Charity with Style: 1924-1944 Bishop Francis Clement Kelley

As the Benedictine years were a bold walk into the unknown and theMeerschaert era a time for firmly setting roots and sending out runners, so the two decades of Bishop Francis Clement Kelley were to be a time of opening the Catholic Church in Oklahoma to the outside, a time of making the Church and its people understandable to the general public. It was also a transition period as the European born clergy gave way to those born and reared on this side of the Atlantic. Bishop Kelley wanted a Church full of charity, but charity with style.

In the autobiographical, A Bishop Jots It Down, Bishop Kelley recalled his momentary hesitation in 1924 when he received word that he was to be the Bishop of Oklahoma.

He had been in Oklahoma Territory in 1902 and "I had carried away no attractive picture of it ... I now saw myself again standing on the platform of the old railway junction at El Reno. The roofs of the town were in sight over a stretch of flat prairie. The grass between had been burned yellow, since for a long time there had been no rain. Dust was in the air. It hung over the prairie like a haze and shut off the glare of the sun."

Despite the bad memory of the place, Monsignor Francis C. Kelley, 53-year-old president and founder of the Catholic Church Extension Society, said yes to the call to be bishop of the area-huge, Catholic population-tiny southwestern diocese.

When Bishop Kelley came to Oklahoma he carried with him a reputation as one of the outstanding personalities in the Catholic Church in the United States. He was a writer (16 volumes by the end of his life), a gifted and witty speaker, a diplomat who had helped to settle the difficult question of the Vatican State's position relative to modern Italy, and a man of imagination and organizational ability who had founded and led the most successful home missions society in United States' Catholic history.

A native of Prince Edward Island, Canada, Francis C. Kelley was ordained a priest at the early age of 22 for service in the Diocese of Detroit. It was there, as pastor of Lapeer, Michigan, that he conceived the idea of the Extension Society in 1905.

Bishop Kelley landed in Oklahoma with a mind whirring with ideas. His emphasis was evangelization. Among his projects were the use of a chapel railroad car, door to door census takings, the construction of regional mission houses, correspondence courses, vacation schools, the building of a seminary, use of the medium of radio, and many, many public speeches as he toured the state in a Lincoln limousine.

With a suddenness that must have been shattering, Bishop Kelley found his diocese and himself impoverished by the Great Depression. The Church was mired in debt and so restricted financially that only the most minimal services could be carried on. The bishop was forced to move from his residence to Saint Anthony's Hospital. Vexed and frustrated, in 1934 he wrote to a friend, "The hot weather here is killing me."

Bishop Kelley was a kind man, easy in conversation, one with a graceful style. He was a cosmopolitan, 26 crossings of the Atlantic by ship. Among his friends were counted such a cross section as Frank Phillips, the petroleum mogul; William H. Murray, the cantankerous and rudely brilliant Oklahoma govenor; and H. L. Mencken, the acidic observer of the American scene.

In October 1942, Bishop Kelley suffered a heart attack. From that point onward his human resources declined as he struggled through five years of illness. He had brought a mood of excitement and vitality to the Church in Oklahoma but lived to see most of his plans frustrated or fail. He died on February 1, 1948.

(Taken from One Family: One Century)