor of France.

Father O'Keefe served as chaplain of Mahone's Brigade, having been appointed to the position by the Confederate Secretary in 1861.

In 1887 Father O'Keefe returned to Baltimore and was appointed by Cardinal Gibbons to the chaplaincy of the Notre Dame Convent and pastor of St. Francis' Church Towson. In addition to his pastoral ruties, he had taken great interest in parochial schools, and was until recently superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Crowning work of life.

It was at Towson that Father O'Keefe performed the crowning work of his notable life. He erected there the Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception, a magnificent marble building, trimmed with finest brownstone, and considered by many the most beautiful church in Maryland. It was built largely out of Father O'Keefe's private purse. The interior of the walls of the building are adorned with frescoed steel panels. There are a number of fine stained glass windows, and in the front of the church a mammoth window, on which there is an artistic representation of the Reserrection of Christ. There are five beautiful [179] marble altars. The main altar cost $20,000, and is made of the finest Italian marble. The church is of the Gothic style of architecture, and is located on a beautiful slope over 600 feet above the level of the sea and overlooking the beautiful Dulaneys Valley and the surrounding country, and can be seen for many miles. In this beautiful church, the second of the kind which he erected, will be the tomb of the venerable priest.

Father O'Keefe lived a most austere life, and spent his large private fortune for religious and charitable purposes. For some time at Townson he lived in a building which had been formerly used as a shop.

The furniture in his room was of the most simple kind. Most of his meals consisted of bread and water or milk. After the new church was built Father O'Keefe occupied a room over the sanctuary. He gave up the parochial residence to the Sisters of the Notre Dame, who teach the parochial school, founded and endowed by him, so as to be forever free. He frequently taught classes in school, and was regarded as having a natural talent for teaching.

In appearance Father O'Keefe was handsome and of robust build. He had deep blue eyes and an abundance of gray hair. Despite his austerity, he was fond of company and an entertaining host.

Father O'Keefe was proud of his connections with the Confederate Army, and bore an intense love for the Southern people and the leaders of the Confederacy, with whom he had been so closely associated, both as a friend and as an adviser.

Visited Davis in prison.

When Jefferson Davis was a prisoner at Fortress Monroe, he was visited daily by Father O'Keefe, who consoled the leader of the Lost Cause during the bitter hours that he was imprisoned. He was invited by the widow of Mr. Davis to accompany the body of the latter to Richmond to be entombed.

It is stated that it was the desire of Father O'Keefe that he should be buried with all the simplicity possible, but with the regulations in accord with his position in the Confederate Army, [180] as he wished it to be known that he died as he lived, an unreconstructed Confederate.

Cardinal Gibbons holds Father O'Keefe's memory in the highest esteem and says that he always did the work of two priests. At one time Father O'Keefe, besides performing his pastoral duties, acted as superintendent of parochial schools of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and as editor of the Catholic Mirror.

Death found Father O'Keefe engrossed with great plans for the future, including the building of a magnificent Catholic high school at Towson, which would rival any institution of the kind in the country. Father O'Keefe modeled his parochial school after the public schools, using, whenever possible, the same textbooks. The only difference was that Christian doctrine is taught in the former school.

Man of courage.

Father O'Keefe was a man of rare personal courage and a number of times in his notable career he was brought face to face with possible death amid the carnage of battle, the ravages of yellow fever, and the enmity of the Know Nothings, who had marked him for death.

One night during the time the Know Nothing party was at the height of its popularity in Virginia, two men came to the residence of Father O'Keefe and informed him that they were sent to row him across the river to Portsmouth to visit a dying man. Father O'Keefe went with them, and when the other side of the river was reached the two men told him that the sick man lived in a house some distance away. Father O'Keefe said that he then realized that he was to be assassinated, and made up his mind to fight for his life. He covered the two men, holding a revolver in each hand, and compelled them to walk ahead of him until the principal streets of Portsmouth were reached, where he caused them to be arrested. It was afterwards discovered that the two men had been selected to kill Father O'Keefe, but the timely action of the brave priest had taken the nerve of the two would-be assassins.

At the outbreak of the Civil War Father O'Keefe applied to [181] Bishop McGill for permission to take up arms in defense of the South. This permission was denied by the bishop, who enjoined Father O'Keefe under his sacerdotal vows not to bear arms, but stipulated that if Norfolk was attacked he could exercise the natural right of self-defense in defending his home city.

Thereupon Father O'Keefe went to Richmond and offered to lead a night attack with 500 picked men on the Federal camp at Point Lookout, below Norfolk. President Davis consented, but stipulated that a Confederate colonel must accompany the expedition. The officer arrived in Norfolk, but became intoxicated, and when he became sober again heavy reinforcements had arrived at the camp, and, much to Father O'Keefe's disappointment, the expedition had to be abandoned.

Father O'Keefe urged President Davis to set the slaves free and to allow them to take up arms in defense of the South. The latter is said to have declared, after the war, that if Father O'Keefe's advice had been heeded the result of the conflict would have been different.

His one sorrow.

Those who knew Father O'Keefe intimately were aware that one sorrow had overshadowed the latter years of his life. It was his removal from the pastorate of St. Mary's Church at Norfolk. The then ordinary of the diocese, it is said, did not approve of the elaborate improvements Father O'Keefe had in hand, but he showed his appreciation of the high personal esteem in which he held the latter by offering him the pastorship of the most important church in Richmond.

Father O'Keefe, however, left the Diocese of Virginia forever and returned to the Archdiocese of Baltimore, where he was warmly welcomed by Cardinal Gibbons and assigned to important work. Father O'Keefe was devoutly attached to the people of Norfolk of all denominations, and they warmly reciprocated his feelings. He was frequently urged to visit that city again and to be tendered a public reception, but he declined, and passed the remaining days of his life without ever again seeing the city he so dearly loved.


Defied General Butler.

One Sunday during the Civil War, while engaged in instructing some children, Father O'Keefe received the following telegram from General Benjamin Butler:

General Butler sends his compliments to Father O'Keefe and desires to know if he prays for the Federal authorities at the vesper service.’

Father O'Keefe's reply is characteristic. He wrote the following on the back of General Butler's note:

Father O'Keefe does not return his compliments to General Butler. I do not pray for the Federal authorities at the vesper service, nor do I intend to do so. Furthermore, I never heard of such a thing.’

Of course, it was thought by every one that on the receipt of the reply from Father O'Keefe General Butler would immediately order his arrest. However, he did not. Years afterwards General Butler and Father O'Keefe met, and the interchange of telegrams between them was referred to.

“I would have arrested you,” said the General, ‘but on account of the charitable works you were performing.’

“I was anxious that you should arrest me,” replied the priest. ‘I wanted to get to the front, but the vow of obedience to my bishop prevented me. If I had been arrested I might have had an opportunity to have gone there.’

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