Reverend Donal Raymond Kehew, Ph.D., 78

Mon, 10/01/2012 - 2:47pm

Reverend Donal Raymond Kehew, Ph.D., 78, the warm, erudite and well-loved Pastor Emeritus of St. Andrew Church on Block Island who was a guiding spiritual light to generations of people of all faiths on Block Island, died at Mount Saint Rita’s of Cumberland, R.I., on Wednesday, September 19, after a battle with cancer.

Known to all as “Father Ray,” Fr. Kehew was born on November 24, 1933, in Newport, the son of the late Daniel J. and Margaret (Egan) Kehew.

He was a graduate of LaSalle Academy in 1951 and Providence College in 1955. He began his working life in the U.S. Army, serving from 1955 to 1957 as a lieutenant based in Ludwigsburg, Germany. After his discharge, he entered the seminary.

He was ordained to the priesthood in 1963 at the American College in Louvain, Belgium. He then returned to Rhode Island and served for two years as Assistant Pastor at St. Joseph Parish, Central Falls.

In 1965, Fr. Kehew returned to Europe for graduate studies, receiving his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Louvain in 1969. He then returned to Rhode Island for the rest of his working life, although his appetite for travel meant that he continued to explore the world right up to the year before his death.

His first post-doctorate posting was as Catholic Chaplain at Brown University for six years, followed by six years as Pastor of the Genesis Community, Providence. He then was a member of the Team Ministry at Sacred Heart Parish, East Providence, for six years, and Assistant Pastor at St. Mary Parish, Warren, for one year. In 1988, in a move that would touch thousands of lives on Block Island, the church assigned him to St. Andrew Parish, where he served as Pastor until his retirement in 2004.

Fr. Kehew, who wore his scholarly accomplishments lightly, was also a very popular faculty member of the Department of Philosophy at Providence College. He served there from 1976 to 2004, dividing his time between his students and his parishioners throughout the last 28 years of his career.

A man with an open face and a ready smile, Fr. Kehew quickly made an impression on Block Island. When he first came to the island to take up his post, he arrived via New England Airlines flight to the Block Island Airport, where then-counter person Vera Sprague asked him who he was. “I’m the new priest,” he replied, whereupon Sprague, who was known for her directness, gave the good-looking man a hard look and replied: “What a waste!”

But Fr. Kehew never wasted a moment at his parish here, where he was known for his sociability — friend David Graham describes him as a “charming bon vivant” — his ecumenism, his work for peace, and his firm but inclusive moral compass. He was the measure that all Catholic families used when they faced decisions big and little, and his acceptance of people of other faiths meant that he was a guide for many others, too.

On the Jewish High Holy Days, Fr. Kehew would visit Block Island’s Sons and Daughters of Ruth at the sanctuary, repeating the Yiddish words with his friends. “If ever there was a priest who could have converted me, he was the guy,” says Richard Weisbroat. With typical generosity, Fr. Kehew allowed Bar Mitzvahs to be held at his church, and he even brought his ecumenism to Providence: Joan Abrams had asked him to speak at her funeral, so when she died, he went to synagogue in Providence for the service. He asked the rabbis there if he could speak, and they at first said no; but speak he did, because, as he told them, he wouldn’t break his promise.

Fr. Kehew opposed the war in Iraq and helped found the peace vigil that for years stood silent witness on Water Street each week. And “Peace, my friend,” was one of his familiar sign-offs, the way he would end a conversation, with words that came from the heart.

He spoke from the heart, with short but pithy sermons that rarely lasted more than 10 minutes but “were like instructions... they were mesmerizing,” remembers Dottie Graham. “He had a way of keeping the younger families in the church,” adds Laurel Littlefield. “He was very accepting of everybody.”

Bea and Gabe Mattyasovsky remember how welcoming Fr. Kehew was when they came to him in preparation for their marriage. Bea wasn’t Catholic and she was pregnant, but “she felt incredibly unjudged by him,” Gabe says.

But it’s an earlier memory of Fr. Kehew that most sticks in Gabe’s mind. In his early 20s, he was one of the youngest members of the parish and living with three other young men in Minister’s Lot. He invited Fr. Kehew over to dinner one night. “Every one of those guys developed a relationship with him, and they weren’t even Catholic,” he says. “Before that night, to them, a priest was someone of another species. But they all stayed in touch.”

Fr. Kehew was even more sought after as a cook than as a dinner guest. He would regularly donate a home-cooked meal at his house to charitable causes, and island residents would bid for the honor of sharing a meal and washing-up chores with him.

A serious scholar and philosopher, he was also known for dressing up in costume on Halloween and dancing. He travelled for years with a group of island friends, from the Baltic to the Mediterranean and beyond. But he had a conservative streak when it came to some things, remembers David Graham: “If there was a rule and he thought it was right, then that was that.”

His battle with cancer was hard, but Fr. Kehew remained unbowed. “He taught us how to live,” says Gail Pearce, “and he taught us how to die. He never complained. Toward the end, when he was very sick, I overheard him talking on the phone to a friend and he said ‘I have nothing but gratitude for my life.’”

Never one to leave loose ends, Fr. Kehew created instructions for after his death that included asking four island friends to serve as pallbearers and planning, and paying for, a lunch at Middletown’s Atlantic Beach Club. His mass of Christian burial in Portsmouth last Monday, Sept. 24, was attended by hundreds of people, including five bishops and many other men of the cloth.

Fr. Kehew was predeceased by his sisters, Margaret (Raymond) Munz of Hauppauge, N.Y.; and Sheila (Frank) Fitzgerald of Taunton, Mass. He is survived by his sister, Patricia (Blaine) O’Connell of Tiverton, seven nieces and nephews and several grandnieces and grandnephews, all of whom were very special to him.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Carmelite Monastery, 25 Watson Avenue, Barrington, RI 02806. For additional information, visit

An island service of music and prayers will be held at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 29, at St. Andrew Church on Chapel Street.