On a Mission

Text by Tommy Raniszewski  Photographs by Michelle Giorla / June 2017

With towering plaster walls to be painted, vaulted ceilings to be refurbished, and a surrounding cemetery to maintain, the old Goshen United Methodist Church, which stood empty for three years, is once again a swarm of activity and community involvement. Musicians are congregating for nightly jam sessions in the sanctuary, craftspeople are donating their skills, and neighbors are leaving hot meals and freshly baked cookies on the doorstep for all those involved. Even celebrities have answered the call of the church’s new and unique three-pillared mission of mindfulness, recovery and arts education.

The white, clapboard-sided church that punctuates the lush greenery and farmland along scenic Delsea Drive (Route 47) has been a Cape May County landmark since 1909. Now in the first stage of a new and exciting chapter, the newly named St. Babs stirs a sleepy, rural community with pride for its past and hope for healing those living with addictions.

The unlikely architect behind this ambitious endeavor is film and television actor Will Keenan. Will, who continues to garner fans from his portrayals of offbeat characters in such late-‘90s cult-classics as Tromeo & Juliet, Love God and most recently The Ghastly Love of Jonny X, has also acted alongside Oscar winner Kate Winslet in the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. One of his most noted and controversial roles was that of Billy Tripley, the fictionalized Michael Jackson character in Season 5 of Law & Order: SVU. Until last year, Will also enjoyed a seven-year success in the corporate realm of Hollywood, when he became president of Streamup, which led the company to become the world’s largest live streaming platform.

In what seems fitting with the most poignant of film scripts, it was a sad twist of fate that would prompt Will to abandon the glamor and hustle of Hollywood and settle for the slower pace of South Jersey, and the catalyst for what he sees as possibly his life’s greatest role. In the summer of 2016, Will left his executive position and numerous acting offers and returned to New Jersey to take care of his mother, Barbara Sees-Keenan, who had been diagnosed with cancer. However, Barbara’s cancer had been much more advanced than she had allowed her family to know. On July 5, just six days after Will’s return, Barbara died. A registered nurse at Cooper Medical Center in Camden, Barbara showed such a degree of compassion and care for her patients that it earned her the moniker “The Mother Teresa of Nursing” among her colleagues.

Deciding to stick to his sabbatical, Will used the time after his mother’s death to reconnect with old friends and family at the shore. “I would take the back roads,” Will said of visiting relatives in Wildwood Crest. “I was driving down Route 47 and I saw this church for sale. I pulled up and thought it was a cool old building with the paint falling off.” Ever in the moment, Will phoned the listing agent to tour the building. “I knew instantly I could live here,” Will said of his first tour of the church. “My friend Reiko was with me and we asked the real estate agent for a few moments alone inside. Reiko asked if I wanted to pray on it and we did.” Will tells of the moment he and Reiko knelt side-by-side in the center of the sanctuary, “I simply prayed, ‘God, if this is meant to be, let it be, thy will be done, I love you,’ and we got up and left.”

Will’s prayer was the seed that would quickly blossom into what he saw as the continuation of his mother’s work to help people in need. In the months that followed, Will purchased the property and named the church St. Babs in memory of his mother. The Barbara A. Sees-Keenan Foundation, a non-profit organization, was founded as the operating entity, with Will serving as executive director. Although the foundation is eligible for grant money, Will hopes to rely mostly on charitable donations and the foundation’s own efforts to maintain financial solvency. Currently, an online fundraising campaign is underway on the crowdfunding platform GoFundMe which, as of this writing, has raised more than half of its $50,000.00 goal. These funds, along with a growing army of volunteers, are already helping Will reach his goals for the church and offsetting maintenance expenses. The most immediate issues being addressed are exterior painting, roof repairs, and a newly imagined landscape design which will include a shared vegetable garden open to the community.

Will welcomes visitors into his church with childlike excitement. Eager to share his vision of what St. Babs will become, his tour of the building is an on-the-go narrative of apparently limitless energy. Quickly distracted by his own flow, his deep engagement in explaining the restoration of a specific church feature easily sidetracks into a fully acted-out tale from his film and television career. Whether discussing the process by which he’ll restore the sanctuary’s tin ceiling, or telling about the time he pranked comedian Jerry Lewis before an audience of 600 people, Will and his focus skip and leap through the chambers of the church like a moth in a cavern of flickering flames.

Upon entering the sanctuary of the non-denominational St. Babs, the visitor’s attention is drawn across the semi-circular arrangement of oak pews to a nearly life-size wire sculpture of an angel adorned with tiny white lights, perfectly centered on an altar of Will’s design. Surrounding the base of the gleaming guardian, which wears Barbara Sees-Keenan’s stethoscope, are several framed images of Christian saints, Hindu deities, and Eastern mystics, along with offerings of prayer and thanksgiving that range from small tokens, written notes, and incense sticks to checks from generous donors. Will encourages visitors to leave such offerings, but asks that shoes be removed before approaching the altar.

The list of celebrities who have befriended Will over the years reads like a list of pop culture’s Who’s Who. Evidence of these friendships can be seen decorating the sanctuary: artwork from grunge goddess Courtney Love, a painting from comedian Andy Milonakis, and framed photography from rapper Pitbull are just a few of the items that these friends have contributed to Will’s efforts in beautifying St. Babs. The most prominent piece of art in the sanctuary is a large, signed butterfly print given to St. Babs by artist and musician Julian Lennon.

Of the church’s many century-old features and magnificent spaces, it is in the front library and art gallery, with its aged wooden moldings and massive stained glass windows, where Will is most at home. The room, which upon first glance seems to be an eclectic clutter of books, artwork, old photos, and movie memorabilia, is actually a carefully managed collection of what Will intends to be a source of healing and inspiration to all who visit St. Babs. “My mother always loved the idea of a literary salon, where people could sit and read books and have coffee,” Will explained. “These books have all been approved by me, I’ve read them all and only want books appropriate for a church. Nothing is stocked on these shelves, nor will there be any musical performances here that are not of an uplifting nature. These books are for everyone. If someone wants a book to own, there is a donation box. If someone is truly in need of it, they can have it.”

Most noticeable among the hundreds of books on spirituality and addiction recovery are the writings of Indian-born guru Paramahansa Yogananda. After years of spiritual study and personal reflection, Will became a disciple of Yogananda in 2003 when he began living at the Self-Realization Fellowship ashram in California, a spiritual organization founded by Yogananda in 1920. During his seven-year residency at the SRF ashram, Will immersed himself in the spiritual ideals and disciplines set forth by Yogananda. “My mother, who was Catholic, was very open to my journey to re-find God,” Will said of his spiritual realization. “I found that the mystical branches of all the great religions lead to the same place.”

It is the ideals of Yogananda’s teaching that Will incorporates into St. Babs’ mission of mindfulness, specifically the ideal, “to serve mankind as one’s larger self.”

Serving those in Cape May County is Will’s top priority in operating St. Babs. “When I bought this property, I began asking people what the community needs,” Will said of his inquiry among neighbors and township officials. “The thing I kept hearing from people was that there is an opioid epidemic. I want to create a space where kids can play video games or watch movies in an environment where they can hang out in a cool space without the temptation of drugs.”

Addressing his mission’s pillar of recovery first, Will converted the church’s former offices and Sunday school rooms into overnight quarters. The two-story rear addition to the church, which was built in the mid-20th Century and adds to the structure’s overall usable space of 6,000 square feet, lends itself perfectly to St. Babs’ goal of hosting short-term retreats. With newly created guest accommodations on the second floor and a spacious kitchen, multi-purpose dining hall, and sitting room on the first, professionally-led recovery groups will have a self-sufficient environment during their stay.

In addition to structured recovery retreats, St Babs will also offer its sanctuary as a regularly scheduled meeting space to the recovery efforts of Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon.

The foundation’s mission of recovery has stirred concern among some of St. Babs’ closest neighbors. Although the number of these concerns are few and fleeting compared to the community’s overwhelming support, Will is quick to ease his neighbors’ qualms by lending a compassionate ear and offering a tour of the church to explain his mission firsthand. “Just the other day while getting my mail,” Will said, “a neighbor stopped me whose concern was having two teenagers in her household while recovering addicts would be meeting here. I assured her that the programs would be monitored by licensed professionals in the recovery field and would not pose any danger.” Will explains that while the church’s name was meant to memorialize his mother, it has also become a standard of accountability toward which he strives. “I constantly remind others and myself,” Will said, “that everything here has to remain on the up-and-up. It’s my mother’s name that’s on this place.”

Another community concern that arose upon Will’s purchase of the church involved the property’s most notable feature, the nearly two-acre cemetery. “People have been asking whether they’ll have access to the cemetery,” Will said. “I’ve also had people express concern as to whether the groundskeeping will be maintained. I will not allow anything that is disrespectful to their loved ones. In time they will see that I have great respect for the cemetery, and that I will do everything I can to keep it godly.”

Included in the transfer of the property was a 36-page agreement in which the purchaser must abide by State of New Jersey guidelines for ownership of a cemetery. Topics covered in the agreement range from landscaping and allowing public access to the fair and ethical sale of available plots. “I’ll not only abide by the guidelines set forth by the state,” Will vowed, “I will exceed them.”

One of the most notable graves in the cemetery is that of Civil War hero and Medal of Honor recipient Andrew Jackson Tomlin. In keeping with his love for the performing arts and his mission to foster arts education, Will has written a one-man play about the Goshen-born son, who returned from the war to later become the sheriff of Cape May County. In full period costume, Will has already rehearsed and filmed scenes from his play, Tomlin, which he will be staging at St. Babs later this year.

Will plans for his performance of Tomlin to be the first of many such events that will promote arts education at St. Babs. It is when he discusses this mission of the visual and performing arts that Will’s excitement ignites. Getting a word in edgewise is nearly impossible as Will enthusiastically explains how the three pillars of the foundation’s mission will interrelate to one another. In fact, those privileged to be his audience would be foolish to try. His sincere and dynamic delivery of ideas rivals the best of his on-screen performances. Ingenious concepts, enlightening quotes, and hope-filled intentions explode from Will in a rapid, dazzling discharge.

His friends in Hollywood aren’t the least bit surprised that he is channeling his trademark energy into this new role. “I think it’s wonderful what Will is trying to do,” said Oscar-winning actress Shirley MacLaine in a recent phone call discussing his work at St. Babs.

At only 43 years of age, Will can now add “humanitarian” to his list of lifetime accomplishments. One would look at the young movie actor, spiritual seeker, and former corporate executive and think there is no dream he can’t achieve.

In the spirit of Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which includes the line “. . . you must begin by knowing you have already arrived,” Will Keenan’s new journey with St. Babs is yet another manifestation of that which he envisions for himself and for those in need. His cousin Michael Sees, a licensed social worker who advises Will in the foundation’s mission, as well as assisting with the day-to-day renovations of the building, summed up Will’s ability for achieving goals. “I learned a long time ago never to doubt my cousin,” Michael said, “His deep faith and positive mindset are what drives him to achieve his goals. He simply begins at his endgame and then watches all the hurdles dissolve behind him. If he sets his mind to it, it happens.”

Perhaps Will’s wasn’t the only prayer answered last July as he knelt in the empty church for the first time. Perhaps, the tired and collective prayer of a community in need was answered that day with Will’s arrival.


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