The parishioners of St. Barnabas R.C. Church weren't going to let Father Kevin go easily.
"This is going to be a tearjerker," one woman whispered to another, before the noon Mass, Keelen's last at St. Barnabas began.
They packed the church on Woodland Road. People lined the walls and doorways when the pews were filled. They gave him at least five standing ovations. They didn't want to say goodbye. They wept during a saxophone solo of "Danny Boy."
Father Kevin had a hard time letting go too. He had to stop several times during his homily, overcome with emotion.
"As I go, I have absolutely no doubt that God will hold this wonderful community close to his heart and will always take care of St. Barnabas," he said. "The Holy Spirit is alive and well at St. Barnabas. You know all too well that pastors come and go, but you are the parish of St. Barnabas."
The Diocese of Trenton announced earlier this year that The news shocked many parishioners, who had come to love and admire the dynamic man who was only 41 when he arrived to take over St. Barnabas nine years ago.
"Jackson isn't in the middle of the desert," Keelen said during his homily. "It's in the middle of nowhere." He paused. "Don't tell them I said that!"
He said it was fitting that his last Mass at St. Barnabas fell on the the nativity of Saint John the Baptist, who went into the desert to spread the word that Christ was coming. Saint John went where he was of most use to God. Keelen said he had to do the same.
"Thank you for journeying with me," he said. "Thank you for your service, your dedication and your love. I will never forget all you have done for me. Please keep me in your prayers. You will be forever in my heart."
Keelen revitalized St. Barnabas during his years there. He expanded community outreach and religious programs and sought to make the parish all-inclusive.
Shortly before the Mass ended, a member of the parish played a long saxophone solo of "Danny Boy," while the monitors anchored in the church's wooden pillars flashed scene after scene of the green fields and hills of Ireland. Many in the audience wiped back tears.
"You know us Irish," Keelen joked after the saxaphone player finished his second refrain. "Once isn't enough."
The solo was followed by a photo montage of Keelen's nine years at St. Barnabas. Shots of him saying Mass on the beach in Ocean Gate. Wearing a Santa hat at Christmas. Looking up soaked, but smiling as he emerged from the dunk tank at the annual parish fair. The montage was set to the music of Bruce Springsteen.
Joan Vanderwerf and Vera Cetrulo routinely traveled from Lacey Township to attend Mass at St. Barnabas, in part because of Keelen.
"I have never in all my years of going to church had a pastor as warm and as welcoming as him," Certrulo said.
"When I first went to this church, I knew I was home," Vanderwerf said. "I hate that he is leaving. But God sends you to places that need you."
St. Barnabas serves the communities of Berkeley Township, Beachwood, Pine Beach and Ocean Gate.