Deacon’s vocation takes an archeological turn

David Keene becoming an authority on identifying remains of Servants of God considered for sainthood

By Bill Brewer

Deacon David Keene has been searching for things hidden underground since he was 18.

And now as a veteran archeologist with many digs under his belt, the permanent deacon of the Archdiocese of Chicago has turned his attention to the Diocese of Knoxville and the cause for sainthood for Father Patrick Ryan.

The diocesan team heading this sainthood cause identified Deacon Keene as the expert who should direct efforts to exhume Father Ryan’s remains in late July.

At age 68, 50 years of on-the-job experience counts for something. Just call it expertise.

Deacon Keene’s services were needed as part of the process to verify Father Ryan’s existence.

“This is part of a legal process. The legal process is to demonstrate that this individual had a holy life, and besides that, he was a real person. What we’re doing is collecting evidence of this man’s existence,” Deacon Keene said.

He added there is no doubt that what he observed being unearthed and opened July 26-28 are the remains of Father Ryan.

“No, there is no doubt in my mind,” he said matter-of-factly.

As a professional archeologist, Deacon Keene said he has been involved in hundreds of exhumations. As part of his work, he assists the Cook County, Ill., Sheriff’s Police in solving death cases.

His foray into causes for sainthood began quite coincidentally. He explained that the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Diocese of Springfield, Ill., were planning to exhume the remains of Father Augustus Tolton in 2016.

Father Tolton is the first known African American priest in the United States. He served in Illinois in the 1800s.

“The cemetery people at the Archdiocese of Chicago called the Sheriff’s Police and said, ‘We think we’re going to be exhuming some human remains that are outside our expertise. Do you know anybody who knows how to do this?’ And the sheriff responded, ‘I don’t know why you’re calling me. You’ve got a deacon who is an archeologist who does this for us all the time.’ That’s how it started,” Deacon Keene explained.

In June 2019, Pope Francis issued a declaration that Father Tolton lived a life of heroic virtue, which advanced the priest to the title Venerable Father Augustus Tolton.

Bishop Richard Stika and Father David Carter, episcopal delegate for the cause for sainthood for Father Ryan, are praying for a similar outcome for Father Ryan now that Deacon Keene can certify this Servant of God’s authenticity.

Deacon Keene said he knew unearthing Father Ryan was going to be a challenge once the cast-iron coffin securing the priest was first discovered on the afternoon of July 26. A day later the coffin was lifted out of the grave. And a day after that the remains and accompanying second-class relics were secured in new caskets.

“This was a very tedious dig. Augustus Tolton was also very tedious. When we found him, he had been buried in a wooden coffin. And it was gone. The only things that were left were his bones. It was much harder to get his bones out of the ground, but it was a much cleaner excavation,” Deacon Keene said. “Archeologists like to say ‘we love doing burial excavation as long as there are no squishy parts.’ We like stones and bones.”

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