For years I passed the graceful façade of Saint Anthony of Padua church (862 Manhattan Avenue) and admired its beauty, but never really thought much about the man who built it. Recently I researched the life of the amazing man who built this Greenpoint landmark and his story is every bit as amazing as the church he built.
Patrick Keely (1816-1896) was the most prolific church builder in American history, constructing, by some estimates, seven hundred churches stretching from Nova Scotia to the Gulf of Mexico and from New England to Iowa. He built St. Anthony’s in 1876. It is like many of his churches built in the neo-gothic style. Keely’s prolific career is all the more shocking when we consider that he never received any formal training as an architect.
Patrick Keely was born August 9, 1816 in Thurles County in Tipperary, Ireland, the son of a builder. Because he was a Catholic and there were penal laws that prevented Catholics from studying architecture, Keely could not study building in the land of his birth. Keely arrived in New York in 1842 and had the good fortune to quickly make a lifelong friend, Father Sylvester Malone from Trim County in Meath, Ireland, who needed an architect for the church he was planning to build in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Keely was unsure that he was able to design a church, but Malone convinced him he could do it. Together Malone and Keely worked out plans for a gothic church with pointed arches, pinnacles and buttresses, but Bishop John Hughes initially rejected the plans as too costly. Malone persevered and eventually Hughes relented. When Saints Peter and Paul church was completed in 1847 people marveled at its grace and simple elegance.
Keely was bombarded with requests to build other churches. He had arrived at a moment in American history when Catholics all over America needed churches. The rapid pace and amount of his building is simply astonishing. For forty-nine years Keely averaged building more than a church a month! Part of the reason he was able to build so much so quickly, is that building was a family affair. His two sons, a brother-in-law and a son-in law all helped him.
Keely was a devout Catholic and saw building churches as his service to God. A daily communicant, he fathered six boys and eleven girls, ten of whom lived to adulthood. His friend Fr. Malone said, “He had the genius, inspiration and the stimulus of the Catholic faith deep in his soul.” He was a man of great modesty, shunning photographs and quietly going about his business. Scrupulously honest, Keely charged congregations little for his work and always came in under budget and completed his projects on time. Fr. Malone said that when Keely died he had little money because he did not care about it.
Keely’s churches are seemingly everywhere. Saints Peter and Paul in Williamsburg is now gone, but he built every cathedral in New York except for St. Patrick’s, and he built cathedrals in Chicago, Providence and Hartford. He also built the stunningly beautiful Church of Gesu in Montreal. When he designed the Church of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame, Father Walsh, the school’s president, was so pleased with his work that he became the second recipient of the laetare Medal in 1884, which is conferred on an outstanding member of the Catholic Laity. The Notre Dame Scholastic magazine noted, “Mr. Keely is a fervent and practical Catholic who has done more for christian architecture than any man in the country.”
Keely, however, received little recognition from other architects during his lifetime. Perhaps they shunned him because he had no formal architectural training or perhaps it was anti-Catholic bias because Anglo Saxon Protestants dominated the field. When he died in 1896 Fr. Malone gave an emotional eulogy for his dear friend, aptly summing up Keely’s greatness, “While he is gone, these structures still remain, monuments to the goodness, patience and perseverance of this man.”