The new Bishop of Derry smiles, shakes my hand and invites me to take a seat.
The Very Rev. Dr. Donal McKeown makes an excellent first impression. He’s welcoming, friendly and I felt remarkably comfortable in his company.
Dr. McKeown will be officially installed as the new Bishop of the Derry Diocese on Sunday but in 2001 when he was appointed as Auxiliary Bishop in the diocese of Down and Connor he didn’t get the reaction from his mother, Rose McKeown (nee McMeel) he expected.
“My mother was a wonderful woman - when I told her that I’d been asked to take on the role of Auxiliary Bishop of Down and Connor she asked me could they not find anyone else. And when people approached my mother to congratulate her on my appointment she would always tell them that it wasn’t congratulating I needed, but more prayers,” he laughs.
Dr. McKeown was born in Belfast in 1950 and next Saturday he will celebrate his 64th birthday.
The time spent in Belfast was brief as Dr. McKeown was to spend his childhood and early adult life growing up in Randalstown Co. Antrim and it was here he developed a real passion for the GAA.
Dr. McKeown’s father was called James and he owned a clock fixing shop in the town.
“My father was one of 13 children and only one of them left the town for America - the McKeowns were thick on the ground back then,” he smiles.
Rose, his mother, was a primary school teacher from Moneyglass and it was through her that Dr. McKeown became passionate about all things to do with education.
“I was part of a very large clan growing up, both on my mother’s and father’s side.
“I was also very much part of the community through the local GAA club - for which I played both football and hurling very poorly.
“I played for Creggan Kickhams GAC so I suppose you could say I’ve swapped one Creggan for the other.”
One of Dr. McKeown’s greatest dilemma’s may prove to have nothing to with clerical issues but instead he is worried what might happen should his beloved Antrim meet any of the three counties which fall under the Derry Diocese.
“I don’t know what I am going to do when Derry play Donegal in the Championship and then there’s also Tyrone to worry about - they are three heavy hitters when it comes to football so I’ll leave that one in the hand of the Lord,” he smiles.
“Randalstown was a great town. No one in Randalstown died during the Troubles which meant I grew up in a remarkably mixed community and it’s remained that way, thankfully.”
After completing his studies at Mount St. Michael’s Primary School in Randalstown Dr. McKeown went on become a boarder at St. MacNissi’s College, Garron Tower.
Dr. McKeown completed his studies at St. MacNissi’s College with a distinction in Modern Languages.
In 1968, Dr. McKeown entered the Diocesan Seminary, Saint Malachy’s College and studied at Queen’s University Belfast where he graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree with Honours in Italian and German in 1973.
Dr. McKeown taught English in Dieburg, Germany in 1970 and from 1971 to 1973 he was the Northern Ireland correspondent for the German Katholische Nachrichten Agentur.
Then, from 1973 to 1978 Dr. McKeown studied Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.
It was during his time in Rome that he did occasional work as a newscaster for the Vatican Radio and as a correspondent for RTE radio’s Irish language programme An Saol Mor.
Dr. McKeown was ordained in 1977 and was briefly chaplain at the Mater Hospital in Belfast.
In 1978, Dr. McKeown embraced his second vocation.-teaching. He remained a teacher for the next 23 years until he was made as Titular Bishop of Cell Ausaille and Auxiliary Bishop of Down and Connor in February 2001.
“I’ll let the people in a little secret. When I was Auxiliary Bishop of Down and Connor we got all of the good ideas of how best to manage a diocese from Derry - so anything that ended up working in Down and Connor did so because it was a success in Derry first,” he laughs.
In the last few years the Roman Catholic Church has been severely criticised for the way in which it conducted itself before, during and after the clerical abuse scandal.
It was an issue that Dr. McKeown refused to shy away from and said if there is to be anyway forward then the victims of abuse must be helped to heal.
“I think people have been very badly hurt and looking after them and helping them to move forward has to be number one priority.
“Everyone will have their own particular needs. If that means meeting with people and talking with people I will do it.
“The church has offered help and support and the church is now ready to offer spiritual help to those victims who want to continue on with their faith journey.
“However, I don’t think we benefit as a society living in the past and we have to be able to generate the idea that there’s hope for the future.”
When Dr. McKeown is not busy with his responsibilities of being a bishop he likes to relax by listening to classical music and cutting turf with his brother in Randalstown but he says his real source of joy in life is people.
“It’s people who keep me going. I just love meeting and talking with people and listening to what they have to say,” she smiles.