By Katherine Long | Editor
Parishioners loved Msgr. James Kennedy for many reasons, from his gentle pastoral care to his sense of humor, his reverence for the Eucharist to his ministry to the sick.
But above all, “the reason you loved him is because he loved you,” longtime St. Rose of Lima parishioner Mike Beckett told the Sun. “He loved you with the love of God.”
Msgr. Kennedy, a priest of the Diocese of Syracuse for more than 65 years, died Dec. 31. He was 91.
Ordained Feb. 2, 1954, Msgr. Kennedy’s ministry in the diocese included service as parochial vicar at St. Michael’s Church in Syracuse and St. Agnes in Utica, 12 years as pastor of Holy Family in Syracuse, and 25 years as pastor St. Rose of Lima in North Syracuse, serving there from 1992 until his retirement in 2017. In retirement, he assisted at St. Mary-St. Peter’s Parish in Rome.
Family, parishioners, and fellow clergy gathered at St. Rose Jan. 5 for Msgr. Kennedy’s Mass of Christian Burial, celebrated by Bishop Douglas J. Lucia.
Father Philip Hearn, retired pastor of St. Mary-St. Peter’s, said he was honored and humbled to preach the homily for his “saintly brother priest” with the “special sense of humor.”
“I didn’t really know Msgr. Jim well before he came to be with me at St. Peter’s Church in Rome,” Father Hearn said. “He called me and said, ‘I heard that you are kind to brother priests, especially old ones.’”
After Msgr. Kennedy made two visits to the rectory and successfully scaled its many stairs, Father Hearn asked when he’d like to move in.
“He said, ‘How about today? I’ve got everything I own in my car.’ Thus began a very special relationship for me and the parish of St. Mary-St. Peter’s in Rome, New York,” Father Hearn said with a smile.
Msgr. Kennedy was a man who never praised or talked about himself, only other people, Father Hearn said. He told Father Hearn about his family and his parents, Matthew and Irene Kennedy, “saints” who raised seven children during very difficult financial times.
“He said, ‘We belonged to St. Patrick’s Parish on Tipperary Hill and all of us graduated from St. Patrick’s High School.” Two daughters entered religious sisters’ communities and four sons were ordained priests; “‘the only normal one was Helen, who was married to a marvelous man,’” Father Hearn relayed to the congregation, drawing laughter from the pews.
Msgr. Kennedy’s humor could often be found in the St. Rose bulletin, Beckett said, at the end of the weekly column from the pastor. There would be three or four jokes “you’d roll your eyes at, but the kids would grab the bulletin and go right there,” he recalled.
Youngsters at the parish elementary school also loved Msgr. Kennedy’s daily visits, a practice the priest also had at Holy Family School and Rome Catholic School. “The kids would light up,” Beckett said. “When he walked into the classroom, that classroom lit up with pure joy.”
Msgr. Kennedy’s pastoral care encompassed daily visits to the sick and hospitalized and one-on-one counsel for parishioners. “When he talked to you or anybody, he was engaged with you 100 percent. You had his attention and that was conveyed in everything that he did,” Beckett said.
“His eyes just burst with the Holy Spirit. When you interacted with him there was so much life, so much love, so much Holy Spirit,” he said.
In addition to his parish ministry, Msgr. Kennedy served as an Army chaplain for 20 years. His service included two tours in Vietnam, ministry he recalled as the best experience of his priesthood in an interview with the Catholic Sun on the occasion of his 65th jubilee.
He spent some 15 years of his service with airborne units and completed more than 100 jumps. “After I got 100 jumps, I didn’t bother counting them anymore,” he told the Sun in 2019. Lt. Col. Kennedy retired from the U.S. Army Airborne Paratroop Division.
When not jumping out of planes or visiting school classrooms, Msgr. Kennedy flexed a green thumb. “Every January, he would begin a very special hobby of taking the seeds of geranium flowers and nursing them to special growth, which he [then] planted around the parishes that he served, and even in Germany when he was in the Army,” Father Hearn recounted. “What greater love could there be than the love of God the Father for the earth his only Son walked on? This is the love we were blessed to share through the life of Father Kennedy.”
When Msgr. Kennedy spoke about heaven in his homilies, he always described it as “never-ending ecstasy,” Beckett said. “The first thing I thought of when he passed — well, now he gets to enjoy that.”
Beckett said he and his fellow parishioners “are blessed for [Msgr. Kennedy’s] service to us for so many years and really glad that he now gets to rest in heaven and the glory of God.”
Msgr. Kennedy was predeceased by his parents, Matthew and Irene Kennedy, and his siblings Sister Mary Camilla Kennedy, MM; Sister Rita Ann Kennedy, CSJ; Father Joseph Kennedy; Father Laurence Kennedy; and Father Daniel Kennedy, OP. He is survived by his sister Helen M. (Ralph) Lorenzini; nieces Mary (Michael) Dunham and Ann Lorenzini; and grand-nephews Peter, Timothy, and Joseph Dunham.