Priest, virologist, medical ethicist, chef. Born on April 8, 1959, in New Denmark, N.B.; died on March 12, 2014, in Waterville, N.B., of cancer; aged 54.
He had a quiet charisma, a gentle air that invited people to speak their heart. But there was iron strength in Keith Nielsen’s convictions and he would have no truck with the constrictiveness of vision he found in New Brunswick society nor in the ecclesial family he served, the Roman Catholic Church.
Born in rural New Brunswick he never lost his attachment – affective, philosophical and spiritual – to the soil. The eldest of six children born of Allan and Lina, he grew up in an area long settled by Danish immigrants and retained an abiding love for all things Danish: Kierkegaard, open-faced sandwiches, Hamlet. Philosophy, food, art.
After earning a B.Sc. from the University of New Brunswick, he secured a master’s at the University of Manitoba with a specialization in virology. He seemed set on a life of science when to the surprise of many, including his family, he elected to become a priest of the Diocese of Saint John, and was sent for his theological studies to Louvain, Belgium.
He was ordained in 1991 and appointed to the Basilica of St. Michael’s in Miramichi for three years. He then returned to Louvain to complete a licentiate in sacred theology with a concentration in medical ethics. Back in his diocese he resumed his duties as a parish priest in several rural and urban settings, and taught at St. Thomas University in Fredericton.
After a sabbatical year of study in Denmark, he accepted a position as chaplain to St. Thomas but served only a short time. Frustrated by what he saw as institutional dysfunction and a spiritual malaise afflicting many, he opted out of the traditional routes of priestly ministry and began training as a chef.
From scientist to priest to chef may seem an unusual route, but it was as richly imaginative as it was challenging. Although his various bishops were sensitive to his spiritual restiveness, in the end Keith elected to operate outside the normal channels of presbyteral behaviour, although always respectfully. He never ceased being a priest, nor did he become a lightning rod for disaffected Catholics. He simply wanted to define a new way of ministering, to explore a new way of being a people of faith.
I recall a lunch in his modest digs adjacent to St. Thomas University when he was chaplain and I was president of the school, a lunch marked by the subdued dignity of his living quarters, the exquisite tastiness of the food, and the stark boldness of his thinking. He envisioned a church where communion wasn’t just a spiritual or metaphorical exercise but real in its physicality, connected to the soil. His ecological and theological vision was nurtured by his early rural life, his love for the church liturgy, and his scientific forays into the minutiae of life. Life was of a piece, but he was not at peace.
After retiring from formal priestly service in 2008, Keith studied the art of cooking in St. Andrews By-the-Sea, N.B., and took various positions as a chef-in-training for two years and then as a chef at the Keltic Lodge in Ingonish, N.S., and the Rossmount Inn in St. Andrews. My wife and I often entertained travellers to the area with a visit to the inn; when he was on duty he always made a point of coming to our table – smiling, curious and serene.
Keith was always physically robust and in shape. He intentionally lived a healthy lifestyle. So when he was unexpectedly diagnosed with cancer he was surprised, but not devastated. A man in tune with life’s cycles, in love with the sacramental and the real, he knew that he would find peace in the very earth that nurtured him.
Michael W. Higgins is Keith’s friend and former president and vice-chancellor of St. Thomas University.