by Jill Ragar Esfeld
WEA — One word is all Vincent O’Keefe of Holy Rosary Parish here needs to explain how he and his wife Louise successfully raised their 11 children. Prayer.
“I think prayer is the most important thing,” he said. “We always prayed regular together as the kids were growing up.”
All 11 are now prospering adults with families of their own. All 11 are still practicing Catholics. Together they have given Vinct 99 grand- and great-grandchildren. Number 100 is on its way.
And prayer continues to unite this family. Each month the siblings and their spouses join with Vincent for “The O’Keefe Family Candlelight Rosary” in honor and memory of Louise, who passed away two years ago.
The rosaries are usually private events, exclusive to the siblings and their spouses.
But this Thanksgiving, in celebration of the first anniversary of the O’Keefe family rosary, friends and extended family were invited to join in the prayer service as well.
“We had kids, grandkids and great-grandkids,” said Doris O’Keefe Kerr, the eighth sibling out of the 11. “There were four generations represented.”
The anniversary rosary was held in the home of Steve and Carol O’Keefe, and appropriately so. Carol, an associate of the Ursuline order, originally started the tradition to fulfill a commitment she’d made to St. Angela Merici, foundress of the Ursulines.
Just over a year ago, O’Keefe was prayerfully searching for a cause to take up in the name of St. Angela. She had attended “A Day of Boundless Joy,” the annual women’s retreat held at Savior Pastoral Center in Kansas City, Kan. Archbishop Joseph Naumann had given the homily that day, and his topic was the rosary.
“It was the first time I’d heard a homily from the archbishop,” recalled O’Keefe. “It being October, he was explaining how important it was to say the rosary, and I was thinking, ‘I say the rosary.’”
O’Keefe said she was feeling content as she listened, but then the archbishop began to talk about how important he thought it was for the family to come together and pray the rosary. She said she felt thunderstruck and realized this was the answer to her prayers.
“I was thinking, ‘What can I do in the name of Saint Angela?’ And I was looking for a cause out there,” she said. “Then I suddenly realized that here I was, not taking care of my own family!”
When her mother-in-law passed away the previous November, O’Keefe remembered several of the siblings voicing concerns about the unity of their family.
“She was the glue that kept the family coming back together all the time,” she said. “Several family members had mentioned that they were afraid the family might fall apart. So I thought we should be saying a family rosary. If we started doing that on a regular basis, then the family would stay together.”
With that in mind, O’Keefe formulated a plan that would be difficult for any sibling to refuse.
“I thought if we started in the month of November, it would be the first anniversary of Louise’s passing. So how dare any of those siblings not take that seriously?” she asked. “They would come because it’s for their mother — so there was a little strategy involved.”
The strategy worked. The seven siblings living locally came to the first rosary. Out-of-town siblings agreed to be there in spirit, saying a rosary at the same time. A sister from Chicago joined in the rosary over speakerphone.
“And we have successfully said the rosary monthly ever since,” said O’Keefe. The key to success is O’Keefe’s insistence on keeping the gathering meaningful, but very simple.
Only Vincent, his children and their spouses attend. Vincent lights the “family candle” to begin the evening, then each sibling lights a votive candle as a sign of personal intentions. After praying the rosary, the group gathers for a simple dessert and to visit.
O’Keefe has had a separate rosary on two occasions for the young people in the family. Pizza was served in lieu of dessert. The youth rosaries were a huge success, but O’Keefe is adamant about keeping the family rosary limited to siblings.
“It’s for Vincent and his 11 children and their spouses,” she said. “I wanted to keep that on a regular basis so they would keep their sibling bond.”
Kerr and her siblings appreciate the limited group.
“Because our family is so big — the youngest is 41 and the oldest is 68 — we don’t have as much in common as far as social life, so this is something that has brought us together,” Kerr said. “Having a small group like that is really special.”
“When people leave, I want them to leave with two things,” said O’Keefe, “the memory of what happened here with the rosary and the memory of some conversation with this sister or that brother or their father that was a bonding moment in connection with that rosary.”
The brothers and sisters have said they feel a sense of peacefulness when they’re together and saying the rosary, and they often feel the presence of their mother.
“Especially the first time, because it was the first anniversary of her death, I think we all felt it tremendously,” said Kerr. “She was definitely the matriarch that always organized things; I think she would be very, very happy with this.”
At 90, Vincent O’Keefe is deeply touched by this gathering of his children each month.
“It makes me feel like my family is close, and the rosary will help keep them close,” he said. “I think about my wife all the time, and sometimes I think she might be watching us.”