How to be an American Catholic: Bishop Francis Kelley

Francis Clement Kelley, founder of the Catholic Church Extension Society and second Bishop of Oklahoma was born in 1870 on Price Edward Island. His Irish father was a sea trader, so Francis was formed in a one-room country school and in gales off the coast of Nova Scotia.  From the first he excelled at writing. In high school he started a newspaper and won the English Medal.  He would go on to publish 17 books, countless articles and short stories, and launch a national magazine, not as a journalist, but as a Catholic priest, for while preparing for his catechism final he had felt “the unrefusable call.”

Ordained a priest for the diocese of Detroit, Michigan, Fr. Kelley’s first assignment set the spark to the tinder that fired his life’s work. The Lapeer, Michigan parish was a run-down “dry-goods box of a church” with no sacristy, statues, or stained glass windows, only a pile of dirty vestments. To Kelley, the poverty of his parish “spoke of a cold calculating indifference to God.” The culprit was the previous pastor, removed for apostasy, who lingered in Lapeer, writing Herbert Spencer-inspired articles for the weekly paper.  The 22-year-old Fr. Kelley rallied his disillusioned parishioners with sermons rich in doctrine and delivered with clarity and wit.  Under Kelley a brick-and-mortar building project began in earnest but stalled while the young priest donned his country’s uniform in 1898.

“No one could have had a stronger conviction that the war with Spain was not only unjust but unnecessary,” Kelly later wrote, but as an Army chaplain he was able bring the sacraments to soldiers mired in the tropical heat, bad sanitation, snakes, mosquitoes, and fever of Tampa and Huntsville.

Francis_Clement_KelleyKelley’s brush with early American imperialism informed his thought on war. “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 long since vanished.  “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 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.”

Returning to Michigan, Fr. Kelley joined the Lyceum circuit, and his honoraria funded the construction of his parish. His audiences ranged 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 great orators like Bob La Follette and William Jennings Bryan, Fr. Kelley came face to face with middle America gathered in meeting halls, red schoolhouses, vacant shops, and tents. He came face to face with 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 Faith to the many regions of America overrun with poverty, prejudice, and ignorance.

A column for Ecclesiastical Review of Philadelphia launched the Catholic Extension Society.  Reprinted as a pamphlet, Kelley’s “Little Shanty Story” described the ramshackle rectory of a Catholic pastor in Ellsworth, Kansas.  The pamphlet captured the hearts of Catholics across the Republic. In poured donations. One captured heart was that of Archbishop James Quigley, and on the Feast of Saint Luke the Evangelist, 1905, the Catholic Church Extension Society was founded in 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 his scathing criticism of the American hierarchy’s neglect of Catholic rural America made him East Coast enemies, including the Papal delegate, Archbishop Diomede Falconio.  Quigley stuck by Kelley and arranged meetings for him in Rome to obtain Vatican approval for the Society.  To Kelley, Pope Pius X was, “a saint who saw no obstacle to holiness on the possession of a fund of humor” but it was the pope’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, largely silencing Kelley’s critics.

One triumph of the Extension Society was a fleet of 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 adorned, 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 and priests quarters.

Apologetics was central to the work of the Extension Society, and when a chapel car rolled into town, one especially popular feature was (then as now) the question box.  Before a priest of the Extension would deliver a lecture or offer Mass, he would field questions about the Catholic Faith, often from Protestants or Mormons.  Some questions derived from innocent ignorance: one woman thought that Jesus Christ had brought the Bible down from heaven, whole and entire.  Other questions were the result of the Ku Klux Klan’s anti-Catholic propaganda: “Is it true that a priest has to murder four people before he can be ordained?”  “Do priest really have hooves like cows instead of feet?”  A priest visiting a town in Oregon took of his shoes and socks to settle the matter.

Father Kelley’s rolling chapels restored the Sacraments to countless fallen-away Catholics all over rural America.  Extension Society priests baptized and confirmed, witnessed marriages, absolved sins, dispensed Extreme Unction, and offered the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the West, Midwest, and the South.  In the many towns where the rail cars planted the seed of the Faith, chapels and churches sprang up, supported by Extension Society dollars and constructed by the faithful who had returned home.

Kelley helped finance the work of the Extension with his Extension Magazine, which at its peak boasted half-a-million subscribers.  A Catholic version the Saturday Evening Post, the quarterly spread the word about the Society’s work, thereby attracting donations. Extension Magazine also included articles in apologetics, poetry, and short stories, including scores of mystery stories penned by Kelley himself.  So popular 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 interventionism.  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.

American meddling in the affairs of Europe was not the only U.S. foreign policy that provoked Fr. Kelley’s anger.  “The Mexican Question”, mishandled by administrations from Taft’s to Coolidge’s, became, a focus of Kelley’s life, and perhaps the one for which he is best known today.  The resulting book, Blood Drenched Altars, is his only work still in print. The volume argues that Mexico under Spain was a glorious Catholic country, culturally superior to the United States well into the 19th Century:  “They dotted the land,” wrote 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 fomenting 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 loudly 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.  The Extension Society funded a seminary for exiled Mexican seminarians in Castroville, Texas, just west of San Antonio. The buildings stand today.

Father Kelley’s fight for the soul of Mexico took him to the corridors of American power.  William Jennings Bryan, Wilson’s Secretary of State, interrupted 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.”  To the startled Bryan, 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?”  Silence. “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. Fr. Kelley recounted the crimes against the Church in Mexico, including the outraging of nuns, and pled 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.” After the First World War, Fr. Kelley took his crusade for the Church in Mexico to Versailles. There he proposed a “liberty of conscience” requirement for any nation desiring membership in the League of Nations.  Kelley’s amendment was a matter of practical politics, and a wise one, not a theological proposition.  Yet, as he later observed, at the modern world’s official gathering of liberalism, a chief tenet of liberalism, religious freedom, was given no quarter, scuttled by Clemenceau and Wilson.

Plus ça change . . . .

The time in Paris did bear fruit.  Kelley used his skills in practical diplomacy to achieve a just resolution of the “Roman Question.” The Vatican had lost her lands and sovereignty to the Italian revolution.  Kelley proposed a territorial concession, access to the sea, and recognition of sovereignty.  Ten years later, the substance of Kelley’s plan was approved by Mussolini, and the sovereignty of the Holy See was restored and secured.

In June 1924, a man who had been a sailor, soldier, scholar, orator, mission priest, political adept, international diplomat, and published author with a prose style praised by H.L. Mencken, was ordained the second bishop of Oklahoma.  The mission priest was now a mission bishop, establishing the Faith on the plains, and bringing a new diocese to maturity.

Francis Kelley’s life shows how dogged determination, a devout prayer life, and a profound humility can together achieve great things for God. “The thing was God’s, not mine. If he wanted a fool or a child to do it that was his business.  He had his way of picking over poor material and working it over to suit his purposes.  I was quite sure that I was poor material. But why worry?  The skeleton of a failure often marks the beginning of a right trail.”  Bishop Francis Kelley was far from a failure, but he did understand what Blessed Teresa of Calcutta would later observe: “We are not called to be successful; we are called to be faithful.”

Editor’s note: A longer version of this piece appeared in the May/June 2012 number of Angelus Magazine. Christopher Check recommends Kelley’s autobiography, The Bishop Jots it Down, and Francis Clement Kelley and the American Dream by Fr. James P. Gaffey (in two volumes), both regrettably out of print.


Christopher Check is president of Catholic Answers.

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