By Claudia Mathis
There was barely a vacant seat left at St. Paul’s Church in Rome on April 20. Parishioners, friends and family gathered to say farewell to their beloved former pastor, Msgr. William Kelly. He served the parish for 23 years, from 1974 until 1997. He died on April 15 at the age of 89, one month short of the 65th anniversary of his ordination.
Bishop Robert Cunningham served as the main celebrant of Msgr. Kelly’s funeral Mass and Bishop Thomas Costello delivered the homily.
A native of Utica, Msgr. Kelly was born on Sept. 16, 1922, to parents Francis and Theresa March Kelly. He graduated from St. Francis de Sales High School in 1940. After high school, he attended St. Bonaventure University and completed his theological studies at St. Bernard’s Seminary in Rochester.
Msgr. Kelly was ordained on May 15, 1947 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse. He was first assigned to St. Catherine of Sienna Church in Binghamton. He then served at St. Joseph’s Church in Oswego and Most Holy Rosary Church in Syracuse.
Msgr. Kelly’s first pastorate was at Immaculate Conception Church in Greene followed by Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Vestal. He retired from his last assignment as pastor at St. Paul’s Church in 1997. From 2008 until his death, he lived at St. Joseph’s Nursing Home in Utica.
In 1997, Msgr. Kelly was bestowed with the Rotary Roses for Living Award. He also served as Grand Marshall of the Honor America Day Parade in Rome.
Father Robert Kelly, nephew of Msgr. Kelly and pastor at St. Paul’s, said that he looked up to his uncle as a young person growing up in Most Holy Rosary Parish in Syracuse. “He visited us often,” recalled Father Kelly. “He was a loving, caring, compassionate, sensitive person and priest.”
Sister Marie Wilson, CSJ, who volunteers as a parish minister at St. Paul’s and who served alongside Msgr. Kelly for 38 years, remembered how he always made himself available to his parishioners. “They really appreciated it,” said Sister Marie.
One of Msgr. Kelly’s greatest accomplishments, noted Sister Marie, was the building of St. Paul’s parish center in the 1980’s. “He was very proud of it,” remembered Sister Marie.
Another turning point in Msgr. Kelly’s career came when when he attended the 1976 U.S. Catholic Bishop’s Call to Action Conference in Detroit. Sister Marie said that when he returned from the meeting he was inspired and ready to embrace change in a positive way. As a result of his involvement at the conference, St. Paul’s was the first parish in the area to utilize female servers during Mass.
Sister Marie presented the first Gospel reading during the Mass.
Bishop Thomas Costello delivered a thought-provoking homily. He began by reviewing Msgr. Kelly’s obituary, then defined the definition of the Catholic priesthood and described the personal attributes of Msgr. Kelly.
The bishop defined the mystery of the Catholic priesthood as a profound relation with Jesus Christ. “The Eucharist is at the very center,” said Bishop Costello. “Jesus took, blessed, broke and gave the bread to his disciples. What Jesus did to the bread, he does with and to his priests. Jesus took Bill Kelly, blessed him, broke him and gave him to the Church, to God’s people. And Bill Kelly spread God’s blessings far and wide.”
The bishop noted that Msgr. Kelly’s 65 years of ministry were uniquely challenging in the midst of much change but the most dramatic change was when Msgr. Kelly, facing an aneurysm, needed to have one of his legs amputated.
The bishop recalled Msgr. Kelly’s reflection about his health challenge: “It’s just been another cross the Lord has asked me to bear,” said Msgr. Kelly. “It gives me an advantage in my ministry to the sick. We can now so easily identify with one another.”
Bishop Costello spoke highly of Msgr. Kelly’s character. “I remember him as a tad reticent, kind, sensitive, caring, warm and understanding,” he said. “I was told he was a powerful counselor.” He added that he was self-giving, priestly, pastoral and “The Good Shepherd of our Gospel.”
“His goodness has been widely recognized,” said Bishop Costello. “The Rome Rotary Club recognized him because he epitomized their motto: ‘Service Above Self.’”
At the conclusion of the Mass, Father Richard Dunn, pastor at St. Mary’s in Hamilton, offered his impression of Msgr. Kelly. Father Dunn said that although many clergy throughout the years have inspired him, he is especially grateful for the gift and presence of Msgr. Kelly. “I asked him to vest me as a deacon and a priest — it was one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever had to make,” said Father Dunn. “Whenever I sought spiritual advice, he always gave me positive and honest feedback. He was kind, gentle and encouraging. My constant over all these years was Father Kelly. Most of all, he was a gift and blessing from God.”