It is a tribute to the Rev. Jim Kelley's passion for the Cathlic church that he died doing the two things he loved most: ministering and flying.
The parish priest for Western Alaska, Kelley left Dillingham alone in his Piper Cherokee airplane Saturday to deliver Palm Sunday Masses in Togiak and King Salmon. He never arrived.
On Sunday, a volunteer ground searcher found his flipped airplane on the side of Tuklung Mountain, seven miles southwest of Manokotak. Searchers returned Monday when bad weather subsided and found Kelley's body. He was 73.
His absence will be deeply felt. A former Navy pilot and chaplain who moved to Dillingham in 1991, Kelley served 23 villages from Bristol Bay to the Aleutian Islands, flying thousands of miles a year.
He was known for his generosity and devotion. Tirelessly dedicated to his work, he would stop at a village to minister to just one person. Though the job was dangerous, he felt the risks were worth the mission.
''Every single person mattered to him,'' said Anchorage Archbishop Roger L. Schwietz. ''He would find one Catholic here or there and he would minister to them. He would go everywhere to take sacraments to anyone who wanted them.''
During monthly visits to Unalaska, he helped members of St. Christopher By the Sea acquire a church, even donating money from his military retirement.
With its rugged landscape and harsh weather, Southwest Alaska is no stranger to tragedy. Bristol Bay residents are still recovering from the October plane crash that killed 10 people near Dillingham. The loss of Kelley will resonate just as loudly.
''He reached a lot of people, whether Catholic or not,'' said Rick Kniaziowski, a member of St. Christopher church in Unalaska. ''It will be a big loss to fill.''
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