Alaska parish priest remembered for love of ministry and flying

Posted: Tuesday, March 26, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Perhaps the most telling testament of the Rev. Jim Kelley's ministry were the photographs that so often lined his pockets.

Parishioners were always giving the 73-year-old Catholic priest snapshops of themselves and their children. Kelley, who was killed Saturday in a plane crash near Manokotak, knew most of his flock by name, even though they were scattered hundreds of miles in villages throughout Southwest Alaska.

''He was one of those guys who instantly put people at ease,'' said Anchorage Archbishop, the Rev. Roger Schwietz. ''No one was a stranger to him.''

Kelley, a Massachusetts native and a retired U.S. Navy chaplain, was one of two priests who fly to parishes and missions in the 160,000-square-mile Archdiocese of Anchorage. At his death, he was one day short of his 11-year anniversary based at the Holy Rosary church in Dillingham.

''He was one of the finest priests we had. And I would think if he had a say in how he could go home to the Lord, this would be it,'' Schwietz said. ''He was doing the two things he loved best -- ministering to the people and flying.''

Kelley was remembered as an experienced pilot who had been flying for three decades before he came to Alaska. He flew about 500 hours a year covering a vast parish archdiocese officials call the largest in the world, as far as land mass. The Holy Rosary parish serves 600 people in 23 communities spread out over more than 33,000 square miles on Alaska's mainland and stretching out to the Aleutian Islands, said Brother Charles McBride, spokesman for the archdiocese.

McBride said it will be difficult to find a qualified replacement for Kelley.

''There are real remote areas in the parish. Many villages are not accessible by car,'' McBride said. ''Father Kelley felt flying was the only way you could really cover the area -- and in many respects it is.''

Kelley was born Feb. 25, 1929 in New Bedford, Mass., and attended St. John's Seminary in Boston. After graduating in 1961, he was ordained in the Fall River, Mass., Diocese.

He served as a Navy chaplain from 1968 to 1991, when he decided to settle down in Alaska. He immediately took to his new parish, whose ministry at the time was limited to Dillingham, Naknek and Unalaska.

Kelley soon decided to expand the ministry by reaching out to isolated villages in the region. Thus was born the St. Paul Mission.

Operating on a two-week cycle, Kelley would fly to villages and deliver Masses in people's homes, sometimes with a congregation of one. Archbishop Schwietz recalled visiting Kelley last spring and accompanying the priest to a Bristol Bay fish camp, where they performed a confirmation ceremony for a young girl in her family's home.

''It was as if he belonged to the family and that made me feel like I was part of the family, too,'' Schwietz said. ''He had a remarkable way of making people feel close to him.''

Kelley also was remembered for his sense of humor. When attention lagged at sermons, he would quip, ''When I become Pope,'' then continue with is his message, recalled Henry Strub, president of the parish council of Holy Rosary church. At one village, a parishioner donated a beat-up Chrysler station wagon as wheels for Kelley. The priest fondly referred to the car as the ''Popemobile,'' Strub said.

''We miss him already,'' he said.

A funeral is planned for April 2 in Dillingham and a memorial Mass is scheduled for April 3 in Anchorage. Plans are for Kelley to be buried in New Bedford, next to his parents.

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