May 2012 Print

Francis Clement Kelley: A Bishop for All Seasons

by Christopher Check

Among the chief poverties of life in the ruins of Christendom is an absence of the larger-than-life Catholic heroes whose sanctity, daring, brilliance, drive, and rhetorical skill fired the hearts of the faithful throughout the ages. This loss came into relief for me a decade ago when I could not answer a high-school teacher—whose students I had just addressed on the Battle of Lepanto—when he asked me, “Who are the Don Johns of Austria of our age?”

I had to admit, “Our age does not produce such men.”

Man of Extraordinary Mettle

It was not so long ago, however, that the combination of a classical education; a European culture that yet honored the good, the beautiful, and the true; a life of hard work and adventure; and a burning fervor for the Faith together made the fertile soil from which men and women of extraordinary mettle, breadth, depth, and virtue came forth. Francis Clement Kelley, founder of the Catholic Church Extension Society and second Bishop of Oklahoma, was one such man.

Born in 1870, at the time just to remember the last of the town criers, Kelley came from Irish stock. His father was a sea trader, so Francis’s primary education took place not only in the one-room country school, but also in gales off the coast of Nova Scotia. In high school Kelley excelled at writing, started a newspaper, and at graduation won the English Medal. He would go on to publish 17 books, countless articles and short stories, and launch a national magazine, but he would do so as a Catholic priest, for it was while preparing for his Higher Catechism final that he felt “the unrefusable call.”

At College in Quebec he mastered French and philosophy. Bishop Rodgers of New Brunswick, “a small man in height, and a big man in width,” recognized Kelley’s talent and took him into his home for a year of “Aquinas, Augustine, Dominic, Alphonsus, and Ignatius.” Kelley’s father, fallen on hard times, could not fund his formal seminary training, but Providence sent Bishop John Foley, Detroit’s first American Bishop, who footed Kelley’s seminary bill. At the age of 22, the Irish Canadian from Prince Edward Island was ordained a priest on the Feast of Saint Bartholomew, 1893. He returned to the Island to offer his first Mass and made his way to the Diocese of Detroit.

With only two weeks of on-the-job pastoral training (substituting for a sick pastor in Lansing) he took over his first parish, the dilapidated condition of which set the spark to the tinder that fired his life’s work. The Lapeer parish was a run-down “dry-goods box of a church” with no sacristy, statues, or stained glass windows, but a pile of dirty vestments, “and none of certain colors at all.” To Kelley, the poverty of his parish “spoke of a cold calculating indifference to God, and a smug self-satisfaction of the things that are of this earth.”

Is War Justified?

The culprit was the previous pastor, removed for apostasy, who yet remained in Lapeer, writing Herbert Spencer inspired articles for the weekly paper. The 22-year-old Father Kelley gathered the disillusioned faithful of his parish with doctrinally rich sermons delivered with clarity and good humor. He rallied them to a brick-and-mortar building project, which began in earnest but soon stalled for lack of funds and remained stalled while he donned his country’s uniform.

Although “no one could have had a stronger conviction that the war with Spain was not only unjust but unnecessary,” in 1898, Kelley—after insuring his life for the amount needed to complete his new church—volunteered for service as an Army chaplain with the Detroit Battalion of the First Michigan Infantry. He brought the sacraments to soldiers mired in the tropical heat, bad sanitation, snakes, mosquitoes, and typhoid-malarial fever of Tampa and Huntsville.

Reflecting on war two decades later, Kelley wrote: “War is sometimes justified though not often; because not often is there a right side and a wrong side. Mostly there are only two wrong sides.” What glory there had been “in the clash of a sword on armor” had disappeared. “What is idealistic about a tank? Can poetry come out of a gas mask?” he asked. “When war becomes a matter of test tubes, and it is fast coming to that, the last vestige of idealism will have disappeared from it. The scientist is killing war, for he is preparing to make it so horrible and loathsome that mankind is bound to sicken of it and vomit it out of its mouth—Pray God forever.”

Kelley, who lived to witness America vaporize some 70,000 Japanese civilians in a white-hot flash of atomic terror, went to his grave with his prayer unrealized, but we should continue to say it on our own age, when, as Kelley predicted, “a small minority with the new artillery, with airplanes and machine guns, can impose its will on a whole nation.”

“Little Shanty Story”

Returning to Michigan after the Spanish American War, Father Kelley put to good use his skills as an orator. He began to finance the construction of his new church with fees earned as a speaker for the Lyceum, “the answer to a call on the best minds of the country for an extension of their educational influence into the smaller cities, the towns, and the rural villages.” At first making 15 or 20 dollars a lecture, Kelley soon found himself traveling around Michigan, and then other states, his fee rising with each successive year. From 1899-1906, he sent a steady stream of cash back to his parish. His audiences included everyone from “small boys throwing peanut shells” to “old ladies who looked with disapproval at the first Catholic priest they had ever seen while wondering how he concealed his horns so cleverly.”

Sharing the circuit with the likes of Bob La Follette, William Jennings Bryan, and fellow-priest and Shakespeare scholar Father Lawrence Vaughan (who drew the largest audiences of all), Father Kelley met first hand middle America gathered in meeting halls, little red schoolhouses, vacant shops, and tents.

And he saw first hand the miserable living and working conditions endured by Catholic priests “among the scattered people and the churchless places” of the American West and South. He resolved to found a home mission society to bring the fullness of the Catholic Faith to the many regions of America overrun with poverty, prejudice, and ignorance.

A column he wrote for Ecclesiastical Review of Philadelphia launched the Catholic Extension Society. Reprinted as a pamphlet, the “Little Shanty Story” described the ramshackle rectory of a Catholic pastor in Ellsworth, Kansas. The article captured the hearts of Catholics across the Republic, and donations began to pour in.

Papal Approval for Extension Society

Meeting in Notre Dame the two clerics began a long friendship of mutual admiration and respect. On the Feast of Saint Luke the Evangelist, 1805, the Catholic Church Extension Society was founded in Archbishop Quigley’s Chicago home. Within a year Kelley’s bishop gave him the Exeat to transfer to Chicago.

Kelley excelled as a fundraiser, but his public candor about the lack of missionary spirit in the American seminaries and the American hierarchy’s neglect of Catholic rural America made him East Coast enemies, including the Papal delegate, Archbishop Falconio. Quigley stuck by Kelley, however, and expedited meetings for him in Rome to obtain Vatican approval for the Society. Kelley described Pope Pius X as, “a saint who saw no obstacle to holiness on the possession of a fund of humor” and recounts a tale of his witnessing the pope’s “listening to an American Bishop telling him an Irish story in Italian and breaking into a hearty laugh over it.”

Pius X’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Merry del Val, was “the first great and powerful Roman friend of the Extension Society.” He instructed Kelley “in the science of untying hard diplomatic knots,” lessons the priest would apply throughout his life. Del Val secured a Papal Brief of Approval for the Extension, and, although the doubters and critics did not go away, there was little they could argue when it became clear that Pius X endorsed Kelley’s work.

Although entirely donated, one project critics of the Extension Society regarded as extravagant was the chapel cars: St. Anthony, St. Peter, and St. Paul. Kelley’s immediate inspiration was a Baptist train car he had seen at the St. Louis World’s Fair. In an article in Extension Magazine, Kelley argued that if the Baptists could take the Gospel on the rails so could the Catholics. The idea was older than that. Pio Nono had used a purple painted rail car, complete with throne room, to travel throughout the Papal States, and Russian Orthodox priests employed rolling chapels, exquisitely decorated, to take the Divine Liturgy to rural towns along the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Kelley’s rail cars were beautifully fitted as well, with art treasures from Europe including an 11th-century crucifix. The cars sat 70 for Mass and included confessionals as well as private quarters for their priests to dine, sleep, and study.

Rolling Chapel

When a chapel car rolled into town, one especially popular feature was the question box. Before a priest of the Extension would deliver a lecture or say Mass, he would answer questions, often from Protestants or Mormons, about the Catholic Faith. Some derived from innocent ignorance, such as the question put by a woman who thought that Jesus Christ had brought from heaven the Bible, whole and entire. Others were clearly the result of anti-Catholic propaganda, often spread by the Ku Klux Klan: “Is it true that a priest has to murder four people before he can be ordained?” “Do priests really have hooves like cows instead of feet?” When that question was put to an Extension Society priest visiting a town in Oregon, he took off his shoes and socks to settle the matter.

The great achievement of Father Kelley’s rail cars is the countless number of Catholics all over rural America who had lived away from the Sacraments but now returned to the Faith. The missionary priest of the Extension Society baptized and confirmed, witnessed marriages, absolved sins, dispensed Extreme Unction, and offered the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for American Catholics throughout the West, Midwest, and the South. In the countless towns where the rail cars planted the seed of the Faith, chapels and churches sprang up, supported by Extension Society dollars and built by the faithful who had returned home.

Extension Magazine

Kelley helped finance the work of the Extension with his Extension magazine, which at its peak boasted half-a-million subscribers. A Catholic version of the Saturday Evening Post, the quarterly not only spread the word about the Society’s work, thereby attracting donations, but also included articles in apologetics, as well as original artwork, poetry, and short stories, including scores of mystery stories penned by Kelley himself. Mystery author Mary Higgins Clark would later launch her career writing for Extension Magazine.

So popular and influential was Extension Magazine that when America entered the First World War, Kelley received the offer of a substantial bribe in exchange for an editorial endorsing Woodrow Wilson’s interventionist foreign policy. Kelley declined, passing up “his one and only chance to become rich” and penned instead, “The Pigs of Serbia,” a scathing rebuke of the war and its promoters on both sides of the Atlantic.

Foreign Policy Provokes Anger

America’s intervention in the affairs of Europe was not the only U.S. foreign policy that provoked Father Kelley’s anger. “The Mexican Question,” mishandled by American administrations from Taft to Coolidge, became, along with the Extension Society, a central focus of Kelley’s life, and perhaps the one for which he is best known today. The resulting book, Blood-Drenched Altars, is the only work of Kelley’s still in print. The volume comprehensively lays out the case that Mexico under Spain was a glorious Catholic country, culturally superior to the United States well into the 19th century: “They dotted the land,” writes Kelley, “with architectural triumphs which to this day have not been equaled in the Americas.”

Moreover, the book—written for and distributed to every member of the United States Congress in 1935—shows America’s considerable culpability in, to use Kelley’s words, the “great steal,” that is, the deliberate fomentation of the revolutions since the 19th century that replaced Catholic Mexico with Marxist Mexico. Kelley and his fellow bishop, Michael Joseph “Iron Mike” Curley of Baltimore were the two American bishops who opposed America’s support of Masonic revolution in Mexico and worked to relieve the suffering of clergy in a country the government of which had formally declared war on the Catholic Church.

Father Kelley’s championing of the cause of the Mexican faithful took him to the highest halls of American power. William Jennings Bryan, President Wilson’s Secretary of State, began a meeting with Kelley with the charge that “the Catholic schools in Mexico were anti-American.” Producing a textbook, he opened it to a paragraph blaming Mexico’s problems on the United States. Kelley, who read Spanish, confirmed the content of the paragraph and answered, “Mr. Bryan, I should like to suggest to you that you go through the records in your office of our relations with Mexico since about the year 1810, and then try to put yourself in the place of a Mexican. You will be forced to admit that the book tells the exact truth.”

Before Bryan could answer, Kelley added, “A textbook for a Catholic school would require an imprimatur opposite the title page.” Handing the book back to Bryan he asked, “Do you see one?” To the silence, he said, “I thought not. This text is in fact one used in Mexican government schools, not Catholic schools.”

A meeting with Wilson himself went less well. The President, after hearing Father Kelley recount the crimes against the Church in Mexico, including the outraging of nuns, and after hearing his request that America at least not back anti-Catholic revolution south of the Rio Grande, Wilson responded, “I have no doubt but that the terrible things you mention have happened during the Mexican Revolution. But terrible things happened also during the French Revolution. Nevertheless, out of the French Revolution came the liberal ideas that have since dominated in so many countries, including our own. I hope that out of the bloodletting in Mexico some such good may yet come.” Faced with the fact that Wilson is entombed in the National Cathedral in Washington, Americans should ask if our national religion traces it roots to Paris 1789 A.D. or to Jerusalem 33 A.D.

Received by Roosevelt

Not all of Father Kelley’s efforts to serve as advocate for Mexican Catholics fell on deaf ears. Theodore Roosevelt warmly received Kelley at Sagamore Hill and after reviewing the evidence Kelley had given him, wrote a syndicated article on the suffering of the Mexican Church.

After the First World War, Kelley took his crusade for the Church in Mexico to the very discussions in Paris that resulted in the League of Nations. There he proposed a “liberty of conscience” requirement for any nation desiring membership. Kelley’s amendment was a matter of practical politics, and a wise one, not a theological proposition. In his autobiography, Kelley observes with bitterness but not surprise that at Versailles, at the modern world’s official gathering of liberalism, a chief tenet of liberalism, religious freedom, was given no quarter, scuttled by Venizelos, Clemenceau, and Wilson.

The time in Paris did bear fruit. Kelley used his diplomatic skills unofficially to guide Italian Premier Vittorio Orlando to the beginnings of a just ending of the “Roman Question,” the debate over what to do with the Vatican, which had lost her lands in the Italian Risorgimento and yet insisted, quite rightly, on her sovereignty. Kelley outlined, among other things, a territorial concession, access to the sea, and recognition of sovereignty.

The story, worthy of a thriller novel, began in whispered conversations on a side street in Paris, and proceeded to a tea with Orlando in the lobby of the Ritz. Next Kelley was on a train to Rome, where he put the plan before Cardinal Gasparri and Pope Benedict XV. Back in Paris, he assisted the Vatican’s representative, Archbishop Cerritti in further negotiations. Orlando, on his return to Rome, put Kelley’s proposal before the Italian Chamber of Deputies. It cost him his political career. Ten years later, the substance of Kelley’s plan was approved by Mussolini, and the sovereignty of the Holy See was restored and secured.

Achieve Great Things for God

In June of 1924, a man who had led the life of sailor, soldier, scholar, mission priest, political adept, international diplomat, and published author whose prose style was praised by his friend H.L. Mencken, was ordained the second bishop of Oklahoma. The mission priest was now a mission bishop, establishing the Catholic Church on the plains, and bringing a new diocese to maturity. To read the life of Francis Kelley is to see how dogged determination, a devout prayer life, and a profound humility can together achieve great things for God. Of his extraordinary work, Kelley wrote, “The thing was God’s, not mine.”

To read the life of Bishop Kelley is also an opportunity for Catholics in America to start to come to terms with the reality that, her virtues notwithstanding, the United States has been at odds with Catholicism for most of her existence. The perspective the life of Archbishop Kelley gives us is invaluable in interpreting more current hostilities to the Church. Far from imaging that suddenly the American government has turned on the Catholic faithful, we should realize that the Church has had American enemies from the first, and that from time to time, they are at the very center of American power.