Fr. Keller Passing

Fr. John Keller, O.S.A. passed away around 12:45pm Friday January 26th 2024 at Nazareth House. 

Fr. John was surrounded by family and his Augustinian brothers as he entered into the loving arms of the Good Shepherd.

Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul and all the souls of the Faithful Departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

An announcement regarding services will be forthcoming, thank you for your prayers.

Rest in Peace Fr. John Keller, ’55, O.S.A.                                                            01.26.2024

(Written by Ed Hearn in December 2023)

Occasionally, we meet people who seem to engage us in a way that we take an interest in their leadership.  They operate on a different level, are visionary, serious and seem to perform at a level we rarely see.  While not understandable, they have authority in our lives, not due to their power but due to their attributes and the way they conduct their lives.  They challenge our thinking and change us!

Fr. John Keller, O.S.A. is one such person.  Although he has lived a simple life and has pushed any acclaim to the side, when he speaks people take notice.  His impact will continue to resonate among those of us who were fortunate to have lived and worked by his side. 

Just about the time Dougherty Gymnasium was completed in 1952 after only 30 years from the founding of Saints, John Keller made his official entrance into the St. Augustine community as a freshman.  By his own admission, these early days were not pleasant.  He was bookish, not an athlete and did not immediately connect with boy culture like most of the young men at Saints do during their high school days.  At almost the precise moment of beginning his academic life, the Augustinians were making an intellectual push in the school to foster a more robust and challenging program. 

This effort was led by a talented Augustinian priest, Fr. John Aherne, O.S.A. who was serving the school as the Assistant Principal.  He was tapped to lead the school as the interim principal until that November when he was named principal. Under his guidance the intellectual environment of Saints markedly improved during the next decade of his leadership.  The climate on campus shifted and John Keller watched it all through his Saints Experience and discovered the direction for the rest of his life.  He joined the Order, and as an Augustinian priest, he served Saints as a teacher, principal, and president of the California Province as a provincial, and worked in campus ministry at the University of San Diego—a position he loved.

Fr. John Keller, as a Saints student, saw the way Augustinians lived in community and their interest in promoting Augustinian spirituality.  When asked what phrase should be chosen for the statute of St. Augustine and the student, John paraphrased a sentence from the Rule of St. Augustine, “One in heart and mind on the way to God!”  This was a capstone phrase from St. Augustine that captured Fr. Keller’s central theme of his life. There was an intellectual element that would become more pronounced through his time at Saints-one that was appealing, one that captured the attention of others and one that he would promote throughout his priestly life.

The value of this truth found its way in the work of the late Fr. Bill Mahedy, O.S.A., who developed a framework for the value of our relationships and community in our personal well-being.  Fr. John Keller, who worked with Fr. Mahedy developed these important ideas that sprang directly from their Augustinian experience. Fr. Keller worked diligently with Mahedy on a conceptual framework that ultimately became a tenet for a program developed for veterans returning from Desert Storm who were dealing with PTSD.  It became one of the important ways the Veterans’ Administration ministered to returning veterans.

After being elected Provincial in the 1980’s, it was clear to Fr. Keller that the declining number of Augustinians would necessitate the hiring of more lay people to take the place of Augustinians in their schools.  The question of how the ten Augustinian schools would remain Augustinian was his overriding concern.  He could have used a top-down approach but chose a ground up process.  After promoting Fr. John Sanders, O.S.A., to the principalship in 1988, the two of them developed a questionnaire that would identify the values that were most important to the two Augustinian educational communities at Saints and Villanova Preparatory School in Ojai.  The Core Values of Unity, Truth and Love emerged as the critical values that were at the heart of both schools. Interestingly, these are the same values that are found on the seal of Villanova University.

With these values having been identified, the structure of Augustinian education could then be taught to lay people.  Fr. Keller was an instrumental voice in developing the Augustinian Values Institute (AVI), an annual Institute for educating the educational communities of the ten North American secondary schools.  Those who were chosen to attend heard presentations on each of the Core Values, Interiority, and the life of St. Augustine.  It has become the way for the Augustinian ethos to be internalized in the inner workings of the schools.

When I was named President in 2006, Fr. Keller remained the protector of the Core Values and purveyor of ideas and the energy to move them forward.  This not only applied to Saints and Villanova Preparatory School, but the rest of the North American schools. 

The annual Augustinian Secondary Educational Association (ASEA—the formal association of the schools in North America) meetings were a forum in which Fr. Keller pushed the group forward.  He was full of ideas for further developing Augustinian education that were sometimes met with indifference by the other Augustinian heads of school.  This was troubling for a person such as Fr. Keller.  

Fr. Keller, not to be deterred, felt a deeper experience for those who had attended the AVI needed to be developed.  Out of this sprang Building the City of God, an experience he championed for years.  It has served Augustinian educators for the past six years.  

With the advent of these two programs, Fr. Keller’s impact has not only affected Augustinian education in North America, but also in Ireland, the United Kingdom, and Australia.  As others discovered these tools, both the AVI and Building the City of God have helped to pass on the richness of Augustinian education to lay men and women working in their schools across two oceans.  His persistence has placed Saint Augustine’s ideas at the center of our work.

After Fr. John Sander’s died, Fr. Keller was named principal from 2000 to 2003. Fr. Keller saw the need to employ a new model of governance—the President/Principal Model.  He hired James Horne as principal to operate the school, while he became the first President of Saints.  He divided the position of Head of School into two positions-one that ran the internal workings of the school and the other who looked outside the school to further the development of Saints.

Realizing that Saints faced unprecedented competition with the new Catholic schools to its north and south, he began forming a strategic Board of Directors for the purpose of developing a Master Plan for the campus, hiring an architect, a builder, and developing a way to rebuild the campus and raise the required funds to re-imagine Saints.  In 2006 the groundbreaking for Phase I took place. It was one month prior to Fr. Keller stepping down as President.  He had completed his work.

It was his vision that propelled Saints forward into the campus and school that exists in 2024.  After he stepped down as President, Fr. Keller was named the Director of Education for the Province.  It was his good advice and friendship that helped guide the development of Saints and Villanova Prep in Ojai from 2006 through till today.

Even with fewer Augustinians, our schools have remained true to the core values of the Order of St. Augustine.  It can be said that Fr. Keller was a thinker and a molder of Augustinian communities.  His kindness and happiness were part of his priesthood that brought people together.  He took credit for none of it.  His humility through his entire life has been a model of Christian charity.  The Augustinian elements embedded in Saints and Villanova Prep were strengthened and broadened so that more people could see the value of the centrality of Augustinian thought in the good development of life at Saints.  His interest and persistence have been a strong contributing factor in the schools we see today and the health of Augustinian education worldwide.  It is with grateful hearts we acknowledge Christian charity at its best—an impact that will resonate for years to come and will continue to influence our approach to how boys are taught.