Brother James M. Kelly, C.F.X.
Brother Kelly at the 2011 “Celebrating Our Pioneer Spirit” Gala.
XAVERIAN BROTHER HONOREE
Bro. James Kelly, C.F.X.
In the epilogue to his recently published book Building Men Who Matter: On the Marvel and Mystery of Raising Teenage Boys, Brother James M. Kelly reflects, “I have been a very fortunate man in my vocation. I have taught boys who, in many ways, have taught me more than I taught them.” Those who have enjoyed the privilege of learning from Brother Kelly as a student in his English classroom or as a colleague during his 46 years as a Xaverian Brother would argue that the opposite is true.
Born in Worcester of Irish and French Canadian ancestry to Joseph Patrick Kelly and Dorothy Vigneault Kelly, James Michael Kelly and his sister Patricia grew up in a loving home on the grounds of Cushing Hospital in Framingham, where Joseph Kelly served as the hospital’s administrator. Mr. Kelly was a voracious reader who encouraged lively family dinner table discussions. “If a book isn’t worth reading twice, it isn’t worth reading once,” he would say. Young Jimmy inherited this love of literature and his father’s fascination with the writings of Winston Churchill.
Looking back on his freshman year at Marian High School in Framingham, run by the Sisters of St. Joseph, Brother Kelly makes no secret of his youthful immaturity and initial academic laziness. In the first marking term, he failed Latin and religion classes. Guided by the firm oversight of Sister Anna Catherine, Jim Kelly soon matured into a young man who rejoiced in intellectual challenges. His sister Pat says, “From that point forward, Jim excelled academically and developed a lifelong love and appreciation for the Sisters of St. Joseph.” That devotion led to his 2008 appointment to the Board of Trustees for Marian High School — one of the many schools for which Brother Kelly has been asked to offer counsel and leadership as a board member.
At 17, inspired by his devout Catholic upbringing and great rapport with the sisters at Marian High School, Jim felt God’s call to a vocation. Stirring visits with Xaverian Brothers Director of Vocations Bro. Emil Dionne and Saint John’s High School Headmaster Bro. Joseph Gerard Teehan were all that were needed to convince Jim that the Xaverian order was where he belonged.
Joseph and Dorothy Kelly initially opposed his decision, telling Jim they wouldn’t be held responsible if he grew to regret taking the vows. Decades later as he neared the end of his life, Joseph Kelly would say to his son, “Your mother and I thought you were foolish to join the Xaverian Brothers. We were wrong. You rightly chose what would make you happy.”
Jim Kelly entered the Xaverian Brothers on July 8, 1965 — one month after his high school graduation. His two years of novitiate development were deeply influenced by Novice Master Bro. Kevin Kenney, whom Brother Kelly described as “demanding and tough — but very loving.” He graduated Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude from Catholic University with a degree in Latin and Greek. Brother Kelly, along with four other young Xaverian Brothers, began his teaching career at Saint John’s High School as an instructor of English, Latin and religion. At Saint John’s, he received what he described as “lessons in pedagogy” from Bro. Ivan Corkery and Bro. Philip Neri, who underscored the necessity of demanding academic discipline and accepting nothing less than from students than their very best effort. Recalling Brother Ivan and Brother Philip, Brother Kelly emphatically states, “These men made me who I am today.”
During his early days at Saint John’s, appendicitis followed by a life-threatening infection brought 23-year-old Brother Kelly close to death’s door at St. Vincent’s Hospital. Shortly after Brother Kelly had received the Anointing of the Sick, Saint John’s Headmaster Bro. J. Conal Owens gravely told him, “Well, Brother Jim, you are going home to Jesus.” Brother Kelly looked at Brother Conal and vehemently declared, “Like hell I am!” All who know Brother Kelly would agree that this feisty retort could be a metaphor for this resilient and brilliant man’s life.
Although he taught at Saint John’s for only three years, one of the most enduring relationships in Brother Kelly’s life began when he met a fellow novice teacher, F. Michael Novick ’66. The two young men shared a common love of teaching, of literature and of intellectual discourse.
“Brother Jim possesses a majestic wit and wisdom — if somewhat uniquely combined with a somewhat salty Irish tongue,” Mike notes with humor. “He is a passionate, devout man deeply devoted to the Xaverian Brothers mission. Jim exudes love — and what an extraordinary privilege it is to experience that love.” Brother Kelly eventually became “Uncle Jim,” beloved godfather to Mike’s son Colin ’91. Brother Kelly takes this role very seriously, evidenced by his great devotion to Colin, his wife Tracy, and their three daughters. He has been present at every major event in his godson’s life.
In 1974, Brother James left Saint John’s to teach at Xavier High School in Middletown, Connecticut, ultimately becoming the school’s headmaster in 1982. Each Monday morning, Brother Kelly would launch the school week with prayer and an inspirational pep talk he named the “Monday Morning Ferverino.” A modified version of the “Ferverino” began to appear in Brother Kelly’s newsletters to parents, known tongue-in-cheek as “Moments of Mush.” Dear friend and 25-year vacation comrade Bro. Ray Hoyt served as editor of these essays. Many formed the basis of Brother Kelly’s 1998 book Respecting the Man the Boy Will Become.
During his years at Xavier, Brother Kelly received a master’s degree in liberal studies from Wesleyan University in Middletown in 1977 and a master of arts in counseling from St. Joseph’s College in West Hartford in 1982. At long last, he professed his final vows. Mike Novick jokingly recalls that Brother Kelly was so dedicated to his teaching and administrative work that he kept putting off this moment of commitment, making him “the oldest Xaverian Brother to ever take final vows!”
Following two years of service in Baltimore as the Xaverian Brothers Director of Development, Brother Kelly took the helm of the nation’s oldest Xaverian Brothers Sponsored School, St. Xavier High School in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1993. In 2001 he arrived at Mount St. Joseph High School in Baltimore to serve as that school’s first Xaverian Brother president.
Mount St. Joseph Principal Barry Fitzpatrick’s recalls that Brother Kelly immediately set to work to ensure that the rich history and tradition of the Xaverian Brothers was understood by the Mount’s faculty and staff. Barry notes, “Long before banners were hung in the Mount’s cafeteria proclaiming the spiritual values of Xaverian charism, Brother Kelly was walking the halls of the Mount as a living testament to the values of compassion, humility, simplicity, trust, and zeal.”
Brother Kelly’s world revolves around his students — they are his purpose and his life. Not all headmasters and presidents continue to teach, but Brother James has always insisted that he instruct at least one junior English class — even during his current battle with a recurrence of cancer. Brother Kelly uses Skype to teach on days when he is under the weather following a round of chemotherapy. Commenting on Brother Kelly’s use of Skype, Mount St. Joseph student David Falvo says, “I find that every day that we have with him is a gift.”
Since the early 1980s, Brother James Kelly has been the principal author of the Xaverian Menology, a book of biographies of deceased members of the Xaverian Brothers. For almost as long, Brother Kelly has been giving talks on the history of the congregation to the annual New Teachers meetings, XBSS student retreats, and gatherings of the newly formed Xaverian Brothers Associates. He also serves on the boards of directors of numerous Xaverian schools, traveling thousands of miles across the Eastern United States, even when not in the best of health.
The tradition of the “Monday Morning Ferverino” remains alive and well at the Mount. As is his habit each year, Brother Kelly recently admonished the Mount’s second-semester seniors, “Don’t do anything that will break your mother’s hearts.” In early February, Brother Kelly emailed Brother Ryan lamenting that he had just dismissed a senior from the Mount, a young man who was already on strict probation for past offenses and could not afford another infraction of the rules. Brother Kelly had worked closely with this young man, a “diamond in the rough,” as he called him. He ended his email to Brother Ryan with these words: “His leaving the Mount broke my heart.” Brother Ryan observed, “I don’t think you could find many administrators who would write such an epitaph for a problem student.” Brother Kelly’s second book, Building Men Who Matter, was published in the fall of 2010.
Saint John’s is not alone this year in recognizing Brother Kelly’s extraordinary passion and devotion to his vocation. In late February, St. Xavier High School in Louisville honored Brother Kelly with its St. Francis Xavier Award.
Teacher, principal, headmaster, president, author, historian, and cherished friend — Brother James Kelly is all of these and so much more. This man of great faith, raised only miles from Saint John’s High School, stands tall among the legends of the Xaverian Brothers. Saint John’s headmaster Michael Welch notes with admiration and reverence, “Brother Kelly is truly one of the giants upon whose shoulders we stand.”
From the “Celebrating Our Pioneer Spirit” Gala Program Book, 2011.