The Rev. Tim Kelly, the beloved priest at the St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church in Flint, is the consummate image of an Irish priest. His County Limerick brogue sounds like music; he speaks on theology, history and politics like a scholar; and he has the rebel spirit to put his faith and his love for the needy above all else.
Thursday, Aug. 31, was his last day in the parish before moving to the St. Jude Catholic Church in Gun Barrel City. For 13 years since his coming to East Texas in 2004, evangelism and ministry to the poor and needy have been his life’s focus.
“That’s the most important task a priest has, to preach the word of God, and that’s tied to love for the people,” Kelly said. “Mercy is doctrine. Mercy is the foundation stone. If there is no mercy in the church, no love for the poor, you might as well knock down the buildings and burn them. ... That’s when the neck of Satan is truly crushed. The Devil hates charity.”
Tim Kelly was born on Good Friday of 1957 in Askeaton, County Limerick, in southwestern Ireland. His parents were both farmers, who would take him and his older brother Tom to Mass each Sunday.
“Religion was certainly a part of our lives, but we weren’t awfully pious” he said. “We were very Catholic, but my parents had a deep suspicion of the church’s political power.”
He said he received excellent learning in the small country schools, where a rigorous, well-rounded education was paramount - no specialization, no sports and no dating allowed.
Since he was 15, he wanted to be a priest, but at 17, he fell away because of the hypocrisy he saw in the church.
He went to college at the National University of Ireland at Limerick, taught at the local schools for 10 years, then bought and ran a pub for another 10 years.
“I hate the smell of beer now,” he said with a laugh.
Kelly still remembers the day he returned to his faith. While walking past the Church of St. Augustine (his favorite saint), he saw a poster inviting all to come inside. It interested him strangely, so he stepped inside. He went to the confession box, where a green light indicated that a priest waited to hear confessions, and to give absolution and wisdom.
“I told him everything, and he said, ‘You must love God very much.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ and he said, ‘Otherwise, you wouldn’t be so angry. You only get angry because someone has let you down.’”
He realized that day he was ready to return to the church, and to his calling to the priesthood. He told his brother, who put the pub on the market for sale by the end of the day. Since then, Kelly has had times of doubt, but has never really looked back.
“A person who tells you they’ve never doubted is either a liar or a fool,” he said. “True faith is when you overcome doubt, not never having any doubts at all. I’ve overcome doubt, and maybe I’ll have to do it again tomorrow, but that’s the joy of faith.”
Kelly came to Texas in 1995 at the invitation of the second Bishop of Tyler, Edmond Carmody. He studied at St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston, and was ordained into the priesthood in 1999 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Tyler. He spent two years at the cathedral before going to Rome from 2001 to 2004 to study the history and theology of the Catholic Church at the Pontifical Gregorian University.
“To tell you the truth, I think they sent me there to get more ‘Romanized and serious,’” he said, with a joking air of gravity.
Kelly was in the city of Murcia in southern Spain when he got word that Bishop Corrada had assigned him to St. Mary Magdalene in Flint, adding “The rest, as they say, is history.”
When he came in 2004. the church had one building and 40 families. Since then, he has “seen the parish grow by bounds” to 500 families. One of his main projects for some time has been raising funds for a new church building, designed to hold 550 people, because the current one is filling each and every Sunday.
“In a sense, it’s a great sense of relief, not having to raise this money,” Kelly said brightly. “In 13 years, I’ve raised over $9 million for various causes, and I’ve never had to promise anybody anything, never had to compromise. And I never would have.”
He is most proud of the church’s weekly food pantry, one of the largest in East Texas, which serves anywhere from 50 to 100 families a hot meal each Wednesday. It is run entirely by volunteers on a democratic basis, which is how he prefers it.
“Why would I change it? I’m not going to destroy the work of the Holy Spirit in this,” he said. “We not only give food to the poor - we feed them.”
Kelly sat in his office, looking around at the tall shelves he designed himself to hold hundreds and hundreds of books, and at the rolling ladder system he installed to help him reach the highest places. He sighed, then laughed.
“I told the new priest, Father Seamus Rowland (another Irishman), ‘If you touch my bookshelves, or do anything to them, I’ll come back and haunt you,’” he said with a chuckle.
Since he announced his departure, Kelly has received hundreds of letters from parishioners, friends, Christians of other denominations and even friends of other religions.
“In the life of every Catholic priest, there’s an expectation to be moved on,” he said. “I hope they remember me as a man of God, as a man of compassion and forgiveness, as a scholar and a student, as a father to my people, that I loved people and taught them well.”