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Assumption priest is the inspiration for TV character

03/18/2015

By Jean Ko Din
The Catholic Register

TORONTO (CCN) — Eight seasons into the popular CBC TV series, fans finally see more than a glimpse into Det. William Murdoch’s origins.

In the latest episode of Murdoch Mysteries, titled Shipwreck, Murdoch reunites with his childhood mentor, Father Keegan, as they team up to solve a mysterious murder in a local Catholic church.

Maureen Jennings, author of the original book series, wrote the episode and said she based Father Keegan’s character on her experience while studying at Assumption University in Windsor, Ont.

“There was one teacher, his name was Father Malone. He was the one who I really was quite conscious of modelling Keegan on,” said Jennings. “He taught me such a lot. What he really taught me was to open my mind and really think about things. I’ve never experienced that.”

Jennings was 19 when she took Father Aloysius John Malone’s social psychology class. The class studied books like The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard and On the Road by Jack Kerouac. She said that Malone taught her to think through the information that they read.

Jennings renamed Malone’s TV character after one of her favourite writers, John Keegan, a British military historian.

Father Lebel, the murder suspect in the episode, was named after the former president of the university, Father E. Carlisle LeBel, CSB, though the character was not modelled after him.

In a series of flashbacks weaved into the episode, young Murdoch was serving as an altar boy for Father Keegan when bodies from a nearby shipwreck washed up onto the shore. Father Keegan, with young Murdoch in tow, helps the town organize the unidentified bodies and viewers are able to see the early stages of Murdoch’s deductive skills.

“This is (the story’s) third reincarnation actually. It was a short story, then part of a novella (for GoodReads),” said Jennings. “Then, we all liked the idea of doing an episode of Murdoch as a young boy and how he became who he is.”

Longtime fans of the Murdoch stories got a special treat when they saw Peter Outerbridge play the character of Father Keegan. Outerbridge first played William Murdoch in the television movie that preceded the series. Yannick Bisson now plays the lead character in the television series.

“The three movies where he played Murdoch were so good that’s when they said they wanted to do a series, but he was already in a series called ReGenesis,” said Jennings. “Eight years later, we finally have a chance to bring Peter back and it seemed perfect that he came back as Murdoch’s mentor.”

Jennings said that everyone involved with the show was so happy with Outerbridge’s return that they are already working on a new story to bring Father Keegan back into the picture. Jennings also hints that the character might become a recurring role.

“Now that we’ve established that he’s back in Murdoch’s life, there’s no reason not to bring him in again,” she said. “I think he did such a good job and everyone was really happy to see him again, so we’re definitely going to cook up some more stories for him.”

Though she considers herself to be an Anglican, Jennings grew up in what she called “a very Catholic environment.” She said she owes much of her experience to her Irish Catholic mother.

Jennings was born in Birmingham, England, and spent many of her formative years there. At the age of 17, she immigrated to Windsor with her mother. Jennings said that her mother wasn’t “overtly Catholic” but her mother’s side of the family familiarized her with their Catholic traditions.

When she first formed the character of William Murdoch, Jennings said she chose to make him Catholic because she had always been fascinated by both spiritualities.

“When I decided to set the book at the time, I was very interested in the potential for conflict,” she said. “To make my character Catholic, right off the bat is a disadvantage . . . and we’ve dealt with that in the show a couple of times where he could not advance very much further even if he wanted to. The prejudice against Catholics was very intense at that time and we forget it was huge for a long, long time.”

Jennings said that even though she grew up in a Catholic environment, to study psychology and philosophy at Assumption University was “sheer luck.” At the time, it was the only university close by. Still, she said she enjoyed her experience and she learned plenty about both religions.

“I really did a lot of reading, talking about spirituality and religion at that time,” said Jennings. “There is not a lot of difference, in fact, between High Anglicans and Catholics. It was minimal, I thought, and that was very attractive to me at the time.”

Jennings said the reason why Murdoch has transcended from books to movies to television is because of the richness and vitality of a historical drama.

“I feel lucky that all the writers try to be very careful to be accurate and it’s a big soapbox thing of mine that we should be accurate,” said Jennings.

While researching for this particular episode, Jennings was looking for a way for the Toronto Constabulary to find background information on suspected murderer Father Lebel. At 15 minutes into the episode, The Catholic Register gets a cameo mention.

A Toronto police constable bursts into Inspector Brackenreid’s office and quickly hands the inspector a piece of paper. “Sir, information you requested from The Catholic Register,” he said.

“To tell you the truth, that was me hoping that was true,” said Jennings. “We needed to have some historical account of the priest . . . that would be written somewhere and I thought The Catholic Register would be one to have that.”