By Rachel Curry
The second Bishop of Bunbury and an Auxiliary Bishop of Perth, Bishop Myles McKeon passed away on 2 May at the age of 97, leaving behind a pastoral legacy that won’t soon be forgotten.
Bishop McKeon will be remembered as a warm and sociable man who was kind to all he met, perhaps excepting those who dared to crack an Irish joke in front of him.
He was a collaborator in the founding of the Catholic Education Commission and Catholic Institute of Western Australia, both of which were unique in the world at that time.
The following article contains excerpts from an autobiographical article written by Bishop McKeon during his retirement.
Bishop Myles McKeon was born on 3 April 1919 in the small town of Drummin in County Mayo in the west of Ireland, to John and Bridget McKeon.
Growing up in a family of nine, Bishop McKeon said that he learnt the value of hard work from a young age, taking on various tasks in the family’s businesses after school, including as a barman.
“It was great experience in the way that a bar is a place where you get to know people, where people get to confide in you and people you know talk openly; they become your real friends,” he said.
Bishop McKeon went to primary school in Drummin and boarded during secondary school at St Jarlath’s College in Tuam, where he said the students often went hungry during World War II.
Upon his graduation, he successfully applied to All Hallows Seminary in Dublin, which prepared students for foreign mission in English-speaking countries.
He was at All Hallows for seven years, including three years studying philosophy, psychology, Latin and Greek at University College Dublin, and said he enjoyed his time there, despite the continuing poor conditions.
“In 1947, when I went back after Christmas, it started snowing on the 17th January and it snowed solidly until 4th March,” he recalled.
“It was always spoken of afterwards and still is spoken of today as ‘the year of the big snow’. I never wanted to see the sight of snow again in my life… because there was no hot water, no heating, nothing. It was just plain, you might say, suffering and it was real suffering.”
Luckily for Bishop McKeon, he was soon headed to a country where he would never see snow again.
While in his fourth year at All Hallows, he accepted an invitation to go to the Archdiocese of Perth, despite not being able to place Perth on a map.
He sailed to Australia in 1947 in a group of 22 priests coming from Ireland, describing the journey as “a great adventure”.
At one point, the passengers spent six days in Bombay, India while the ship was being repaired and Bishop McKeon said it was an illuminating experience.
“I suppose I could say it was good for me because, in my heart and soul, there was sown a great love and sympathy for the Third World,” he said.
“This helped me a lot afterwards when I had to go round the diocese, being in charge of the Propagation of the Faith in Perth and also later in Bunbury.”
After arriving in Perth, Bishop McKeon spent “four happy years” as the parish priest in Maylands before being transferred to St Mary’s Cathedral as an assistant priest, where he was kept busy “day and night” for two years as the chaplain to Royal Perth Hospital.
The next eight years saw him travel all over the Archdiocese which, at that time, included the Diocese of Bunbury, after he was appointed to work promoting the Missions in the Third World.
He was also in charge of Welfare and Catholic Migration in the Archdiocese and said the plight of the child migrants who came to Australia in the years following World War II particularly affected him.
“Those poor youngsters came out from all those institutions with a chip on their shoulder and they would, you know, take their hurt out by stealing and wrecking property,” he said.
“If they got into trouble, I went to court with them. I remember one year for six months I never missed a session in the Children’s Court. I had clients there all the time.”
Bishop McKeon was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Perth in 1962 when he was just 43 years old and it was not long after that he boarded a plane to Rome to attend the Second Vatican Council.
He said it was the highlight of his time as a bishop and he was particularly impressed by the energy and vivacity of Pope John XXIII.
“It was in itself a tremendous experience just to be part of that and see Christ represented through an elderly man speaking to the whole Church throughout the world,” he said.
Bishop McKeon explained that, when he arrived at the first session of the Second Vatican Council, he had no idea that, four years later, he would be standing in front of 175 priests in Perth and telling them that they would be saying Mass in English within a month.
He said it was “a frightening experience” but the priests accepted the proposition graciously.
In 1969, he was appointed as the second Bishop of Bunbury, a position he held until his retirement due to health reasons in 1982.
“I was delighted with my appointment to Bunbury because, having been reared in the country in the west of Ireland, I was comfortable with country people,” he recalled.
“I can honestly say I was totally happy; the people were just great, just wonderful people.”
His achievements in the Diocese of Bunbury included starting the Carmelite Monastery in Gelorup, establishing the Catholic Youth Camp in Busselton, creating the Catholic Development Fund, amalgamating the Marist Brothers high school and the Mercy Sisters high school into Bunbury Catholic College, setting up the Permanent Diaconate and establishing Centrecare.
He was also one of four WA bishops to collaborate in the founding of the groundbreaking Catholic Education Commission of WA in 1971 and Catholic Institute of WA in 1975.
Bishop McKeon’s early retirement gave him the chance to travel and reconnect with his extended family, while he continued to work in the Diocese of Bunbury in the area of Propagation of the Faith.
He celebrated the golden jubilee of his consecration as a bishop in 2012, after 65 years as a priest, and spent his final years at St John of God Villa in Subiaco.