Dennis Keenan
Dennis Keenan
Dennis Keenan knows what it's like to be poor.

Son of a Portland shipyard worker who was laid off after World War II, he lived for a time in a converted chicken coop. When he was 13, his father died and he became the man of the house.  
Keenan will retire after leading the Archdiocese of Portland's social service arm for 22 years and overseeing a major expansion of services.

"I learned to rely on God a lot and have empathy for people without a lot of money," he says of his past.

Keenan, a 65-year-old member of Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in Portland, says his work at Catholic Charities has been a blessing.

"It gives me an opportunity to live my faith and my belief in the social mission of the church," he explains.

In Keenan's years as head of Catholic Charities, the annual operating budget surged from $100,000 to $10 million. In 2008, Keenan led the organization in its first capital campaign, which raised $12.5 million for the construction of the Clark Family Center, Catholic Charities' new headquarters.

Keenan has not taken the Catholic identity of the organization lightly. He cites scripture and church teaching when giving major talks. The new building has a statue of Christ and crucifixes. The mission statement, he knows in his bones, is based on the dignity and sanctity of human life and the social teaching of the church. In 1997, he withdrew Catholic Charities from United Way, which included Planned Parenthood.  

He attended Central Catholic High School and the University of Portland, working summers to pay off  tuition. Keenan was a philosophy and theology undergraduate at UP who was impressed with the social mission of the church as voiced in the documents of the Second Vatican Council.

"I felt we all had a role in the life of the church and a duty to create a more just society," he says.

While a student at UP, he volunteered with low-income kids in at a nearby housing project as a tutor and coach. He helped a group of single mothers organize themselves to assert their rights before the Housing Authority of Portland.  

He then earned a master's in social work from Portland State University, serving for part of that time with a human rights commission in Portland.  

In 1979, he became director of family life for the Archdiocese of Portland. He planned fairs, workshops, speakers, parent classes and marriage training. He formed an association for people who were widowed and divorced.

During the 1980s, Archbishop William Levada began to revise Catholic Charities, which then had only a handful of workers. The archbishop wanted a stronger presence of the church in social work and Keenan got the call.

Now, 200 workers help serve 39,000 people each year. A decade ago, Keenan listened to his case workers and brought Catholic Charities into affordable housing, with 600 units being tended.

Services, Keenan says, cannot simply fill in needs. They must advance human development by helping poor people further financial stability, strengthen marriages and other family relationships and form links to the community.

He hopes Catholic Charities will continue to grow in ways that respond to the changing needs of people who are poor. Now, for example, Catholic Charities serves the newest immigrants to America — Latinos, Africans and others. Recently, Catholic Charities has earned a national reputation for work with victims of human trafficking.

"Dennis is a true servant leader, who has the ability to inspire and who is passionate about the social mission of the church," says Doug Alles, longtime social services director for Catholic Charities. "Dennis has made it possible for us to improve our care for the poor and has helped the staff of Catholic Charities grow as persons."

Keenan has a high reputation even outside Catholic circles.

"I've learned a lot watching how Dennis has helped lead and guide Catholic Charities through a lot of changes," says David Leslie, executive director of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon for 14 years. "Programs don't grow out of bottom lines, they grow out of need, vision and compassion."

Keenan and wife Diana, whom he lauds for her encouragement and support, have been married for 41 years. They have five children and six grandchildren. Keenan says he looks forward to spending time with them all.