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Monsignor Thomas Keys

An affable Irishman with a knack for business and a concern for the poor, Monsignor Thomas J. Keys served as second in command to three Santa Rosa Catholic bishops before retiring as a parish priest after suffering a stroke in 2010.

Keys, who returned to his home town of Derry, Northern Ireland, in March, died there on Wednesday. He was 69.

Diocesan officials and friends were traveling to Derry on Monday to attend a funeral Mass and burial Wednesday at St. Columba's Church, Long Tower, where Keys was ordained as a priest in 1970.

In Santa Rosa, a memorial Mass for Keys will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Wednesday at the Cathedral of St. Eugene at Farmers Lane and Montgomery Drive.

Keys, who served his entire 40-year church career in the Santa Rosa Diocese, was vicar general and finance officer under former Bishops Mark Hurley, John Steinbock and G. Patrick Ziemann, who are all deceased.

He was credited with dramatic fundraising success and also blamed for financial mismanagement that left the diocese $16 million in debt when Ziemann resigned in disgrace in 1999.

"It seemed to me his whole life was for the church," said Joe Piasta of Santa Rosa, a lifelong Catholic and member of the St. Eugene Parish.

Piasta, who served as Ziemann's attorney, said Keys set up self-insurance pools for numerous dioceses and turned the Scrip Center into a fund-raising powerhouse.

Keys, who earned a business degree at University of San Francisco, was a skilled negotiator who could "build things and come up with creative ideas," Piasta said.

Acknowledging that many Catholics blamed Keys for the diocese's financial crisis, Piasta said his longtime friend "led us through an extremely difficult chapter" in the history of the diocese, which was formed in 1962.

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