The Fighting Chaplain, Part II

Contributed photoThe Rev. Francis A. Kelly

Last week I wrote about the Rev. Francis A. Kelly, also known as the “Fighting Chaplain” of the New York 27th Division during WWI.

Upon his return from the war he served as rector of St. Mary’s Church in Cairo until his death in 1931. He was often in demand as a public speaker on special occasions, such as Memorial Day.

The Rev. Kelly gained the moniker the “Fighting Chaplain” not because he fought, but because of his bravery…“constantly at the front caring for the wounded and supervising burial of the dead, often under heavy shell and machine-gun fire.” The Rev. Kelly was gassed three times during the war. Resulting lung damage led to his premature death at age 43.

The Rev. Kelly’s fame preceded his return to the United States in early 1919. Town of Malta Historian Paul Perreault has done research on the pastor’s arrival home.

“On February 19, he was met at the D&H Depot by a crowd that escorted him to City Hall to be greeted by the City Fathers. The next day an even larger group filled the Armory to hear Mgr. Keveny welcome home ‘our honored brother.’ After addressing the throng, Kelly was off to Albany, where he was met by newly elected Gov. Al Smith and addressed a joint session of the Legislature. He then went to New York City to welcome the rest of the Division, but not before promising to return to Cohoes (his hometown) to recount the exploits of the 27th, specifically of those from Cohoes.”

Perreault continues his narrative as follows: “As promised, Fr. Kelly returned to Cohoes on March 9 and addressed a crowd of over 1,200 at the Cohoes Opera House while hundreds more were unable to be admitted. He commented extensively on the deeds of the ‘wonderful lads….the boys of the 105th Infantry and particularly those of Company B, who have covered themselves and their kin with glory.’ He told of those who would not be coming home and tears came to his eyes when he recounted the deaths of Sgt. Edward Ruane and Pvt. Thomas Keefe. The Cohoes Dispatch described the lecture as ‘Generally Conceded as One of Greatest Masterpieces of War Narrative’ and said that he ‘held his audience enthralled throughout the course of his extensive remarks’”.

The American Legion was founded after World War I. In November 1919, as a delegate from New York, Father Kelly attended the legion’s first National Convention held in Minneapolis. In honor of his bravery, he was elected the Legion’s first National Chaplain.

Two years later, on Armistice Day, Kelly attended the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Solider in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. He was selected to perform the ritual of the Catholic Church at the ceremony’s burial of the body of the Unknown Soldier.

Perreault also tells us a bit about the Rev. Kelly’s funeral and burial in 1931: “His body lay in state in Cairo on Sunday and then was escorted to Cohoes by the men of the parish. From 5 p.m. until 11 a.m. on Monday, thousands, including, Lt. Governor Lehman, paid their respects, while a guard of honor composed of members of the Ruane American Legion Post stood guard.

At the conclusion of the service, the church was opened to those who had been unable to pay their respects earlier and when the church was again cleared, his mother, who had been too ill to attend the funeral, said her goodbyes. As the body was placed in the hearse the band played ‘Nearer My God to Thee.’ The funeral cortege was escorted by members of Company B to a simple grave in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Troy. Taps were played and a firing squad gave a final salute. There he rests with his parents and younger brother George, who had died from pneumonia while serving in France.”

It is sad how our memories of people grow dim as time goes by. It has been my pleasure today to bring the Rev. Francis A. Kelly back to people’s minds and introduce him to others, if only for a few minutes. He was one of our most prominent WWI heroes.

Reach columnist David Dorpfeld at gchistorian@gmail.com or visit him on Facebook at “Greene County Historian.”

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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