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Valley Lives - Friar Phil Kelly

The following article first appeared in "The Low Down to Hull and Back News" in the September 30, 2009 issue. Reprinted with permission.

Farrellton's follower of St. Francis of Assissi always took on the impossible

by Jim Creskey

The Farrellton Farm where Phil Kelly was born in 1932 was by today's standards an example of subsistence farming if not outright rural poverty.

In one small house, a married couple and their nine children filled the three small bedrooms. The Kelly family also took in an elderly man, who had once lived on another farm through the British farm boy's program but was no longer able to work, and the school teacher who was hired to work the one-room Catholic school house in nearby Denholm.

It was a busy house made all the busier by the occasional overnight stay of Wakefield's Dr. Harold Geggie who would be out late delivering babies with Phil's mother Eunice, who was a midwife. The Kelly farm was like scene from "Little House on the Prairie."

In its own way it help prepared Phil Kelly for the kind of impossible jobs that only mystics and revolutionaries, like St. Francis of Assisi would dare take on.

Francis of Assisi went on a personal peace mission to the Muslim ruler at a time when the rest of Europe was sending soldiers to the Middle East to slaughter 'Muslim heretics' during the crusades.

Valley Lives
Friar Phil Kelly chats with Ottawa writer and editor Rosaleen Dickson in Farrellton in 2005. Photo by Sam Garcia for Embassy Magazine.

That was the kind of adventure that Kelly, a modern follower of St. Francis loved. Kelly learned community organizing in Chicago under Saul Alinsky, the same training that later inspired Barack Obama. But Chicago was only one stop in his 77 year lifetime.

He became a Franciscan friar in 1960 before the fresh air of Vatican II began to blow through some of the cobwebs and smugness of the Catholic Church.

But Kelly had from the beginning that gift that marks all authentic religion: a deep love for the poor. He traveled the world living that mission. Learning Spanish in Puerto Rico he soon moved into the poor Puerto Rican community in Camden, New Jersey in the 1970s. If Richard Nixon's White House hadn't blown apart over the Watergate scandal, he might have wound up in jail for his work resisting the Vietnam War along with a group that raided the local draft board.

He worked in Costa Rica and in Italy. Along the way he became an alcoholic, went for treatment and forever became a helpmate and friend to anyone who was trying to get free of that and other addictions. He worked in addiction centers in Canada and the U.S..

In Toronto he edited the very readable but now-defunct Companion Magazine and while doing that job he raised the money and the political support to build the Tobias House apartment complex for seriously disabled people.

With Tobias House built and the magazine folded he answered the call to move to innercity Syracuse, New York where a grand old Franciscan parish now stood in the middle of a poor neighbourhood beset with the kind of problems so common to the rust belt northern cities. The enormous church, bereft of most its former Irish and Italian parishioners stood like a grounded ocean liner beached in a hostile land. But where some Catholics might have seen just trouble Kelly saw a wonderful chance to work for the poor.

Ailing from broken vertebrae he suffered from a fall during an epileptic seizure and suffering from life-long problems from a botched stomach operation he received in Costa Rica (A San Jose doctor once cut out a large portion of his stomach because he misdiagnosed an ulcer as a cancer). Kelly nevertheless found a boundless amount of energy to carry out his work.

In Syracuse he helped to start free health-care clinics, subsidized housing, and a long list of community projects. He wrote a popular column for the Syracuse's weekly, The Catholic Sun. When he was diagnosed with a rare and incurable cancer he continued to write from his hospice bed and in his column invited his readers to come visit him. They did in large numbers, prompting other Franciscans to limit visits with Friar Phil to only five minutes each.

When he died he was still hoping to get the Syracuse bishop to sign over an empty convent to be used as a home for single mothers. I hope that bishop is on the right side of Kelly's request.

"Francis is a lot more than a birdbath in the back yard," Kelly once wrote. He was very aware of the modern church's tendency to forget that Francis was a radical peacemaker who changed the face of Medieval Europe.

Phil Kelly was, I think, the same kind of joyful radical. He could curse like a Farrellton farmer and love the poor with reckless abandon like his spiritual father, St. Francis. A Canadian-American dual citizen, he took out U.S. citizenship a few years ago in part because he thought he might get deported for his agitation against the Iraq war. In an attempt at a memoir he once described himself as "Someone trying to follow St. Francis of Assisi." He was that and did it with infectious passion.

Told he would soon be dead from cancer he spent his last weeks reading, writing his columns and talking with friends. "I'm happy to be meeting Jesus," he said to me. "Sometimes I'm so happy I feel guilty about it." He even asked his spiritual director if that feeling of joyful confidence was just "something manic."

"'Not in you, Phil,'" was the answer. My wife, Anne, and I have known Phil Kelly since 1972. We loved him and we miss him.

Jim and Anne Creskey live on the farm in Farrellton where Phil Kelly was born.


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