Taken from the Southern Cross, Wednesday May 3 1933.
Father James Kelly
An appreciation by Arnold Weisbecker
The leaves are falling. We older people notice it. I did this beautiful autumn morning as I went down the oak-lined lane to St Michael’s Rondebosch, for news of Fr Kelly. Yesterday, I saw him at Matroosfontein: he was sinking. He recognized me; that was all. The fullness of that brief moment epitomized half a century of friendship. His amiable “Yes” through pain and semi-consciousness, meant everything to us. Heart spoke to heart …… He is dead. Another leaf has fallen
Of our earlier association he wrote recently in the SOUTHERN CROSS and, through the lens of friendship, magnified m e. It would make me shirk publicity now if I had not been asked for this tribute. But that was Fr Kelly’s way: his loyalty was boundless, like his charity. And lest I be accused of similar generosity, let me say that it is impossible to magnify a saint. Father Kelly’s spiritual life was so near perfection that I cannot tell the difference between a saint and himself.
It was at St Michael’s we met long, long ago. I was a child and he a young man. With my sister I went to be instructed for confirmation. His geniality charmed us. He accompanied us to the gate, across the bare presbytery grounds, then, in soutane and biretta, sprinted back to the stoep and took the steps at a leap, while the Bishop walked up and down at his office. And we told our parents what a fine fellow this new priest was.
That was before 1887. I have a prayer book before me now with the 24th May 1887, in it, which he gave me later, when he taught me to serve Mass. Yes; Father Kelly was athletic then. He used to vault the railway gates as we strolled at dusk while I slunk through the wickets. And with these outbursts of energy went a genius for repose. He told of falling asleep on a ladder whilst winding a clock. I believed it: he fell asleep on telling me to practice the confitior aloud and woke up half-an-hour afterwards.
To these characteristics I trace some feature of his later life – his building activity till and end and his composure under conditions of a hermit’s life which would distress most men. But one who slept on a ladder could rest anywhere, I suppose.
Our association was chiefly at Rondebosch. At least, Rondebosch was its base, for we wandered far and often. At St. Michael’s he lived in a way, simple but conducive to successful ministration and delightful for companionship. And his success was shewn by the statistics he kept.
Yet, when he saw the vineyard on the Flats untended, no argument, no persuasion, no appeal could keep him where he had done so well where he was loved by all and where, with advancing years, he could relax if necessary. He just smiled and, like the Apostle Paul, went on his way to Philippi, to begin the same apostolic work. And like St. Paul, he built a church there. And a round-tower, to proclaim the national stronghold of his faith.
With all his refinement, he cut himself off from social intercourse. In delicate health and with low vitality, he faced hardship and isolation. Though reasonable, he turned away from argument and entreaty. He had never been deflected from the course he chose in the service of God, and here was the supreme test. I think that is how he viewed it.
I did not see him often on the distant Flats, either at Philippi or at Matroosfontein where he went later. But what I found was a cheerful acceptance of his new conditions. Three months ago he officiated at my mother’s funeral and his presence eased our sorrow. And now, looking back over the tumbled landscape of forty-eight years, with its hills and crags and sweet valleys, I see everywhere the guiding-light of Father Kelly’s saintliness.
What else he was to me is too intimate for expression. But his charity went out to all men. By example, by advice, by sympathy, and by the powerful influence of his personality, but never by any semblance of force, he drew them towards their rightful destiny. And friend of the poor, when funds failed, he gave even his violin.
By all precepts of holiness Father Kelly was a great man. Not in heroic deeds by which the world judges greatness or sanctity. He was too simple for that. Father Kelly was great through “love and meekness” which “become a churchman better than ambition”. I cannot think he needs our prayers. But we must offer them.