Remembering Maryknoll Father Eddie Killackey

Maryknoll Father Eddie Killackey was the order’s justice and peace person in Washington during the Central American war years of the 1980s and early 1990s. He was the only American priest many in the local human rights and Latin American concerns community ever knew and was a much loved character, famed for his quick wit. He died last April.

Some of his old friends gathered several nights back to share wine and stories, and Tom Quigley, former director of the Office of International Justice and Peace for the U.S. Bishops, was urged to put down some of the stories. This is what Quigley wrote:
“He had to be the most entertaining priest I have ever met.” So said Joe Eldridge, former director of WOLA, the Washington Office on Latin America who, a clergyman himself, treasured the pastoral ministrations of this extremely funny priest. The priest was Eddie Killackey, Rev. Edward R., M.M., a Maryknoll missioner who died, age 80, on April 27 of this year.

During the Central American 80s and 90s, when tensions over the Reagan policies in that region were intense and acrimonious, Ed Killackey served as a light-hearted go-between to the opponents of the Administration as well as to some of the troubled defenders of the policy on Capitol Hill and at State. When the four missionary women, including the two Maryknoll Sisters whom Ed knew well, were raped and murdered by Salvadoran troops in December of 1980, just months after the assassination of Archbishop Romero, the priest put aside the comic mask and helped console the other grieving friends of Ita, Maura, Dorothy and Jean.

That was the sensitive and serious side, but most recall his funny, sunny side. Some friends gathered the other night to share recollections of this former missioner to Africa and, later, head of Maryknoll’s justice and peace work in Washington. People shared dozens of Killackeyisms that made this “memorial” a kind of riotous Irish wake.

One of Ed’s stories that many took for gospel was his encounter one day with Cardinal Roger Mahony on the elevator at the old USCC building at 1312 Mass. Ave. Ed, dressed in mufti, was greeted by the cardinal who asked what he did at the bishops’ conference. “ I’m the elevator operator,” said he. “Oh, very important work,” the archbishop of Los Angeles was said to have said.

Weeks later, now Father Killackey, collar and all, was on a program at the education conference in L.A. when Mahony spied him, came up and said, “I know you from somewhere. The USCC?” “Oh no,” said he, “that’s my cousin who’s the elevator operator there.” How much of this is part of a true story one can only guess, although Roger Mahony, certainly from the time he was bishop of Stockton, had often been at 1312 and of course knew that, while the elevators in that venerable building were far from reliable, there were no elevator operators.

One day Ed was giving a talk on the U.S. bishops’ pastoral The Challenge of Peace when a stentorian voice boomed from the rear, “Do these bishops all have degrees in canon law?” The booming voice belonged to Lt. Gen. Robert L. Schweitzer, one of the most decorated veterans of the Vietnam war—his seven Purple Hearts caused airport metal detectors to sound every time he passed through, so much shrapnel was still in his body. In a complete non sequitur, Ed replied: “That depends on whether you spell it with one ‘n’ or two.” Loud laughter, tension broken. Even Schweitzer was said to have laughed.

Arnold Kohen, author of From the Place of the Dead, the life of Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo of East Timor and a major figure in the long struggle of the East Timorese to finally break free of their Indonesian oppressors, had developed a strong relationship with the USCC on this issue. The USCC staff person dealing with Asia at the time was a retired foreign service officer, Edward W. Doherty, whom Arnold came to view almost as a surrogate father. Some time after Ed Doherty’s retirement, Killackey wrote to Doherty, telling him some of his recent activities and then added, “I baptized Arnold, and thunderbolts hit the water.” This was of a piece with Killackey’s mentioning to others that Arnold was “taking instructions”—a running joke but which Ed Doherty at first took seriously.

Ed Killackey was one of my best friends and he enjoyed playing on my 15 minutes of fame with Graham Greene’s mentioning me in his unfavorable recollection of Archbishop Marcos McGrath of Panama. In his hagiographical memoir of his friendship with Omar Torrijos, the less than admirable Panamanian general with whom Greene had formed close ties. In Getting to Know the General , Greene refers to a brief meeting in Washington at the time of the signing of the Panama Canal Treaties with the single most important non-governmental person in securing the treaties, Marcos McGrath. Greene was averse to bishops in general and to American bishops in particular, although McGrath was Panamanian-born of a Costa Rican mother.

In his memoir, Greene mentions that McGrath was “accompanied by a layman who looked like his name--Quigley. I can make use of that name, I thought, one day, in God knows what story.” He made good on the threat with a forgettable novel in 1988, The Captain and the Enemy, which I had great fun reviewing, at Arthur Jones’ insistence, for this publication.

Ed seldom missed an opportunity to connect me with Greene. Among several books he gifted me with over the years were the massive volumes of Norman Sherry’s biography of Greene and once sent a review from Harper’s of a book on the author: “You come to mind and so I send on this reflection of your Uncle Graham. I hear there’s a seven-volume work coming out on him. Interested?” It’s signed “Jesus.”

He sent a long 1999 article, “Cold War pen pals: Red spy Kim Philby, Graham Greene.” Greene of course was virulently anti-American and so, under the rubric that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, he and Philby were buddies. Ed wrote: “I put a diaphanous bag over the statue of Graham Greene on my mantelpiece today…”

A letter on yellow paper, headed by a cartoon (a cleaning woman talking to two female office workers at the water cooler: “Glass ceiling? Great. I guess I know who’ll be cleaning that!” He thanks me for a lunch we’d just had, which apparently included Guinness—thus not at the USCC cafeteria—and adds: “Arnold continues to amaze me. The three of us, come next spring, must visit Ed Doherty’s grave and pour some Guinness on it.”

A plant in my office was in extremis and as a custodian who seemed to know a lot about plants was doing some ministrations on it, Ed was just outside in the hall, on his knees, clearly calling on the plant spirits to cure it. He adds in his note: “Your plant is in my prayers.”

Another piece of yellow paper, headed by a Six Chix cartoon—middle aged people working in small carrels, clearly not enthused, each with wings and a halo, and one saying to another “Yeah, this is OK, I guess…I don’t know, I just expected something more…” It’s dated “Feast of Transfiguration (where the first bishops announced the first building campaign).” He notes that he’s just back from the GOP Convention. “They asked me to appear on the podium as a gay Masai warrior.”

A final Killackeyism was a letter he sent on phony stationery with huge block letters around all four sides: BOB DORNAN POR EL PRESIDENTE! It was well known that California Rep.Bob Dornan was upset by positions taken by the USCC on Central America, and was particularly unhappy with me.

The letter addressed to “Deacon Quigley,” notifies him that “the Knights of Columbus have informed me that you would be a good candidate for the position of Latin American Affairs in the State Department.” After listing some spurious qualifications, he asks Quigley to “prepare for me several ‘outbursts’ for my use on the Floor—or Ceiling—of the House.”

A couple weeks later, after Dornan was trounced by Loretta Sanchez, an envelope arrived with a 3x5 card indicating “the official dissolution of the Dornan for President Committee. Thank you for your past cooperation.”

A postcard from Maryknoll sums up best what Eddie Killackey most loved to do, more even than being funny. He had taken a degree in pastoral counseling and earned a certificate as a gerontology counselor and spent many hours making old people laugh. During his own retirement, he kept busy with visits to the aged and sick Maryknollers at St. Teresa’s center. His postcard says: “Here leading annual retreat for retired and elderly. What a fine group of men! It’s like walking inside a history book. Peace.”

Indeed, Ed. Peace to you.

Killackey obituary

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