Home from Hollywood, actor honors mom with 'Church of Babs'

The church was formerly known as Goshen United Methodist Church. Will Keenan is transforming it into a residence, spiritual oasis, and performance space.

Stuntman, cult movie star, and digital entertainment executive Will Keenan strode to the center of the stage-like altar.

"Welcome to the Church of St. Babs, ladies and gentlemen," he said, flashing a cinematic smile and raising a smartphone to the mike.

Suddenly, the Beach Boys' rollicking "Barbara Ann" was audible throughout the 118-year-old sanctuary.

"The 'church of rock-and-roll' part is about to start!" Keenan proclaimed, to cheers.

The former Goshen United Methodist Church in Middle Township is being transformed by Keenan into a residence, spiritual oasis, and performance space named for his recently deceased mother. And he's set up the nonprofit, charitable Barbara A. Sees-Keenan Foundation to operate it.

A former Catholic altar boy who lived in a California ashram for seven years, Keenan said renovations won't be finished and programming won't officially begin until spring.

But on Thursday, about 30 family members, young musicians, other creative types, and folks involved in recovery gathered inside the handsome, high-ceilinged structure for a benefit.

Blues guitar ace Billy Thoden, 16, of Pittsgrove, was among the performers. The music was wonderful, the pews were full of parents with their kids, and Keenan - a quirky, exuberant impresario who's worked in Bollywood as well as Hollywood - couldn't stop smiling.

"My mother is still here, in spirit," he declared.

Said his sister Cindy Ferraino, a freelance writer and Washington Township mother of three: "In what my brother is doing, I see our mother's legacy shining through."

Generous, caring, and shy of the limelight, Barbara Keenan was 70 when she succumbed last July to the breast cancer she tried to keep secret.

The retired Cooper University Hospital nurse lived in Washington Township, where, as a divorced single mother, she raised three children.

She sent her kids to Paul VI High School and later enabled "Billy," her youngest, to attend New York University.

"She gave me an incredible launching pad for my career," Keenan, 43, said.

Six months ago, he came back to South Jersey to care for his mother. She died six days after he got home.

"I decided to take a long sabbatical to continue her work," added Keenan, who lives at St. Babs.

He's a veteran of indie films such as 1996's pioneering all-digital Love God and 2012's The Ghastly Love of Johnny X, described as "the last black-and-white wide-screen musical." He also has TV credits.

Keenan played a charismatic child molester on a memorable episode of Law and Order, performs with a rock group called Will Keenan and the Mack Bros, and has authored online "Sunday sermons" that have gotten Facebook likes from alt-culture luminary Courtney Love.

He executive-produced digital shows for a then-rising, now-enormous pop star named Pitbull. And in recent years he earned a reputation for deftly connecting new digital-content providers with emerging platforms.

A Variety exclusive in 2015 trumpeted his move to the helm of a live video-streaming company.

But his decision this year to quit Hollywood and launch a quest to help others is not surprising, his friend Gina Rubinstein said by phone from Southern California.

"He's a unique person. He doesn't do things like other people do," said Rubinstein, an Emmy-winning producer of a reality show (Clean House).

"Will has always had a really strong spiritual side," Rubinstein, who grew up in Montgomery County, Pa., added.

"He's not a typical TV guy."

Given the compassion Keenan's mother consistently showed patients and others struggling with addiction, St. Babs will host 12-step meetings.

"I'm hoping to create a space where we can help women and families, in particular, who are needing, or in, recovery," said Keenan's sister, Laurie, a Havertown, Pa., consultant who's been sober for eight years.

St. Babs "will be a spiritual refuge for those in need" and a place where new talent "can hang out" and create, said Will Keenan, who seemed to be everywhere networking with everyone at the event.

"I'm blowing up what I've done for movies and videos and digital, and making it a thing for the community," he said, flashing his show-stopping grin.

"A lot of people think I'm crazy to interrupt the peak of my career. But I couldn't pull this off without my mother backing me up in heaven."

kriordan@phillynews.com

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