Father Tom Kelly was a humble man, wanting to encourage people in their relationships with God and others. Born in Peoria in 1930, he graduated from Spalding Institute and later was ordained a Catholic priest in 1956. He served as chaplain at Newman Centers in Champaign and at Bradley University, was a parish priest with numerous assignments throughout the Peoria Diocese, and retired as pastor in 1999 from St. Anthony Church in Bartonville. Retirement for a priest is almost a misnomer; sort of like retiring from being a Mom. Opportunities remain to say Masses for vacationing clergy; facilitate study groups or prayer services; and officiate at weddings and funerals.
Believing firmly in community, he was excellent at introducing new ways of considering traditional beliefs. He thrived on sharing the knowledge of writers and deep thinkers with seasoned churchgoers and folks still searching. Always giving credit to those who influenced him through books or classes, he was well-read, and believed issues should be discussed. Frequently his homilies concluded with, “I’d like to share a story with you” and he would cite sources and authors, gifting listeners with wonderful bits of wisdom to consider. Sometimes it was months later, and someone would say, “That’s a Father Kelly story.”
His column in the church bulletin ranged from practical to inspiring, showing us how to consider, embrace, and share insights with others. Boasting was never part of his spoken or written words. He told and explained, leading us to be agents of change in a world needing inspiration.
Father Kelly was genuinely human meaning he could be profound, and often was or irritable, and sometimes was; he could be humorous, generous, sentimental, and many other qualities common to the human condition. I feel confident he could comfortably agree with that assessment, although we never discussed it. In my cherished collection of keepsakes is a hand-written note he sent me a few days after a church meeting. He thanked me for helping to add calm considerations to a situation where personalities and preferences were clashing. It remains a beautiful reminder about the many ways of saying, “I’m sorry, I was wrong,” or “I appreciate your help.” He was a gifted teacher and sometimes the lessons were subtle requiring time to consider various perspectives.
It’s always tempting when a good person leaves this earth to recall only positive characteristics. Eventually, some of the individual’s human foibles come into mind, often producing humor and healing. As the heart-wrenching grief eventually softens, conclusions are reached. The person wasn’t perfect, no one is, but was very respected and we’re especially grateful our paths crossed. We learn to honor the individual not by perpetual sadness, but by doing our best to emulate the goodness we witnessed.
Rest in peace, Father Kelly. You taught us about social justice, liturgy, God’s never-ending love and forgiveness, and to be inclusive and kind and to question. We’ll strive to develop and share our talents as you did. Thank you for leading by example and for helping to instill in us a sense of responsibility to help others. We’re forever grateful for those Father Kelly moments and stories, and we’ll try to share some of our own, though yours will always be the best. July 11, 1930 – June 30, 2020
Editor’s note: Rev. Tom Kelly spoke out against injustice. When Rev. Terry Cassidy was removed from his position at St. Ann Catholic Church and accused of a 30-year-old incident involving sexual misconduct with a minor, Kelly spoke out publicly in defense of Cassidy calling him a gifted priest whom he believed was unjustly accused. Parishioners at St. Ann also rallied around their parish priest.