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The Death of a Special Christ-Like Priest

Georgette and I met on August 4, 1978, when we were both 21 years old. We were married in June 1980, while I was on break from law school. Ten months later, in March 1981, we had our first child, Harry. I graduated from law school in May of the following year.

We moved back to Peoria during the summer of 1982. At that time, Georgette was pregnant with our second child, Anna. I started my law practice in January 1983, and Anna was born the following month. We had our third child, Maria, 13 months later, in March 1984. When Maria was born, I was 26 years old.

It was during this period of time that my mom and my sister Colleen started commenting about how I had become too serious and I needed to lighten up. Colleen is a year and a half younger than me, and of my eight sisters, she was the one I was closest to while we were growing up.

When my mom and sister told me that I had become too serious, I hadn’t realized that my behavior had changed from the young, carefree guy who liked to have a good time and tease other people to an older guy who felt overwhelmed by the burdens of life.

But I wasn’t bothered by their comments about my being too serious. To me, that was what responsible adults did — they grew up and did their best to care for and support their families. In some respects, my mom and my sister were correct. My newfound responsibilities made me feel overwhelmed. At times, I felt as though I was doing well just to keep my head above water. Georgette and I had three babies in three years — Maria was born on Harry’s third birthday — and I was doing my best to support my family while managing my law practice.

Now, more than 30 years later, Georgette and I have 13 grandchildren, with three more on the way. I’m still serious, but I’m having more fun now than I’ve had in years. I’ve given myself permission to lighten up and revert to my childhood when I’m around my grandchildren. Their parents sometimes get irritated with me because they think I get their children riled up too much. But that’s OK with me, because I’m finally able to do what my mom and my sister wanted me to do all those years ago.

Whenever I think about how my mom and sister lamented about how serious I had become, I think about a priest with whom I once had the pleasure of working. That priest was Monsignor Gregory Ketcham.

Until I met Msgr. Ketcham, all the priests I had ever dealt with were serious men who always behaved as though they had a lot of responsibility on their shoulders. Like me, they were forced to grow up quickly and learn how to handle the stress and anxiety that come with the responsibilities of adulthood.

But Msgr. Ketcham was different. He never lost his youthful, boyish innocence. He didn’t take life too seriously, and he had the energy and stamina of a high school athlete. Even though he had all the responsibilities associated with being a parish priest, it never seemed as though he was overwhelmed or weighed down by them. The way he handled his responsibilities was almost like a game to him. He had played football in high school and college, and to him, life was like a football game. He approached all his responsibilities and challenges like a star quarterback, with strategic planning, confidence, and optimism.

It didn’t seem as though Msgr. Ketcham was ever worried about making a wrong decision or having to deal with a bad outcome. If something didn’t turn out the way he had hoped, it was OK with him. He simply considered it a worthwhile experience. He then changed his game plan and moved forward.

There’s a certain innocence and enthusiasm about youth that tend to dissipate as a person matures and takes on the struggles and responsibilities of adulthood.

Msgr. Ketcham’s youthful innocence and enthusiasm never dissipated. He had the childlike innocence that Christ told us was necessary before we could enter His Kingdom. Msgr. Ketcham’s innocence and enthusiasm were magnetic. He had a unique ability to draw people — young and old — to him. Our Lord had that same ability when He was on this Earth.

I met Msgr. Ketcham in June 2003, when he became the pastor at St. Philomena Catholic Church. He came to St. Philomena when we needed him the most. During the previous handful of years, our parish had lost 25% of its families to parishes in North Peoria. Morale was low, and we needed a positive leader who could lift up our spirits and create a vision for our future.

At that time, the word on the streets in the Diocese of Peoria was that St. Philomena, which is located in Central Peoria, was going the same route that the inner-city Catholic schools and churches had gone. It was expected that over time, our parish would be drained of its people and resources and would eventually become a shell of what it once was. It seemed as though we were quickly moving toward that destiny.

But then our Lord favored our parish by sending us the one priest who had the spirit, confidence, resilience, energy, enthusiasm, charm, and optimism that were needed to lead us into the future.

After Msgr. Ketcham arrived at St. Philomena, I met with him to discuss the perpetual adoration program. Georgette and I had started a part-time adoration program at St. Philomena in 1991, and we converted it to a perpetual adoration program in October 1994. I set up the meeting with Msgr. Ketcham so I could fill him in on the details of how the program operated.

When we met, Msgr. Ketcham was upbeat, kind, and gracious. I asked him about his family, and he told me that while he was growing up, he had learned a lot from his dad, who had worked as a salesman.

As I got to know Msgr. Ketcham, it became clear to me that he had all the qualities of a great salesman. He had the ability to overcome obstacles in a confident and positive manner. He was a master of handling conflict. When a conflict arose, he didn’t become irritated or angry like most people do. He simply dealt with the situation by patiently listening to what everyone had to say, and then he would masterfully reframe the conversation in a way that would make the conflict irrelevant.

He also seemed to be completely immune to criticism, another trait that all great salespeople have. If someone criticized him, he had the humility and wisdom to understand that the criticism was more about the person who had expressed the criticism than about him. To him, critical statements were simply one more obstacle to be overcome so he could get to his final goal.

While he was with us at St. Philomena for only three years, Msgr. Ketcham was able to boost morale and put us on a path to new growth.

In June 2006, he was named the chaplain and director of St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. He remained there until 2014, when he became the pastor of St. Patrick of Merna in Bloomington and St. Mary in Downs.

In July 2016, Msgr. Ketcham was diagnosed with a large, inoperable brain tumor that was surrounded by a cluster of smaller tumors. His doctors told him that the main tumor had been growing in his brain for up to three years. Over the next seven months, he received radiation, chemotherapy, and other medical treatment. Ultimately, the treatment failed to work.

Over the next several months, he experienced an immense amount of suffering, which included severe headaches. In December 2017, home hospice was brought in to assist with his care. Until then, his three older sisters took turns taking care of him.

On February 8, 2018, our youthful, charming, boyish priest, who lived life the way our Lord wants all of us to live, was welcomed into the Kingdom of God. I think that it’s safe to say that everyone who ever got to know him is a better person today because of his spirit, innocence, youthfulness, influence, enthusiasm, wisdom, humility, and holiness.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him….

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6 Responses to “The Death of a Special Christ-Like Priest”

  1. Sister Roberta Houlihan, CSJ Says:

    Dear Georgette and Harry –
    What a wonderful tribute to Msgr. Greg Ketcham! Thank you, Harry, for sharing your thoughts of him! Yes, I knew him during his years at St. Phil’s, and while I didn’t know him as well as both of you did, I was aware of how much the students we had at PND loved him. I do receive the Catholic Post each week, and I also had a wonderful visit from Bernie and Therese Giacabazi who spoke of his passing while they were here.
    It is a gift to get to know such wonderful Priests in our lifetime! Again, thank you for writing about his life.
    May you and your family have a peace-filled Lent leading to a Spirit-filled Holy Week and Easter! With loving prayers!
    Sister Roberta

  2. Rhonda Parker Says:

    What a beautiful tribute to Fr. Greg. Your insight and description of him is spot on. We were all blessed to have had him in our lives. He is already missed.

  3. Harry Says:

    Thanks Rhonda. I can still remember his smile and his great optimism. Whenever Fr. Greg walked into a room, it was like the sun coming out on a cloudy day. Harry

  4. Harry Says:

    Sister Roberta – We were really blessed to have Msgr. Greg as a priest in our Diocese. He touched a lot of lives in a positive and holy way. He will be a strong advocate in Heaven who we can turn to for assistance and guidance. I hope all is going well for you. Harry

  5. Liz johnson Says:

    Msgr. Greg was very good to our family. We first met him in Dallas City where My in- laws lived. Here was their priest before coming to St. Phils. I can still hear him laugh his unique laugh.Father Greg liked to make us laugh too- many of his homilies started with a joke- to get our attention no doubt. He also made a lot of Peoria parents sigh a sigh of relief as they sent there young adults off to The U of I. How blessed we were to have him there helping our college Catholics! We will miss you Msgr. Greg!

  6. Harry Says:

    Liz – There’s probably only a dozen or so people that we will meet in our lifetime who are so special that our lives are significantly changed in a positive way because of them. Msgr. Greg was one of those individuals for a lot of people. It’s a mystery why God would allow someone like him to die at such a young age. We were blessed to have him in our lives. Take care. Harry

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