Bishop Frederick F. Campbell (see related story) isn’t the only high-ranking church official with a Southern Tier childhood connection. Archbishop Thomas Kelly, OP, who once belonged to Ithaca’s Immaculate Conception Parish, has headed the Archdiocese of Louisville, Ky., for the past 22 years.
Archbishop Kelly, 73, was born in Rochester and lived full time in Ithaca for approximately one year — his senior year of high school — and returned in the summers while attending college and seminary. Even though his time in Tompkins County was fairly brief, Archbishop Kelly made some lasting connections at his parish, Immaculate Conception, and has often returned to visit over the years. In fact, his attachment to Ithaca was so strong that he chose Immaculate Conception for celebrating his first Mass as a priest in 1958.
“He still has a lot of friends here that he keeps in touch with. Certainly, people here in Ithaca are proud of the fact that he is a part of this parish,” said Mercy Sister Elise Quigley, Immaculate Conception’s secretary-receptionist and former pastoral associate.
Archbishop Kelly said that the intense devotion of Immaculate Conception parishioners helped influence his path to a religious vocation. “There was always somebody praying in this church,” he recalled during his homily at the October 1998 celebration Mass of the parish’s 150th anniversary and the current church building’s 100th year.
His desire to become a priest was well known by members of the Kenrick family, who lived on West Seneca Street — one block over from the Kelly family on West Buffalo Street. Mercy Sister Judith Ann Kenrick noted that Archbishop Kelly was impressed by the devotion of her parents, James and Kathryn — particularly her father’s adherence to daily Mass.
“This is what he said once, that James Kenrick was influential in his decision to become a priest. He mentioned that once in one of his homilies,” said Sister Kenrick, who currently serves as a pastoral associate at St. Louis Parish in Pittsford, Monroe County.
Sister Kenrick’s sister, Joan Otto, was a fellow 1949 Ithaca High School graduate with Archbishop Kelly. “I had heard that when he became a priest he said he was so happy, he wanted to shout it from the hills,” said Otto, who currently resides in Windermere, Fla.
Otto also remembers that Thomas Kelly, the teenager, assisted her with high-school French studies — including a particularly impressive appearance he made at her family’s home.
“He came over in a suit and tie — dressed to the nines, what a gentleman!” Otto recalled. “He was a very brilliant man — very polite, very respectful; he was just a nice guy. He was so sweet to help me.”
Archbishop Kelly joined the Dominican order in 1951 and was ordained a priest seven years later. He served in many key administrative positions within the Catholic Church; in 1977 he began a five-year term as chief administrative officer and general secretary for what is now known as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Also that year he was appointed by Pope Paul VI as auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., as well as titular bishop of Tusuro, Africa.
In December 1981 he was named by Pope John Paul II as Archbishop of Louisville, with his installation coming two months later. Despite his many important duties, he made frequent trips back to Ithaca to visit his mother, Katherine Conley, and look up old friends as well.
“He always came to see our family. He was just like part of the family,” Otto said.
Archbishop Kelly celebrated his mother’s funeral at Immaculate Conception in 1985. Also in the 1980s, he celebrated the 25th-anniversary jubilee Mass in that church for yet another Kenrick sibling, Mercy Sister Jane Kenrick. Archbishop Kelly maintains close contact with Sister Jane, who has served for many years as a missionary in Vina del Mar, Chile, where she ministers to AIDS patients.
According to Sister Quigley, Archbishop Kelly still has two cousins in Immaculate Conception Parish, Helen Fisher and Mary Anderson. His most recent trip to the parish was in 1998 for the jubilee doings. That weekend he ended up celebrating the rededication Mass due to a sudden illness that sidelined Rochester Bishop Matthew H. Clark, who had been scheduled to preside. At the liturgy he quipped that Bishop Clark was so special, it took an archbishop to take his place.
Archbishop Kelly is a pretty special guy himself, his former French-class cohort maintains.
“If I see his name come up anywhere I say ‘Oh yes, I knew him, Tom Kelly.’ We still like to boast about that,” Otto said, adding with a laugh, “I was always hoping he would be the pope.”