Father Thomas Killeen, pastor of St. Joseph Church in Cordova, had three words to say when it was announced that he was Cordova’s Citizen of the Year at the 2017 Iceworm Festival.
“This is nonsense,” quipped the 84-year-old Oblate of Mary Immaculate, with characteristic humility and humor. He went on to say, according to parishioner Debbie Collins, that he couldn’t believe the love he saw in the room at the event — and he good-naturedly pointed to all the babies in the audience as proof of that assertion.
The Iceworm Festival, a bright spot in the long, dark Alaska winter, is a zany and festive celebration, one that the warm and humorous Father Killeen easily embraces.
“The whole town knows him,” Collins said. “Choosing him for this honor was a way to recognize someone who is really admired.”
The feelings are mutual. Father Killeen, who has served in Cordova since 2002, described the little fishing village on Prince William Sound as “paradise.”
The priest walks a lot, making him a familiar face in Cordova, which sits in an area of great natural beauty on Prince William Sound, accessible only by plane, boat and regular ferry service. The population of a little over 2,000 fluctuates seasonally, with fishing and tourism boosting the summer numbers.
“He’s very present in the community,” Collins said. “He attends the weekly ecumenical pastors’ meetings. He has an open door, and people are always stopping to see him. He’s the unofficial counseling center. Everyone thinks the world of him.”
Collins said he’s particularly understanding of people with addictions, and has become the usual baccalaureate speaker at the public high school. And Collins, who has lived in Cordova for 30 years and raised four children in the parish, said his homilies are so good that there’s hardly a Sunday when she and her husband Richard don’t talk about them all the way home from Mass.
Jim Holley and his wife T.J. are St. Joseph parishioners and close friends of the priest, almost always meeting for Saturday lunch.
Holley said there is one word to describe his long-time friend – “amazing.”
Like Collins, Holley points to Father Killeen’s homilies.
“They make you feel so connected,” Holley said.
“They are usually three part — a bit of history, then how it relates to us now, and then somehow he places it inside you. He takes something that seems complicated and makes it simple.”
Father Killeen is a native of Independence, Missouri, who joined the Oblates order at age 18. He was ordained in 1958, spent time serving in Denmark and Greenland, and worked as a chaplain in the U.S. Army. An outdoorsman, he said he served “a great congregation” in Colorado where he enjoyed mountain climbing and skiing.
Then, around his 70th birthday, his fellow Oblate of Mary Immaculate Anchorage Archbishop Emeritus Roger Schwietz was looking for help in his far-flung parishes in Alaska. He recruited several Oblates, among them Father Killeen, who proved that he and Cordova were the perfect match.
Since its founding in 1961, the Iceworm Festival has been one of Alaska’s best-known and most charming civic events. Held in February, it combats the winter blues with three days of talent shows, a Miss Iceworm scholarship event and a parade featuring a giant iceworm propelled by the small feet of the city’s youngest citizens. Coincidentally, Father Killeen also served as the grand marshal of this year’s parade.
Fireworks and a “Shuck ‘n Suck” oyster-eating contest, which the Cordova Times describes as “fiercely competitive,” are highlights of the three-day celebration. A survival suit race in the small boat harbor highlights marine safety, an important aspect of life in the fishing village.
The Iceworm Festival is a non-profit supported and marketed by the local Chamber of Commerce and many area businesses. A spokesperson at the Chamber said that anyone in Cordova can nominate a citizen for the honor, and nominations are reviewed by the Iceworm committee along with a committee of past winners.
The many past winners include a man who is both fire chief and police chief in town and a lunch lady for the local school district. The winner is always a surprise and is announced at the Variety Show and Miss Iceworm coronation.
Many young people in Cordova have grown up with Father Killeen serving as their only example of a Catholic priest. One of these is Elizabeth Collins, Debbie and Richard’s daughter, who works at the Cordova elementary school while pursuing a post-graduate degree in counseling.
Elizabeth Collins nominated the priest for this year’s award, and in her remarks at the announcement ceremony she highlighted her reasons.
“He is the epitome of a kind, caring and understanding individual,” she wrote. “He meets people where they are in their own lives and does so without judgment.”
She added that the priest is there to listen to anyone “to offer advice, and to reassure you of the wonderful things this life has to offer. I have yet to witness a situation where he has turned anyone away.”
Elizabeth Collins told the Catholic Anchor that many people came up to her after the event and said they knew who the winner was by her second sentence.
Although there is nothing official yet, both Father Killeen and his many admirers know that his days of being pastor at St. Joseph are drawing to a close.
“My plans are to stay here until they can replace me and that could be anytime,” Father Killeen told the Catholic Anchor.
“When he retires,” Elizabeth Collins said, “it will hit the whole town pretty hard.”