Conversation: Fr Con Keogh, honoured for helping people rehabilitate themselves - ‘Insane’ priest who draws others to God
INSPIRING: People like Fr Con Keogh were not expected to recover
By Marilyn Rodrigues
Fr Con Keogh, 82, knows the trials of living with mental illness, having been desperately sick himself and certified insane during the 50s – a time when people like him were not expected to ever recover.
But a far greater good has come from his experience; the Grow World Community Mental Health Movement, which he co-founded.
It specialises in mutual help rehabilitation of people with drug and alcohol addiction and mental illness.
It sprang from small beginnings when Fr Con and some new friends, also ex-psychiatric patients, began meeting weekly for mutual support in Sydney in 1957.
This year Fr Con, who exudes a gentle joyfulness, was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for service to the community here and overseas through Grow.
He was “honoured and surprised” but, in characteristic fashion, attributes Grow’s ongoing success to the many people who have contributed to the work and continue to do so.
The Grow staff and support group leaders (many of whom originally came to Grow for help for themselves) disagree, describing him as “the animator and the inspirer”.
Listening to them speak about their cherished ‘Connie’, it is hard to imagine a priest more loved and respected by his friends.
Fr Con spent his childhood in a Victorian gold mining town until he was 11. Then the family – with six boys and one girl – moved to Sydney. His mother died soon after.
The young Con Keogh excelled at school and considered a career in engineering.
But his direction changed while on a family holiday to Bundeena.
His thoughts were drawn suddenly to the priesthood – for life.
Con was 18 when he entered the Springwood seminary. After only 18 months he was selected to continue his studies in Rome, where he was ordained.
He obtained degrees in philosophy and theology and when he returned home in 1951 – after 11 years away – he became professor of philosophy at Springwood.
He also taught at the Manly seminary.
His mental breakdown came in 1954 and he was hospitalised. It put him ‘out of action’ for almost a year.
Later, writing a brief account of himself for Grow, he said that two periods of hospitalisation – during which he endured the less enlightened treatment of the day, (including regular shock treatment with no anaesthesia) – left him “shattered, unable to remember, and still very disturbed, stunned and mortally afraid”.
“My treatment was a bit rugged,” is all he says today, quietly, with a shrug.
At the time there were no support groups in the community, or group therapy in hospitals, for the mentally ill.
“But I was very fortunate that I was brought by a family friend to Alcoholics Anonymous and really they got me back on my feet,” says Fr Con.
“I got from them the principle of mutual help for the mentally ill.”
At AA he met and made friends with Renee Hayes and several others, who, like himself, were not alcoholics but former mental patients recovering from breakdown.
They decided to meet on their own in addition to the AA meetings, to work more on their own particular problems.
Fr Tom Dunlea, the parish priest at Hurstville, offered them a room in his presbytery for the first meeting on April 26, 1957.
“We started with 20 people and we found it a tremendous help in being able to get back into ordinary life,” says Fr Con.
“Week by week we were telling each other how we were changing. We would sit around and speak about our experiences together. Eventually we realised we didn’t have to keep coming to the group; we were staying well.
“After the meetings, which went for about two hours, I would start to write down things that came out of the group.
“At first we called ourselves Recovery, because we believed that even the sickest people could get well and stay well.”
What he wrote formed the beginning of a large body of Fr Con’s writings which is still used by the Grow communities today, including its 12 steps to pastoral growth and Readings for Recovery.
When he was better, Fr Con worked for several years in parishes around Sydney and was chaplain at Long Bay jail for three years. He devoted himself fulltime to Grow from 1968.
There was some tension between Fr Con and his archbishop, Cardinal Gilroy, possibly because he wondered why the priest wasn’t bringing this promising movement and its young people into the Church.
But Fr Con has always wanted to protect the non-denominational nature of Grow so as not to cut anyone off who needs help.
Everyone knew he was a priest, though, and that his faith in God was a vital element in his recovery and gave the ultimate direction to his life.
“He always gives you a blessing,” says a Grow leader, Gary. “He’s somebody to look up to.”
Another leader, Joan, agrees: “Through the years people in Grow have been very impressed by him and wanted to follow him into the Catholic Church, although he would tell them to go and see another priest about it.
“By getting to know him and getting to be loved by him, you felt drawn to God as well.”
One of many stories about Fr Con has him returning home to Lithgow parish late one night from a Grow support meeting in Sydney.
He stopped by the side of the road to read night prayer from his breviary before midnight and a passing policeman, thinking it suspicious, pulled up alongside him.
“That must be a very good book you’re reading, sir,” he said. “Well, yes, it is,” was Fr Con’s reply.
Now there are nearly 700 Grow groups in the world including, 400 in Australia and 70 in NSW.
A dramatic decline in Fr Con’s health in 1995 saw him undergo major surgery, including a triple bypass.
Before that he was on a constant round of overseas travel, writing, teaching and speaking engagements to professional audiences. In 1996 he began to cut that back.
He retired a couple of years ago but is still involved in strengthening Grow internationally. He still speaks at NSW leadership weekends and conferences.
“As it grew larger it had to become independent from me,” says Fr Con. “I never wanted it to revolve around me. Responsibility had to go on to other group leaders out of necessity.
“Actually it was not long after we started before it was the product of everybody’s contribution.”
Gary says: “Without the Grow movement I don’t know how my life could’ve ended up.
“I had severe depression and attempted suicide a few times, and I probably would’ve succeeded eventually.
“The friendship and love in Grow is what initially brings people; it’s quite important, that acceptance for the mentally ill.”
Grow’s motto is Truth, Character, Friendship.
“Friendship just lifts the burden off people,” says Fr Con.
“Through friendships you are socialised and re-integrated into society. You wouldn’t get that just by returning to work and trying to get by on your own.”
The Grow philosophy is very strong on people taking their share of responsibility for their downward spiral and also their own personal growth. Implicit is the Catholic understanding of free will and sin.
Fr Con challenged one of the original members: “How can you be free to co-operate in your own recovery if you weren’t freely involved, to some extent, in your own breakdown? And how can you write off all the blame for the bad parts of your life without losing all personal credit for the good parts?
“If it’s all environment ... or all hereditary ... or some combination of both, there’s nothing left that is strictly you.”
Robyn says: “He has such an attachment to the truth. He told me some truths I didn’t want to hear.
“But I came back because he always said something good about you as well; he was always loving at the same time.”
Grow has grown through the dedication of the people who have been helped by it.
Joan says: “People who gained tremendously from the program and the friendship of this great man were drawn to doing the same for other people.
“It’s people who’ve suffered the most and gained the most that give the most to Grow.”