By Mike Viola
Thanks to two extraordinary Missionary Oblates, good citizenship is on full display at the Oblates’ St. Henry’s retirement community.
Father Sherman Wall, OMI, and Fr. Tom Killeen, OMI are former “Citizens of the Year” for their work in improving the lives of people in their former missions. But that’s about where the similarities end.
Father Sherman has spent most of his missionary life in a rural parish in the Midwest. Father Tom has crisscrossed the world on his missionary journey.
Today, they both have “Citizens of the Year” plaques in their rooms at St. Henry’s, just a few doors away from each other. They are good friends, in addition to being great citizens.
“I have met many beautiful people everywhere I have been and I’m sure Fr. Sherman can say the same thing,” said Fr. Tom. “God did a good job with us.”
Father Sherman was named “Citizen of the Year” in 2021 for the town of Willow Springs, Missouri. The town, located in the Bible Belt of the Ozark Mountains, has about 2,000 residents. The poverty rate in the area is nearly double the national average.
Father Sherman arrived at Sacred Heart Parish in Willow Springs in 1985 when he was 54 years old. He thought it would be a short-term assignment. He stayed for 36 years before moving to the Oblate retirement community at the age of 90.
Prior to Willow Springs, Fr. Sherman worked mostly as a retreat leader in the Midwest. When he arrived in 1985, the Oblates had some ministries in the Ozarks which they began in the 1970s.
Father Sherman was immediately struck by the level of poverty in the community. Howell County is one of the “hungriest” counties in the nation and Fr. Sherman and his parishioners were determined to do something about it.
In 1986 the parish opened a food pantry and thrift store named MUNCH (Missourians United to Combat Hunger). They started off distributing food once a month to a few needy families, but the need was much greater than anticipated. They quickly expanded the building and ministry to serve hundreds of families. MUNCH is still in operation today and serves about 500 families every month.
In April 2021, Fr Sherman was presented the “Citizen of the Year” award at the Willow Springs Chamber of Commerce annual banquet. Parishioners praised Fr. Sherman for the impact he made in the community while admiring his humble and empathetic nature.
“Over the past year, I would say the characteristic that has described Fr. Sherman is fearlessness,” said parishioner Amanda Mendez. “At the age of 90, in a global pandemic that is supposed to be the most dangerous to him and his contemporaries, he did not turn from his duties. He never stopped performing works of serving to the community. Father Sherman has poured himself out for the people of Willow Springs when no one would have blamed him for taking a break or stepping aside.”
Another parishioner, Patty Carson, described Fr. Sherman this way: “Anyone down on their luck knows to show up at his door. He is a holy, holy person; a wonderful, wonderful man!”
In 2017, Fr. Tom Killeen, O.M.I. was named “Citizen of the Year” for the city of Cordova, Alaska. He spent 16 years in Cordova for what was supposed to be his “retirement” assignment. He was 70 years old when he arrived. Instead of retiring, he worked full time running the local parish and became a beloved member of the community. Father Tom’s arrival in Cordova continued a lifetime wish of ministering in the frozen north. When he was in the eight grade, an Oblate visited his Missouri school and told the students about the Oblates’ work in the Arctic. That day Fr. Tom found his calling.
A year after ordination, Fr. Tom was assigned to a mission in Greenland. His first home was a canvas hut. He would visit a scattering of Catholic families mostly by boat. He learned how to fly a plane but after two crashes decided, “this is nonsense,” and stuck to his boat.
In 1967 Fr. Tom joined the Army and was a Chaplain during the Vietnam War. He then spent a year in the Demilitarized Zone in Korea and three years in Germany. Then it was back to Greenland for seven more years before returning to the Army for another 13 years.
Father Tom then tried retirement, for a few weeks, before accepting another assignment, spending nine years at a parish in Colorado. He tried retirement again, for a few weeks, before accepting his assignment in Cordova, Alaska.
After 15 years in Cordova, the people of the town honored him with their “Citizen of the Year” award. In nominating Fr. Tom for the award, Elisabeth Collins wrote the following testimonial about him:
“Father Tom is the epitome of a kind, caring and understanding individual. He meets people where they are in their own lives and does so without judgement. He is compassionate and intentional about his interactions with people.
Personally, I have yet to witness a situation where he has turned anyone away. His willingness to help people and his commitment to our community far exceeds that of anyone I know. Each day I work hard in that hope that I am able to follow in his footsteps and make a difference in people’s lives.”
Today, Fr. Sherman is 91 years old and his kid brother Oblate, Fr. Tom, is a mere 90. They are both is good health and help with liturgies at the Oblate retirement community and at nearby parishes. “I’ve had a great life, and helping out at two parishes now keeps me alive,” said Fr. Tom.
Now in their final years of earthy ministry, both Fr. Sherman and Fr. Tom appreciate the honors and recognitions that have been given to them. But they quickly deflect any praise coming their way. Their missionary journeys may have appeared extraordinary to some, but Fr. Sherman and Fr. Tom consider themselves to be just ordinary Missionary Oblates.
“The people need to be in charge because someday I won’t be here,” said Fr. Sherman. “I prefer to be the cheerleader, not the leader.”
They have been cheered as citizens of the year. While also being citizens and messengers of God’s love for a lifetime.