When he was about 3 years old, the Rev. Theodore Keller remembers going out with his parents and seeing “a lot of rocks and stones” piled up in the area where St. Peter Catholic Church now stands on Barr Street in Lexington.
He asked his parents what all those rocks were for.
“They said, ‘They’re going to be turned into a church.’ I remember that very well,” Keller recalled. “I kind of grew up with the building.”
At 92, Keller said he is now the oldest priest in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lexington. And those same stones he looked at as a child are still ever present with him.
For the past 22 years — all of his retirement — Keller has lived in the rectory next door to St. Peter and served the parish of his youth.
He celebrates Mass and hears confession each Monday, and he fills in on other days when the Rev. John List, the pastor at St. Peter, is out.
“I was baptized, confirmed, even ordained in this parish,” Keller said, noting that his baptism was in a church up the street where St. Catherine Academy once was.
In October, he will celebrate the 70th anniversary of his ordination as a priest.
“My grandmother used to tease me when I was a small child,” he said. “She’d always say, ‘He’s the one that’s gonna be a priest.’ I’d say, ‘No, no.’”
But his grandmother was onto something.
Keller said that one day when he was 9, he had a conversation with himself. “I didn’t say I would, but I said maybe I would. I kind of said it to myself, and I guess I said it to the Lord.”
Two of his older cousins had already entered the priesthood, and three of his first cousins were nuns.
His educational upbringing led him further toward ministry.
Keller attended Lexington Latin School, a Catholic school that later merged with St. Catherine Academy and became Lexington Catholic High School. Most of the priests in the area taught at the school, and some became friends who encouraged him in his faith.
He was 22 when he was ordained to the priesthood and would have been one of the youngest priests in the country at that time, he said.
“I was pretty young,” Keller said. “The war was going on, so they were making exceptions.”
Over the next 48 years, Keller worked at four Kentucky parishes: Latonia in Northern Kentucky, Winchester, Ashland and finally, Frankfort.
In addition to his pastoral duties, he taught theology in the parish high schools, which Keller said was one of his favorite parts of ministry.
Other tasks included “visiting the sick, helping the bereaved, works of mercy, I guess you’d say. I didn’t do anything really unusual.”
Along the way, he earned a master’s of divinity degree from the Athenaeum of Ohio.
When he turned 70 and retired, Keller moved back to St. Peter, but he stayed plenty busy as an associate pastor.
For the first 15 years of his retirement, he also substituted in other parishes when needed and continued to visit the sick.
When asked whether he still does sick visits, Keller quipped that the parishioners think he’s now the one needing the visits.
He has worked under six pastors in his time at St. Peter and has served longer there in retirement than he was at any of the parishes of his “active years.”
On the days he celebrates Mass, Keller goes over to the church to hear confession beforehand.
I think we get a lot of blessings because of Father’s age and his holiness. There is a determination about him.
Jeanne Singh, who sometimes helps serve Eucharist
“Sometimes nobody comes, but lately they’ve been coming,” he said.
Jeanne Singh sometimes helps serve Eucharist at noon Mass at St. Peter.
“I think we get a lot of blessings because of Father’s age and his holiness,” she said. “There is a determination about him.”
She said she appreciates Keller’s willingness to “teach us what is right and what is wrong,” even if it conflicts with “political correctness.”
“He’s a very loving person,” she said.
What else does his work entail?
“I also sort the mail here if I get here first,” Keller said. “There’s always some small thing in there to be taken care of.”
He drives himself where he needs to go, and he stays up until 1 or 2 a.m. every night.
Some days, he said, he takes a nap in the afternoon after attending Mass.
“I don’t use a cane yet,” Keller said. “Maybe I should.”
He said canes kind of get in his way when he tries using them, but when the time comes, he has two at the ready at the foot of the stairs in the rectory.
Keller walks slowly, but, said Bernardine Mitchell, “he’s always on time.”
Mitchell, who has attended St. Peter since the 1960s, said she draws encouragement from Keller.
“I tell him all the time he’s a lot of people’s inspiration at St. Peter,” she said. “If Father Keller can do it, I can do it.”