“Wedding bells are ringing…”

It was Sept. 19, 1970 and devout Catholic Patricia Thames was about to marry a Protestant. The Catholic priest who married them did not insist the future father raise his children in the Catholic faith, and so they would be raised Presbyterian.

Mrs. Patricia Key began her little Presbyterian family with only one weapon in her hand, the rosary. One of her most fervent prayers was for the conversion of her husband and children. 

Fifty-one years later, their three children, two sons and an adopted daughter, are now Catholic converts, and so is her husband, Paul Key. But something she never expected occurred along the way. The Presbyterian pastor became a Roman Catholic priest. At age 78, he is now in fact the pastor of St. Boniface Catholic Church in Chandler, Texas. 

“I didn’t dream of that. I just knew that Our Lady was powerful,” Mrs. Patricia Key said in an interview with the Catholic East Texas. But when she learned he was discerning a vocation to the priesthood, “I was so happy and overwhelmed. I just knew he would be a good one.” 

Fr. Paul Key, Pastor of St. Boniface, Chandler, TX.

But Fr. Key is a priest from an unlikely background. In his youth, he volunteered as a Presbyterian missionary in Venezuela. When he came back to the U.S. at the age of 26, he was profoundly converted to the reality of God. He describes himself during that time as a Kantian Christian. Philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) created a system of rational morality that only allowed God to be a final judge. Man does good based on duty and without God’s grace, which, as Catholics, we know is impossible. 

Mrs. Key didn’t catch on to his lack of faith immediately. “On Easter Sunday, I was singing a Resurrection song and he turned to me and said, ‘You have to know that’s stupid and not true’” she remembers. Fr. Key adds, “I didn’t believe in the Resurrection or anything really spiritual.” His mother, a devout Presbyterian, did not believe in miracles and insisted on a natural explanation for anything Jesus did.  

But what Patricia Key did next became a milestone in Paul Key’s journey to the Catholic priesthood. Mrs. Key has a master’s in theology from Loyola University in Chicago, but at that point in time both of them were enrolled in the McCormick Theological Seminary, a private Presbyterian school of theology. Mrs. Key went so she could find out what they were teaching her husband. 

“In those days they (McCormick) had negotiated classes,” she said. So she organized a class on the Resurrection at McCormick with an excellent Presbyterian professor, who believed in the Resurrection. The framework of that class was a semester of debates on the issue. Fr. Key speaks very enthusiastically about his wife’s ability to “nail Dr. John Burkhart,” a student of Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich, who took the opposing view on the Resurrection of Jesus. But Fr. Key, trying to also argue against the Resurrection of Jesus, lost his debate with another famous name Presbyterian.  

Through the writings of Paul Tillich (1886-1965), a lack of belief in the Resurrection had permeated Protestant theology. He was an existentialist who believed nothing is real unless someone makes it real.  

“Tillich didn’t believe that Jesus existed. We all thought he (Tillich) was a great theologian, but actually it was all garbage,” Fr. Key said, and the debates organized by Mrs. Key established that.  

“I became Catholic because of the truth of the Catholic faith and the witness of my wife,” Fr. Key said, adding that the way she lived her life was a constant example of the “graciousness and truth of the Catholic faith.” 

Mrs. Key said she left little tapes laying around the house over the years to attract her husband to the Catholic faith. He really respected Scott Hahn, a former Presbyterian minister who had just become Catholic. “He gradually understood what he read as he talked to Scott Hahn. He’s honest. He’s not blinded by prejudice.” But “mostly I prayed all the time. The rosary is very powerful,” Mrs. Key explained. 

Fr. Paul Key joined the Catholic Church in 1993. The Key children followed close behind. Mrs. Key rejoices because her grandchildren were baptized Catholic as infants.

In 1998, Fr. Key, then known as Mr. Key, published a book called Ninety-Five Reasons for Becoming or Remaining Catholic. He took the number 95 for the theses nailed to the door of the Wittenberg Church in 1517 by Martin Luther at the start of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther only addressed the issue of indulgences, but Paul Key pounded on the Protestant door with biblical arguments for the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the real authority Christ gave to priests to forgive sins, prayers for the dead, the considerable role of Mary, faith “alone” as not accurate and Sola Scriptura is unbiblical. This was heavy stuff. A full scale war against the Protestant Reformation. 

Fr. Paul Key’s book.

In 1980, Pope Saint John Paul II opened the priesthood to Anglican ministers who become Catholic. Other denominations followed shortly after. With the permission of that pope and that of his bishop, Fr. Key was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 2007. Pope John Paul II died in 2005, but he had already personally approved Fr. Key’s ordination. 

Fr. Key became pastor of St. Boniface in 2016. And since then the parish has seen one wonder after another. 

It’s 6 p.m. on a Tuesday and Fr. Key is walking up to the altar to begin Mass. Suddenly he turns and notices a candle on the altar needs adjusting. He tenderly makes the modification. This is a clue to his priesthood. Fr. Key is a tender lover of Christ and his work. “To be a priest to me is immense,” he said.

Jeri Kennedy has been a parishioner for two years, and what she has noticed is Fr. Key’s ability to share his love of God with his people. She’s 82 and had planned to rest and put her feet up at St. Boniface, but Fr. Key didn’t let her do that. She is now the chairwoman of the Altar Society.

“It was a natural process to be a priest,” Fr. Key said. “I wanted to be about the care of souls in a pastoral sense rather than an intellectual sense. I like to relate to people. I do visits, counseling and teaching. I am very effective one on one.”

He quotes deceased talk show host Rush Limbaugh, “I’m having more fun than a human being should be allowed to have (as a Catholic priest).”

Fr. Key in his office.

His parishioners say they have grown spiritually under Fr. Key’s direction. First, he took the parish from a mission to a full fledged parish of the Tyler Diocese. Now he is preparing to build a new church in Chandler next year, having already raised $1.6 million of the necessary $2 million in funds. The parish certainly didn’t have that kind of money when Fr. Key took over the parish, but the fact that he and his wife give 20 to 25 percent of his priest’s income inspired others to be more generous. “We take tithing very seriously,” Fr. Key said. 

Plus his stewardship sermons are stirring. This past summer when I joined the parish, Fr. Key told us about second mile giving. Jesus said, “If any one forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles” (Matt 5:41). It referred to the legal practice of Roman soldiers forcing Jews and other foreigners to carry their 66-pound packs for one mile. Most complained when they were chosen for this “honor,” but the Christians accepted the duty cheerfully and when asked by the Roman soldiers why they wanted to go another mile, answered “I am a disciple of Jesus.” This led to the question, “Who is Jesus?” And the Christian had the opportunity to share the gospel message. There’s no telling how many Romans became Christian because of this practice.

“Simplify your life so you have extra income. Decide not to buy something,” Fr. Key is on a roll to raise money for the new church and Tyler’s Catholic schools. 

Tracy and Raul Delagarza have been parishioners of St. Boniface for 24 years. They say their prayer life has picked up substantially after Fr. Key introduced “The Word Among Us” daily meditations on the Mass Readings of the Catholic Church. They pray it every morning. “Prayer puts your mind at ease from all the burdens of life,” Tracy said. Raul added that it allows them to touch others in the community through their prayer. 

Stephanie Adams admits that Fr. Key has brought a lot of new things to the parish, but she  thinks the biggest thing is the tuition assistance program. The parish has 11 children now on tuition scholarship going to local Catholic schools. 

Fr. Key runs a Spanish apologetics class on Sundays for the Hispanic community. “He is a great teacher. His life is inspirational. It makes him a better preacher,” said parishioner Margarita Montenegro. “He is excellent in Spanish. We understand him very good,” said Perla Davies. Fr. Key became fluent in Spanish in his mission work in Venezuela. When I was at the apologetics meeting, they were discussing Purgatory, but after two Spanish parishioners left the Church to join the Jehovah’s Witnesses, they planned to learn about that religion. 

On December 8, 2021 besides saying two Masses, he was at a library board meeting politely asking them to remove porn from the children’s library. Witnesses said he was very calm and gracious in his speech. There were 120 books that promote easy sex, homosexuality, transgenderism and the like in the children’s library, Fr. Key said. “What does Our Lady think of that?” he thundered at Mass the following Sunday, December 12th. “Jesus died in the most humiliating way for us, what should be our response?” A small child answered, “We should thank him.” Fr. Key agreed, “We should give him praise and adoration!” 

Transgenderism, homosexuality and promiscuity — “Those are serious sins. Any Christian committing these sins has to repent. God will help us if we turn to him,” Fr. Key said. 

In an interview after Mass, Fr. Key said he told the library board calmly, “These things are evil and children should not be exposed to them.” 

“There’s three functions of a Catholic priest — prophet, priest and king. Each is really special. As a prophet you are taught to preach the gospel. That’s why I got involved in the Covid (and the library board). There’s an incredible evil out there,” he said. About five or six frail elderly parishioners got the Covid and lived because Fr. Key led them to simple remedies like Ivermectin and Hydroxychloroquine. But five parishioners died in the hospital when these treatments were denied to them. Fr. Key personally argued with their doctors in the hall, but they all died — three Anglos and two Hispanics.

At one point, Fr. Key helped the parish organize an evening debate with the Church of Christ in Chandler. The question debated was simply, “Which church is the true church?” At the end, neither side conceded their position on doctrine, but they became close friends and are working together to fight for the pro-life cause. Both churches found they could agree on morals. 

Fr. Key and his wife, Patricia Key.

“I see how the people (of St. Boniface) have grown,” Mrs. Key said. She used to lead a women’s Bible study and be very involved in the parish. But now she has health problems that prevent that. Nevertheless, she continues to support her husband’s ministry through prayer. “We are on the verge of a new church building. I see people and the way they respond in Mass. They have grown.”

She has faithfully prayed her rosary for 51 years for Fr. Key’s ministry. “We are in a battlefield,” she said. “The sword we have is the rosary. Sr. Lucia (one of the visionaries of Our Lady of Fatima, Portugal) said (in our time) God has given more power to the rosary than it’s ever had before.”

By Susan Fox

Susan Fox is a former investigative reporter, who worked for several daily newspapers and a newswire in the 1980s and 90s, including the San Francisco Examiner and the San Diego Union, under her maiden name Susan Burkhardt. She won many awards for her work then, which was in the area of finance, economics and business reporting. In 2019, she received a Master’s in Marriage and Family from the pontifical school ITI Catholic University in Trumau, Austria. Her Catholic blog, https://christsfaithfulwitness.blogspot.com, has over 4.7 million page views since 2012.