Mary Keough, 80

Founder of Sarah’s Guest House in Syracuse to be honored as organization turns 25

By Mary Beth Roach

Q.: Are you surprised that Sarah’s Guest House has been going on for 25 years?

A.: I’m not surprised. I think if you’re doing things for the right reason, it will always be taken care of. I’m a person that relies on my faith a lot — it hasn’t failed me yet. If you’re living correctly, you’re always taken care of.

Q.: You named it Sarah House in the beginning, and there’s a biblical reference, correct?

A.: Sarah was well known in scripture as doing hospitality.

Q.: Why did you come to start Sarah’s Guest House?

A.: We had always done hospitality in our own home, my husband, two children and myself. I was brought up that way. If somebody needed a bed or room, we had it.

This house became available — the little house across the street from the Most Holy Rosary Church. The custodian and his wife from the church had lived in the house. No one had lived in that house for two or three years. The priest at the time asked my husband Dick and I if we had any idea of what we could do with that house. I was aware that people had no place to stay [when traveling for medical reasons]. It was sort of like the dream met the house. It was always more than just a house or a business. It was a mission. It was something I just fell in love with. To start those kinds of things you just have to have a passion for it.

Q:  It’s housed in the former convent at Most Holy Rosary parish.  What prompted that?   

A: The convent was built for 21 or 22 nuns.  There are only three nuns living there, maybe only four, when I moved over there.  They offered us that because they weren’t using it. We are a complement to Rosary and this neighborhood.  We were going and we needed to grow. The first goal was to open the house; the second goal was to expand it. The third thing that I would hope to see is eventually a healing space, mind and body.

Q.: I hear that your nephew inspired you to start Sarah’s Guest House. Tell us about it.

A.: My nephew, Bill Johnson, had gone through two bone marrow transplants, both out of town — in New Hampshire and Minnesota. So I was well aware of the need for such a place here. I could see how it’s devastating to a family. It isn’t just devastating to the person going through the illness; it’s the whole family. For me it was gift. It was a way of paying back for all the help my family and my nephew had gotten. He was diagnosed at 22 and died at 30. He was on my first advisory board and board of directors. He died shortly after we opened the house.

Q.: You’ve retired as executive director in 2010 — are you still involved?

A.: I’m involved as a volunteer. I’m there for advice. I’m there to clean bathrooms, if needed. I do whatever needs to be done, and I just love being there. I’m just happy to see it grow.

Q.: What has been the most gratifying part of your work?

A.: I think the most important thing in life is to take care of each other, and I experienced that many times on a daily basis. I was being taken care as much as we were taking care of our guests. It was good for my soul. You’re participating in such a healing atmosphere.

Q.: When you’re not involved with Sarah’s Guest House, what are some of your hobbies and interests?

A.: I read and love to dance. I was brought up on Skaneateles Lake, and we rent a little place on Otisco Lake — no phone or TVs. I retired also to be available to my family and spend more time with my beautiful grandchildren — Atira, 17, Fiona 13, and Jack, 8.