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Bishop’s ‘extraordinary life’ the subject of Creighton professor’s latest film

From Council Bluffs, Iowa to Creighton University, from the University of Notre Dame to Uganda, and just about everywhere in between, the Most Rev. Vincent J. McCauley led a life that was nothing short of extraordinary.

A new documentary by filmmaker John O’Keefe, PhD, Creighton’s A.F. Jacobson Chair in Communications and a professor of historical theology, helps bring into sharper relief the life of McCauley, a foundational leader and compassionate missionary in the Roman Catholic Church in the mid-20th century, who became the first bishop of the Diocese of Fort Portal in southwestern Uganda.

Bishop Vince: A Monumental Life, will premier Sept. 23 at 5 p.m., in the Hixson-Lied Auditorium of the Harper Center, 602 N. 20th St., on Creighton’s campus.

“His life and the story just grew on me,” said O’Keefe, who also produced and directed 2013’s Tokimane, documenting a diocese in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and since 2009 has led Creighton’s Backpack Journalism Project, a student-driven effort at producing documentary films on people living on the margins. “I felt like I was the person to do this project. I live here, I’ve been to Uganda five times, I have experience setting up a project like this. As I talked to more and more people who knew him, I came to realize what an interesting guy he was and what kind of story I could tell.”

The film started as a request from members of McCauley’s family who approached the administration in the College of Arts and Sciences to see if Creighton would be interested in telling the bishop’s story. O’Keefe’s experiences in Uganda, his work as a filmmaker and his creation of the Center for Catholic Thought led to further discussions and O’Keefe began initial interviews in the winter of 2014.

Visiting both Notre Dame and Uganda in 2015, O'Keefe found the story taking shape around a young man who, though assailed by health problems, felt an unrelenting enthusiasm for service.

Born in Council Bluffs in 1906, McCauley attended Creighton Preparatory School and enrolled at Creighton University in 1924. After a visit from members of the Congregation of the Holy Cross at his home parish, McCauley transferred to the University of Notre Dame, from which he later took his priestly vows and graduated.

McCauley began his missionary work in 1936 with a posting to Bengal (now Bangladesh), where he stayed until he was overcome by a series of illnesses and nearly died. The intervention of some of his classmates at Creighton Prep helped get McCauley back to the U.S. After his recuperation, he took a job raising funds for Holy Cross missions around the world.

“But he wanted to be back in the field,” O’Keefe said. “And by the mid-1950s, the pope had said that it was the job of the Church to start sending missionaries into the developing world. Holy Cross sent a number of its members around and McCauley went to Uganda. He convinced his superiors they should open a mission in Uganda.”

McCauley also left his superiors little doubt as to who should run the mission.

Out of the mission, eventually a new diocese was carved out around Fort Portal and, in 1961, McCauley became the diocese’s inaugural bishop. He spent another decade developing men and women to serve the diocese and tending to the needs of refugees from neighboring nations. He promoted education and worked to bind up wounds left from decades of colonial oppression.

“He felt called to go to mission from a very young age and he just kept finding ways to answer that call,” O’Keefe said.

McCauley was also intent on making sure the Diocese of Fort Portal belonged wholly to the people who lived in it. The four bishops of the Diocese of Fort Portal who have come after McCauley have all been Ugandans.

In 2006, 24 years after McCauley’s death, the Diocese of Fort Portal began the push to canonize the bishop. While advocating sainthood is not a central thrust of O’Keefe’s documentary, the filmmaker said the project gave him a window on the canonization process he finds interesting and he said McCauley is deserving.

“I think it would be cool,” O’Keefe said. “I think it’s something the family has as a goal and if this can help the cause a little, that’s good. One thing you hear a lot about in the process to sainthood is that a person lived an ordinary life in an extraordinary way. I think McCauley led an extraordinary life doing a lot of remarkable things.”

Following the first screening of Bishop Vince on Friday, O’Keefe said he’s hopeful to show the documentary at Notre Dame and also to share it in Africa, especially in the Diocese of Fort Portal.

Friday’s premier of Bishop Vince is free and open to the public, coinciding with Creighton’s celebration of Africa Rising Week, Sept. 20 to 25.

Creighton University is a Jesuit, Catholic university bridging health, law, business and the arts and sciences for a more just world.