Cardinal William Henry Keeler, Former Leader of Archdiocese of Baltimore, Passes Away

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A photo of Cardinal William H. Keeler from 2002, via Archdiocese of Baltimore

The longtime former head of the Archdiocese of Baltimore has died at the age of 86.

Cardinal William Henry Keeler served as Archbishop of Baltimore from 1989 to 2007, a period in which he brought Pope John Paul II to the city in 1995, helped lead the restoration of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, America’s first cathedral, and served in the Conclave that appointed Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.

He retired from his post at the age of 75, but remained president of the Basilica Historic Trust while he lived at the St. Martin’s Home for the Aged in Catonsville.

He died there early this morning, the Archdiocese of Baltimore announced today.

Keeler was born in 1931 in Lebanon, Pa. He began his career with the Catholic Church at age 24, when he was ordained to the Catholic priesthood in Rome. He spent some of his first years as a priest accompanying the bishop of Harrisburg to the Vatican in Rome, studying Catholic law and eventually becoming an appointed member of the Second Vatican Council.

He came to Baltimore by way of Harrisburg, where he served as auxiliary bishop from 1979 to 1984 and bishop until 1989. That year, he was appointed the 14th Archbishop of Baltimore, succeeding Archbishop William D. Borders.

Five years into his tenure in Baltimore, Pope John Paul II appointed Keeler the third-ever cardinal from the city. The next year, the pope made his visit.

After three years of serving as vice president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (now called the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops), Keeler was made the president of the conference in 1992. He remained in that post for three years, in the process gaining a reputation for building relationships with other faiths by creating new Catholic-Jewish bonds and forging dialogues with leaders of other Christian branches.

Keeler led the Baltimore region’s estimated 500,000 Catholics through the international sex abuse scandal for the Catholic Church. He’s known for being the first U.S. bishop to release the names of all 56 area priests credibly accused of sexual abuse in 2002 – a list the Archdiocese of Baltimore still maintains online. He also released details of millions of dollars’ worth of settlements and other expenses related to the scandal.

Keeler also championed the area’s Catholic school system, leading several fundraising campaigns that have raised a combined $250 million used to fund scholarships and school financial aid and support parishes, evangelization programs, and Catholic Charities.

In October 2006, Keeler was traveling in a car in Italy with a friend, Father Bernard Quinn of the Diocese of Harrisburg, when it crashed. Quinn was killed, and Keeler suffered a broken ankle and was diagnosed with a resulting condition called normal pressure hydrocephalus. He underwent surgery at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in June 2007. The next month, he resigned as archbishop.

Keeler will be buried in the crypt beneath the Basilica, like his predecessors, including Archbishops John Carroll, Michael Curley and James Gibbons. A public viewing of his body at the historic cathedral begins at 1 p.m. on Monday, March 27; his mass and burial will happen the next day beginning at 2 p.m., according to the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s website.

Mayor Pugh on Thursday morning lamented Keeler’s passing. “The former Archbishop was a towering figure who was best known for bringing together people of all faiths and backgrounds. During the 17 years he led the Diocese of Baltimore, Cardinal Keeler lived his message of love and compassion for all and became a moral beacon for our community,” the mayor said in a statement.

Keeler is survived by his sister, Julia Keeler, who lives in Toronto.

This story has been updated.

Ethan McLeod
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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in Baltimore City Paper, Leafly, DCist and BmoreArt, among other outlets. He enjoys basketball, humid Mid-Atlantic summers and story tips.
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