Priests I Have Known

Priests I Have Known: Con Keogh

When fellow priest Grove Johnson was asked to summarise the life of Con Keogh he captured him with the words – sanctity and genius.

Dr Con Keogh studied in Europe for eleven years during which time the second World War was waged. He was in Rome in 1945 (ordained that year) when the allied forces drove the Germans out of the city. Returning to Sydney in 1950 with a remarkable scholastic reputation and with degrees from propaganda Fidei and the University of Louvain, he was dubbed ‘the young Socrates’. After an immersion in in the Sydney pastoral life of Kings Cross and Darlinghurst for a short period, he was quickly appointed to the philosophy house of St Columba’s Springwood to teach students studying for a life of ministry. His classes were memorable. Church historian Ed Campion described his teaching genius: ‘ the others taught them about philosophy. He taught them to philosophise.’ This author’s years at Springwood  just missed the Keogh classes, but there was a legend that was shared by more senior students that his appetite for reading and study was voracious. Keogh would read and study all night and without having closed his eyes  would conduct his lecture in the early morning, and then retire for a few short hours before diving into research and study again.

‘he reads books as one would breathe air, to fill up and live’.

Soon his ministry engaged with Sydney University and the Newman Society and made connections with some of the most interesting students exhilarated by his intellectual curiosity

and unique mind.

But triggered by a relatively simple medical condition he began to use a nasal inhaler which unknown to medical practitioners contained a psychotropic drug. Over time this had the devastating effect of bringing on a condition of paranoid schizophrenia. In 1953, while driving some friends back home he began to speak gibberish. Later when he recovered he claimed ‘ I was as nutty as a fruitcake.’

This experience had him search for some way to address similar conditions that fellow sufferers were having with similar emotional breakdown. Believing that a path to recovery included a social dimension, Con Keogh began to attend meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. While not himself an alcoholic he believed that the group support provided by this remarkable movement was critical to the improvement of those in similar condition as himself.

Bringing together those who were experiencing similar emotional challenges, Keogh decided to form groups similar to AA but designed more particularly for people who did not suffer from alcoholic issues. In 1957, these groups would adopt the name GROW.

‘We started with 20 people and we found it a tremendous help in being able to get back to into ordinary life,’ he said. ‘ Week by week we were telling each other how we were changing. We would sit around and speak about our experiences together. Eventually we realised we did not have to keep coming to the group; we were staying well. After the meetings  which went on for about two hours, I would start to write down things that came out of the group.’   

Keogh would find in prisons a ministry close to those who suffered emotional breakdown. He was a prison chaplain at Long bay in Sydney Eastern Suburbs for three years. 

GROW would expand throughout Australia and by the new millennium would number 800 groups world-wide. Dr Con Keogh would dedicate his time and his ministry to supporting and inspiring this movement. GROW fundamentally would help people take responsibility for their own lives. When he died in 2001 at the age of 90, his lifelong friend from student days in Europe Dr Grove Johnson gave the best summary of his life in the two words with which we started this reflection; Sanctity and Genius.