MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — While a meeting with the Township Committee didn’t go as smoothly as he hoped, Will Keenan, owner of a local church, said he got his point across to committee members that he is willing to give the cemetery adjacent to the former Goshen Methodist Church to the township, or to a group of citizens committed to preserving the property.
“If people are so concerned about the cemetery, I’ll give it back to the township, or the citizens if they want to take it,” Keenan said at a recent committee meeting.
Keenan made his offer to public officials in a prepared statement that wandered from the history of the church and cemetery, to the need for fundraisers to renovate the property, to why he renamed the church to St. Babs, after his deceased mother.
He also noted: Some folks still think of him as a shoobie; his motorcycle was stolen from the church parking lot not long after he bought the property; and he had heard a rumor folks were calling him a gay Muslim who wanted to build a mosque.
In his statement, Keenan referenced a Halloween church fundraiser for which he offered tours of the graveyard with historically accurate representations of people buried in the cemetery, along with a buried-alive experience. The fundraiser drew outrage from the community.
“After all, from the first few weeks I moved here, local historians and others have told me that all of Cape May County is known to be haunted and that a lot of this area’s lore is based on the Victorian era of spiritualism and ghosts,” Keenan said.
The Halloween fundraiser was his one great mistake, Keenan said.
“I’m a spiritual dude,” he said. “With the buried-alive experience, I wanted to give people the chance to appreciate life.”
As outrage grew in Goshen in response to the fundraiser, Keenan said, he canceled most of the Halloween event, especially after his neighbors marched on the church.
Keenan paced in front of committee members as he read his statement, raising his voice or lowering it to a stage whisper at times as though giving a sermon. At other times, he spoke as if delivering an inside joke. The pacing and delivery of the speech was not well-received by committee members, yet they pointed out Keenan apparently had worked hard to improve the property.
“I want to welcome you to Middle Township, but you’re being a little flippant about people’s concerns,” Committeeman Tim Donohue said, referring to both the tone of the speech and the Halloween fundraiser. “I can’t blame them for their trepidation.”
Donohue said he respects what Keenan is trying to do with the church renovation.
“I’m not blaming you,” he said. “But I hear (the people’s) concerns as well.”
Two people in particular, who were not present at the January meeting, have criticized Keenan and his idea for the fundraiser. Donald and Eileen Douglass, both of whom own plots in the cemetery, have attended past committee meetings asking the township to intervene with the cemetery.
Donald Douglass did not return calls seeking comment on Keenan’s offer, but said in December he is considering moving his parents from the graveyard.
“I want to move my parents,” he said. “But that starts the dominoes. Should I move my grandparents? Should I move my great-grandparents?”
Donohue highlighted the Douglasses’ concerns.
“They own the plots,” he said. “They’re concerned about the future of the cemetery.”
In a phone interview this week, Mayor Mike Clark said he didn’t think the township should take over the cemetery.
“The best solution is to have the residents that are interested in the cemetery form a nonprofit, and for them to maybe take it over and oversee it,” he said. “That way they’re assured that everything is taken care of the way that they want it to be.”
Township Solicitor Frank Corrado said while it’s possible for municipalities to own cemeteries, it is uncommon.
“There’s a procedure that has to be followed,” he said. “It isn’t something that municipalities do every day. But there is a statute that allows for it. Whether the township does it or not is another question.”
Keenan, a Hollywood stuntman, cult movie star and development consultant for Bollywood films, bought the church and graveyard last year from the United Methodist Church of Greater New Jersey, and in one of his first actions, renamed the building the Church of St. Babs after his deceased mother. The church is nondenominational.
Keenan said as part of the deal with the church, he was obliged to purchase the cemetery. It was an unseverable package, he said.
“Honestly,” Keenan said in a previous interview, “if anything was going to upset people, I thought that renaming the church after my mother would be it.”