Father James Kelly, 98, a retired priest of the Diocese of Dodge City, died Dec. 9, 2008, at the Catholic Care Center in Wichita.
Those who had the good fortune to know Father Kelly would have witnessed his youthful spirit and sense of humor that stayed with him until nearly the end.
“I came here 11 years ago,” a smiling Father Kelly said about the retirement home in a 2002 interview with the SKR. “One fella’ is 20 years younger than me and in a wheelchair. I told him that when I get old I want to get one of those.”
Father Kelly was 92 at the time of the interview, the oldest priest from the Diocese of Dodge City and probably the one whose sharp wit, keen intellect, and physical appearance most belied his age.
He was born in Dublin, Ireland, May 20, 1910, the son of William and Catherine (Phelan) Kelly. He was ordained for the Order of Saint Camillus by Bishop (later Cardinal) John Dalton of the Diocese of Meath, Ireland, Sept. 10, 1944.
He founded the Camillian House in London in 1945 and served as Superior there from 1946 to 1949. During this same time he served as chaplain of Hillside Institute and LaSainte Union convent, also in London.
After the English province of the Order of Saint Camillus ceased to exist, Father Kelly transferred to the Diocese of Dodge City. In 1953, he was assigned to St. Mary’s Parish in Marienthal as assistant pastor and cared for the mission churches of St. Joseph, Tribune, and St. Anthony at St. Theresa, Kans. That same year he was named first resident pastor at St. Joseph, Tribune, and continued to serve the mission church at St. Theresa.
His other pastorates included: St. Theresa, Dighton (1960-63); St. Joseph, Scott City (1963-68); St. Joseph, Ellinwood (1968-79); and St. Joseph, Liebenthal (1987-89). He served as chaplain at Central Kansas Medical Center in Great Bend from 1979 to 1987.
Father Kelly saw nearly a century of change in his lifetime; he noted in the 2002 interview that there had been “much growth” in the relationships between pastors and their pastoral assistants since the 1950s.
“The housekeeper often thought the assistant was an encroachment,” Father Kelly said. “A former pastor once told me that it came down to pastor; housekeeper; dog; assistant. You call and ask, ‘Can I speak to the boss?’ and the housekeeper says, ‘Speaking.’”
When asked to describe one of the highlights of his ministry, he responded, “Saying Mass for the aged and bedridden. I would bring Communion to them every day.”
In addition to his parochial appointments he was named as spiritual director of the Legion of Mary Comitium on March 31, 1963 and diocesan director of Catholic Hospitals on Sept. 12, 1968.
He retired to Ireland in 1989, but returned to Kansas two years later and took up residence at the Priests Retirement Center at the Catholic Life Center.
“It’s been great for us,” Father Kelly said of him and several other Irish priests who were living at the home at the time. “We’re in the right place for the end of life.”
Bishop Ronald M. Gilmore presided at the funeral Mass with the Most Rev. Michael O. Jackels, bishop of Wichita, at St. Elizabeth Chapel in the Catholic Care Center. Concelebrating the liturgy were Monsignors Patrick Leahy and Brian Moore; and Fathers Gilbert Herrmann, Frank Jordan, Eugene Kenny, Lisle Pottorff, Robert Baker, John Strasser, and Wesley Schawe. Burial was in Ascension Cemetery. Memorials can be sent to the Ann and Virgil Dechant Foundation at P.O. Box 137, Dodge City, KS 67801.