A hearty hug from Will Keenan welcomed me back to Saint Babs, "the church of all religions” he founded in the faded but charming Cape May County hamlet of Goshen in 2016.
“This place has changed a lot since you were here two years ago,” Keenan said on a recent sunny morning, ushering me inside the sanctuary of the former Methodist church on Delsea Drive.
Pictures of Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and Sufi luminaries are now on display, the autographs from some of the hundreds of musicians who have played there adorn one corner, and the work of established artists as well as young students decorates the walls.
The energy at St. Babs is quirky and warm, much like the personality of its founder, who named the church in memory of his mother, Barbara Keenan, a beloved OB-GYN nurse in Camden.
“Young people can feel comfortable and free to create here,” said Maura Gallagher Allsman, program director of what locals call “the arts church.” About 5,000 people have come through the doors for the regular Sunday service, concerts, classes, or other programs since St. Babs officially opened in May 2017.
“We don’t proselytize,” said Keenan, an actor who’s done network television, film, and digital projects, and was ordained online as a nondenominational minister. “But we do have a ministry.”
The sanctuary’s elegantly patterned copper-and-tin ceiling, burnished woodwork, and stained-glass streams of light are testaments to why two Philadelphia nonprofits are collaborating to help preserve St. Babs. And the “Give Shop” of free clothing and household items in the adjacent, 1830 portion of the building, as well as the handful of emergency shelter beds on the second floor, speak to the sort of assistance the church provides needy folks in Cape May County.
“Will does a lot,” said Allison Farrell, manager of the Shore Family Success Center, in nearby Rio Grande. “Recently we reached out to St. Babs to provide a safe, supportive space for a young man who needed a place to stay for two nights before he was admitted to rehab.”
Keenan, 45, grew up in Washington Township and in 2016 came home from Southern California to care for his mother, who spent her nursing career at Cooper University Hospital. After Barbara Keenan died of breast cancer that July, her only son —the youngest of her three children — took a sabbatical from his entertainment career.
By the end of 2016 Keenan had purchased the long-vacant, two-acre Goshen United Methodist Church and cemetery property, moved in, and established the nonprofit that’s now St. Babs.
Keenan, Allsman, and their supporters have reinvigorated the weathered but still handsome church into a lively music venue, a home of arts classes and other events for kids, a nonsectarian spiritual oasis where nonbelievers are welcome, and a can-do member of the human services network in mostly rural, economically struggling Cape May County.
But in 2017 some local residents became alarmed by social-media promotions for a “zombie crawl” and other spooky elements of a Halloween event planned for the church cemetery. Worries about seances and possible grave desecration drew worldwide publicity, most of it bad.
“For six months I was being beaten up in a local newspaper," said Keenan. “I was depressed, I cried my eyes up, I was saying, ‘Sorry, Mom. Sorry, community.’
"There never was going to be a seance, and there was no seance. My mother’s remains are in that cemetery! But I decided to put the place up for sale.”
A longtime friend and entertainment-industry colleague named Michelle Phan made a major donation that helped get St. Babs and its founder back on track.
“Will has a vision. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but he just keeps going," said Robert “Budd” Springer, 68, a retired carpenter who lives next door to St. Babs. “Will has absolutely been a good neighbor. And I’m thrilled that the church is being maintained.”
An award of in-kind professional services from Philadelphia’s Community Design Collaborative will help St. Babs do preliminary planning and other work involved in applying for preservation-related grants, said CDC executive director Beth Miller, who called the church a "terrific” organization. CDC is collaborating on behalf of St. Babs with Partners for Sacred Places, a national nonprofit, headquartered in Philadelphia, that helps former worship sites develop new public uses.
“I will be serving on the community that will help steer St. Babs as they go through the design process, and I look forward to continuing to work with them. There’s a ton of potential,” said Rachel Hildebrandt, senior program manager at Partners.
Keenan sees the planning process — the first meeting is set for 4 p.m. Saturday, April 27, at the church — as an opportunity to more deeply involve the community in helping shape the future of the institution that carries his mother’s name.