Profile: James Patrick Kelly Marks 50 Years as a Friar

Wendy Healy Friar News

This is the sixth in a series of profiles of Holy Name Province friars who are marking major anniversaries as Franciscans in 2015. The last article featured Christopher Keenan, OFMJames and the other jubilarians commemorating 50 and 25 years of profession will be honored by the Province on June 24. 

HARTFORD, Conn. — At the age of 12, James Patrick Kelly, OFM, thought he wanted to be a Franciscan friar. With 70 priests, nuns or religious relatives on both sides of his Irish Catholic family, he seemed almost destined to consider religious life.

He describes his parents, William and Kathleen, as faithful, but not pious, people. Natives of Galway, each had the surname “Kelly.” Jim remembers his father and mother privately praying the rosary, doing their daily devotions and taking him, his twin brother Bill and sister Mary on pilgrimages to famous cathedrals and holy landmarks each year.

Although many family members had already joined religious life, Jim’s parents never pushed their children to do so. Jim, who is marking half a century as a friar, said it was his decision and one that he made at an early age.

It was during a pilgrimage to the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C., that Jim, age 12, met his first friar and began to consider joining the Order.

“I was so stunned by the simplicity of his life. He was the gentlest man I had ever met,” said Jim, who serves on the staff of St. Patrick-St. Anthony Church in downtown Hartford.

‘I’m Thinking of Becoming a Priest’
Jim grew up in Boston. While attending Our Lady Help of Christians High School in nearby Newton, Mass., he met the first cousin of John Pierce, OFM, who introduced the two men. A further Franciscan connection was forged, and Jim began receiving spiritual direction from Hugh Hines, OFM, and the late Noel Fitzpatrick, OFM, at St. Anthony Shrine.

It was no surprise when, during a family pilgrimage to the Shrine of St. Anne DeBeaupre in Quebec, Canada, Jim sat next to his mother at Mass and whispered, “I’m thinking of becoming a priest.” She responded, “Yes, I know. Now, get on your knees and pray.”

After graduating from high school in 1962, Jim attended Holy Name’s minor seminary in Callicoon, N.Y., and was received into the Order at St. Raphael’s Novitiate in Lafayette, N.J., professing first vows in 1965.

He continued his education at the Province’s house of philosophy, St. Francis College, in Rye Beach, N.H., earning a bachelor’s degree from St. Bonaventure University in 1967. At the time, the program was under the direction of the late Reginald Redlon, OFM, who valued the discipline of psychology. Jim was also interested in the field and began to study guidance and counseling as he continued his formation, receiving his master’s in theology from Augustinian College in Washington, D.C.

In 1971, he was ordained a priest at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land where he had met the friars so many years earlier. After his ordination, Jim attended St. Bonaventure University, where he earned a master’s degree in guidance and counseling in 1975. He moved to New York City, where he enrolled in Fordham University, graduating with a doctorate in counseling and personnel services in 1979.

Since then, Jim’s ministry has been focused on pastoral work and counseling, and now, at 71, is he doing parish work exclusively.

‘35 Years Is Enough of Anything’
In 1978, he founded and directed Holy Name Counseling Service, where he ministered for 35 years. The name changed to FrancisCare soon after the ministry was founded.

Over the years, the counseling center was located in various areas of northern New Jersey. Jim said his vision was to provide counseling to Franciscans priests and their parishioners, for whom no Christian programs were available. It was also open to the public, welcoming people of all religions, and charging fees on a sliding scale.

“I was seeing 58 clients a week, individually and in groups,” Jim recalls. But after 35 years of a ministry he loved, he felt it was time to move on. “Thirty-five years is enough of doing anything,” he said with a smile. In 2011, he asked to be assigned back to his home region of New England, and was named guardian and executive director of St. Anthony Shrine in Boston’s Downtown Crossing. In the beginning, he was kept busy commuting weekly to New Jersey to close FrancisCare and assume the new ministry at the Shrine. In 2013, he took a sabbatical to rest and regroup, and in 2014 was assigned to St. Patrick-St. Anthony Parish.

“I always got great satisfaction and joy out of my work,” said Jim, who is now establishing a spiritual counseling program at the parish. He enjoys encouraging people to have a personal relationship with God, as well as celebrating Mass, hearing confessions and preaching. “Preaching and teaching are my strongest gifts,” he added.

Jim also likes traveling, and has been to many regions of the world – most of the United States, Mexico, Canada, China, Japan, all the European countries, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Peru, Bolivia, Australia, New Zealand, and many regions of Africa.

He attributes his love of travel to his father, who took the family on many trips and encouraged his children to learn about other cultures. When his dad died on Jan. 1, 1992, he left Jim airfare money with the caveat that it be used to travel to Zimbabwe to celebrate his 25th jubilee with his cousin, Sr. Bridget Kelly, a medical missionary who was celebrating her 30th anniversary the same year.

“While traveling from the airport, I saw hundreds of coffins [of HIV/AIDS victims] lined up. For me, it was impossible to do nothing to help stop this HIV/AIDS epidemic.” He has since raised money “in all sorts of ways” from both friars and friends, and has returned to Zimbabwe many times to collaborate with his cousin and the Little Company of Mary nuns on where to dispense the funds.

Jim said he also enjoys the beach, salt-water fishing, boating, and snow skiing, but has had to curtail those activities since suffering from skin cancer. He also likes visiting his twin brother on Cape Cod, and helping him with household tasks since his brother is blind, and visiting his sister in New Jersey.

He looks back with affection on Reginald, who he recalls as a very hard worker and an inspirational mentor, and all the brothers of Holy Name with whom he is close.

“I’ve enjoyed all my ministries, especially the parochial and psychological aspects, and it’s been a privilege to be part of Holy Name Province.”

He advises new friars to be patient with themselves and to avoid being rigid while holding fast to their initial ideals and being open to new training. “Get as much education as possible, not for the sake of doing it, but for the sake of ministry,” said Jim. “Learn the spiritual life and not just the religious life.”

— Wendy Healy is a Connecticut-based freelance writer.