Crash `happened just like that'

Cardinal recalls few details of fatal accident in Italy

October 24, 2006|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN REPORTER

Cardinal William H. Keeler moved with the aid of a walker yesterday, his right pants leg slit to accommodate the protective boot that braced his broken right ankle.

Keeler suffered the injury about two weeks ago in a car crash while vacationing in Italy. One of his closest friends, the Rev. Bernard Quinn, was killed and another friend, Monsignor Thomas Smith, the driver, suffered several cracked ribs.

"It happened just like that," Keeler said yesterday, describing the crash publicly for the first time during a news conference at the downtown headquarters of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

"Father Quinn became a very dear friend. I know that I will miss him," the archbishop said.

He recalled few details of the crash yesterday. They were on their way to a hotel in Terni, about 60 miles from Rome, but Keeler's first recollection is the moment immediately afterward, watching the airbag deflate on the dashboard.

Keeler and Smith quickly performed absolution on each other and their traveling companion, Quinn.

"That was what the instinct reaction of the priest is: to make sure the sacraments of the church are available to someone dying or in danger of death," he said.

The injury has forced the cleric to limit his schedule as the archdiocese prepares for the reopening next month of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

"The healing process is moving ahead, although, because of my years, it's a little slower than it is for other people," said Keeler, 75.

The cardinal said he has started physical therapy and his doctor told him yesterday that his ankle is mending.

"I didn't get a date that I will be liberated from the boot that I'm wearing," he said.

Archdiocese spokesman Sean Caine said the cardinal has resumed some official duties but has scaled back his schedule to recuperate in preparation for the reopening of the basilica.

Construction on the basilica, the first Roman Catholic cathedral built in the United States, began in 1806 and it was completed in 1821. It reopens after a two-year renovation on Nov. 4.

Quinn, 78, and Smith, 75, are both priests from the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pa., where Keeler had worked for more than 30 years, six as its bishop.

The cardinal said both he and Quinn were assigned to study in Rome as student priests in the 1960s - mission work for Quinn and canon law for Keeler. He fondly recalled their first excursion to Sicily 45 years ago. In later years, the three regularly vacationed together in Italy and elsewhere.

During the recent trip, Keeler said the three had celebrated the Eucharist at the tomb of St. Valentine, where they "thought of the people who were going to be married by us that year," Keeler said. They also visited the tomb of St. Rita of Cascia, a patron saint for impossible causes.

Another car hit the passenger side of their vehicle, Keeler told archdiocese officials after the accident. Keeler was riding in the passenger seat and Quinn was in the back seat.

Keeler said he saw the driver of the other car in the hospital but that he wasn't hurt very badly. He said he was not aware of any charges being filed.

Quinn had said at least four times on the day of the accident that he was ready to go to the Lord, Keeler said. "He was ready, and that gives us an extraordinary amount of consolation," the archbishop said.

Smith preached at Quinn's funeral Saturday at Sacred Heart Church in Lancaster, Pa., Keeler said.

"He became a very dear friend. I know that I am going to miss him, but I know, too, that he is with the Lord," the cardinal said.

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