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Did this man design your church?


Shutterstock | Public Domain

Ray Cavanaugh - published on 03/03/21

Patrick Keely dominated U.S. Catholic architecture in the late 19th century.

If you live in the eastern part of the U.S., there’s a fair chance your parish church was designed by one man. And there are many people who, whether or not they realize it, have visited several churches designed by Patrick Keely. He dominated U.S. Catholic architecture in the late 19th century.

An immigrant story

Patrick Charles Keely was born on August 9, 1816, in Ireland’s County Tipperary. His father was a builder and most likely the person who taught him about construction. As for his training in the intricacies of architectural design, he quite likely never had any, except for his own observations while working as a tradesman.

According to the Dictionary of Irish Architects, he emigrated to the U.S. in 1842, at age 25. Soon after arriving in New York City, he began working as a carpenter. For several years, he plied his trade, occasionally getting the opportunity to work on something as significant as an altar.

Public Domain

A church in Brooklyn, New York

One day, while on a job site, he met and befriended a Fr. Sylvester Malone, who also was an Irish immigrant. The young priest was perceptive enough to realize that Keely was a man of talent, and when he later received permission to establish a church in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, he enlisted Keely’s services.

The two proceeded to collaborate on a design for Sts. Peter and Paul Church. Completed on a comparatively limited budget in May 1848, this church, the interior of which featured some of Keely’s wood-carving expertise, served as a crucial portfolio piece.

New churches for influx of Catholic immigrants

The new architect was emerging at just the right time: There was a huge influx of Catholic immigrants to the U.S. Many new churches were needed to accommodate all these people. And, in Keely, the Church had found the right man. What he lacked in certificates and degrees, he made up for with on-the-ground building experience, an innate design sensibility, and quiet but intense perfectionism.

Ultimately, he would design about 700 churches and other religious buildings. Though the eastern U.S. was his primary building ground, he occasionally ventured to other pastures, creating churches in such venues as Wisconsin, South Carolina, Chicago and Montreal. A few times, he lent his talents to building Protestant churches – that these denominations would seek to hire an Irish Catholic immigrant in the 19th century is perhaps the ultimate testament to his ability.

Francis William Wynn Kervick’s short biography, Patrick Charles Keely, architect: a record of his life and work, relates how the “great disappointment of [Keely’s] professional life was an uncompleted cathedral in Brooklyn.” It was supposed to feature a French Gothic design with a tower and spire extending to a height of 350 feet. However, funds initially allocated to the project were diverted to other matters, and the part of the project that saw completion eventually faced the wrecking ball in order to accommodate the construction of a new high school.

A devoted Catholic and family man

In the 1860s, Keely began running an architectural firm that was in constant demand. But this eminently successful man, who attended Mass daily, seemed to have no interest in monetary gain beyond providing for his rather large family. Having settled in Brooklyn, he and his wife Sarah had 17 children (some reports say 19), about 10 of whom survived to adulthood, including two who worked with their father.

In 1884, he became the second-ever recipient of the Laetare Medal – a yearly award presented by the University of Notre Dame to an outstanding member of the American Catholic laity.

Despite all the clout Keely had with various dioceses, he basically went ignored by his architectural colleagues. In fact, the only times he saw mention in The American Architect magazine occurred because of death (the first death was that of his grown son who had joined him in the business; the second death was his own). As to why Keely went overlooked, Kervick lists two possible factors: one was anti-Catholic sentiment; the other was resentment that an immigrant with no formal training had met with such success.

Following several years of declining health, Keely died during a heatwave on August. 11, 1896. He left behind a legacy that one might describe as towering.

His legacy lives on in his churches

Though many pictures exist of his handiwork, there are few pictures of the architect himself. Reportedly, he was so modest and reserved that he tended to refuse any photographs. Additionally, much of the biographical material about him was haphazardly discarded after the death of a daughter who had inherited his personal documents.

Many of the structures he designed have since met with demolition. Others are no longer in use by the Church. But that doesn’t change the fact that he created venues which, for many decades, served as the cornerstone of spiritual and social life for countless persons.

One’s church, whether past or present, can stir up a range of feelings and memories. But most of us probably haven’t given much thought about the architect. If the church in question is in or near the eastern U.S., then your best guess is that, at some point, it bore the thumbprint of one Patrick Keely.

Those who are wondering if they have visited one or more of Keely’s churches can access a partial list here.

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