by Jim Creskey
SUN Contributing Writer
Sometimes a country’s best diplomats are the ones the foreign ministry never heard of. That was true of Francis of Assisi, who went on a personal peace mission to the Muslim ruler at a time when the rest of Europe was sending soldiers to the Middle East to slaughter “Muslim heretics.”
That was also true of Phil Kelly, a modern follower of St. Francis who during his lifetime learned community organizing in Chicago under Saul Aliksky, the same training that later inspired Barack Obama. But Chicago was only one stop in Kelly’s 77-year lifetime.
Born on a struggling Farrellton farm in the Gatineau Hills of Ottawa in 1932, Kelly became a Franciscan friar in 1960 before the fresh air of Vatican II began to blow through some of the cobwebs and smugness of the Catholic Church.
Kelly had from the beginning that gift that marks all authentic religion: a deep love for the poor. He travelled the world living that mission. Learning Spanish in Puerto Rico, he soon moved into the poor Puerto Rican community in Camden, New Jersey, in the 1970s. If Richard Nixon’s White House hadn’t blown apart over the Watergate scandal, he might have wound up in jail for his work resisting the Vietnam War along with a group that raided the local draft board.
He worked in Costa Rica and in Italy. Along the way he became an alcoholic, went for treatment and forever became a helpmate and friend to anyone who was trying to get free of addictions. He worked in addiction centers in Canada and the U.S.
In Toronto he edited the very readable but now-defunct Companion Magazine, and while doing that job he raised the money and the political support to build the Tobias House apartment complex for seriously disabled people.
With Tobias House built and the magazine folded, he answered the call to move to inner-city Syracuse, New York, where a grand old Franciscan parish stood in the middle of a poor neighborhood beset with the kind of problems so common to the rust belt Northern cities. The enormous church, bereft of most its former Irish and Italian parishioners, stood like a grounded ocean liner beached in a hostile land. But where some Catholics might have seen just trouble, Kelly saw a wonderful chance to work for the poor.
Ailing from broken vertebrae he suffered from a fall during an epileptic seizure and suffering from life-long problems from a botched stomach operation, he underwent in Costa Rica (a San José doctor once cut out a large portion of his stomach because he misdiagnosed an ulcer as a cancer), Kelly nevertheless found a boundless amount of energy to carry out his work.
“Francis is a lot more than a birdbath in the back yard,” Kelly once wrote. He was very aware of the modern church’s tendency to forget that St. Francis of Assisi was a radical peacemaker who changed the face of Medieval Europe.
Phil Kelly was, I think, the same kind of joyful radical. He could curse like a Farrellton farmer and love the poor with reckless abandon like his spiritual father, St. Francis. A Canadian-American dual citizen, he took out U.S. citizenship a few years ago in part because he thought he might get deported for his agitation against the Iraq War. In an attempt at a memoir, he once described himself as “Someone trying to follow St. Francis of Assisi.” He was that and did it with infectious passion.
In Syracuse he helped to start free health care clinics, subsidized housing, and a long list of community projects. He wrote a popular column for Syracuse’s The Catholic SUN. When he was diagnosed with a rare and incurable cancer, he continued to write from his Hospice bed and in his column invited his readers to come visit him. They did in large numbers, prompting other Franciscans to limit visits with Friar Phil to only five minutes each.
Told he would soon be dead from the cancer, he spent his last weeks reading, writing his columns and talking with friends.
“I’m happy to be meeting Jesus,” he said to me. “Sometimes I’m so happy I feel guilty about it.” He even asked his spiritual director if that feeling of joyful confidence was just “something manic.”
“‘Not in you, Phil,’” was the answer.
When he died he was still hoping to get the Syracuse bishop to sign over an empty convent to be used as a home for single mothers. I hope that bishop is on the right side of Kelly’s request.
My wife, Anne, and I have known Phil Kelly since 1972. We loved him and we miss him.
Editor’s note: This article first appeared Sept. 9 in Embassy Magazine. Jim Creskey is the publisher of The Hill Times and Embassy magazine, both in Ottawa.