CHARLESTON — Thank goodness for the call of the Lord! Otherwise, Msgr. Robert J. Kelly may have been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame rather than celebrating 50 years in the priesthood. The much-loved pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel on Folly Beach and chaplain of Bishop England High School celebrated his golden jubilee May 14.
Ordained in 1953 in Connecticut, Msgr. Kelly has served the Diocese of Charleston since 1959 as priest, pastor and educator. He has inspired the faith in nearly five decades of South Carolinians, young and not so young, in churches, schools and on the athletic field.
Early in his life, the decision to become a priest was a close call, a choice between the pitcher’s mound and the pulpit.
From childhood, he had two passions, which were passed on to him by his parents, Ann and Eugene – sports and the Lord. His father taught him to play baseball before he was 4. In grade school he was an altar boy for his parish pastor, a man who would later have a strong influence on the church in South Carolina, Father Patrick Quinlan.
With the encouragement of his parents, in the ninth grade he entered St. Thomas Seminary High School.
On their one day off a week, the future priest and his classmates would visit the Kelly house to clean out the refrigerator and talk baseball; the young Kelly was already a star player on the St. Thomas team.
The young man stayed at St. Thomas Seminary after high school for two years, then went on to the Franciscan run St. Bonaventure College near Buffalo for two years and its Christ the King Seminary for three more before his ordination.
Despite continuing on in seminary, Kelly still had his head in the game.
While working as a country parish’s summer assistant, Kelly traveled with his minor league ball team.
On the pitcher’s mound, he struck out such future greats of Major League Baseball as Whitey Ford and Jimmy Piersall. At the top of his “career,” he pitched for the class A Hartford team and was offered a contract with the then Boston Braves.
Father Kelly was ordained, and his first assignment was St. Ambrose, a huge city parish in Bridgeport, Conn.
The mystique of the field called, however, and the priest soon found himself pitching in an evening baseball league at Bridgeport stadium. He knew if he asked the pastor for permission for such unpriestly work, he would be turned down, so he pitched under the name of Bob Dunn. His sister came down to watch. Several times she noticed a large black car parked where the occupant could watch the game. It was another baseball fan, his pastor.
The pastor never mentioned it to his assistant, and his assistant never mentioned it to him.
Father Kelly learned a lot in that first assignment. He learned what really counts in pastoral work: personal contact with the people.
It became his style, a willingness to personally share in the lives of his people, always to be there whether in the parish or in school, with Catholics-to-be, couples-to-be, or parents-to-be, or with anyone just needing him to listen.
When his bishop, Bishop Lawrence Sheen, asked if he would be willing to answer a call from the bishop of Charleston to serve a three-year tour in this “mission” territory, Father Kelly agreed to go. After only a year here, the Connecticut Yankee permanently transferred to South Carolina.
What inspired him to stay? More than anything else he found himself in a place where commitment to faith was open and strong. For this he gives great credit to education, with a special place in his mind for the diocese’s own order of nuns, the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy.
His duties have always involved him with kids, teens and adults, never just a single part of the church family. The nicest part of his duties now is the chance to see young people as vibrant members of the church who recognize Christ’s role in their lives.
Msgr. Kelly has served the diocese for 44 years at Bishop England; as pastor or founder of Blessed Sacrament, Holy Spirit, Nativity, Christ Our King, and Our Lady of Good Counsel churches; pastor of St. Mary’s in Georgetown, St. Andrew’s in Myrtle Beach, and St. Mary’s in Greenville. He has been superintendent of schools and diocesan director of religious education. He is on the priest personnel board, a consulter to the bishop, a member of the Presbyteral Council, a judge of the Tribunal and diocesan director of both Propagation of the Faith and the Holy Childhood Association.
From the baseball field to the pulpit, the priest’s most cherished position will always be among the people, who will faithfully find a loving smile, a warm embrace, and a touch of mischief in the personalized style of this beloved pastor.