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With Thanks from the Vatican

1 Apr 2001 | Sgt. Will Price

Back in 1971, Navy Cdr. Tom Kelley was serving his first tour as a chaplain at Parris Island, while Army chaplain Capt. Edwin O'Brien was giving soldiers their last rites in Vietnam. 

Recently, the two former chaplains finally met for the first time.

Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien, responsible for a ministry of 1.5 million Catholics, including all branches of the military, came to the Air Station Chapel April 1 to preside over mass.

Retired Navy Chaplain Capt. Kelley was invited to the mass, but was unaware that he would be awarded one of the highest accolades the ministry has.  On behalf of Pope John Paul II, Archbishop O'Brien overwhelmed Kelley, when he pinned the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal to the chaplain's chest.

The medal translated in English, "For Church and the Pope," was instituted by Pope Leo XIII, on July 17, 1888, and is bestowed on those lay persons and clergy who have given exemplary service to the Catholic Church and its head, the Pope.

"I've never done anything more than what I'm supposed to do.  I don't consider myself a hero, I just do what I'm told,' said a modest Kelley. "I thought it was an honor just to finally meet the Archbishop -- to receive this medal, I was shocked."

A Philadelphia native, Kelley was first ordained to the priesthood on June 3, 1950.  During his 50 years as a priest, he served 28 years in the Navy, twenty of those years at Marines duty stations, before retiring to Beaufort in 1986.

After hitting his golden anniversary, Kelley has no plans to slow down. He divides his time presiding over masses, and performing other priestly duties between Parris Island, the Air Station, Naval Hospital Beaufort and St. Peter's Catholic Church in Beaufort.

"After serving all those years as a priest and with the Marines, I don't know how he has made it, let alone still walking!" joked O'Brien.

"I have only God to thank for preserving my good health," said the 77-year-old Kelley. "As long as He keeps me going, I will never stop working."

"Having the Archbishop in our chapel was a great honor and a privilege.  He is our shepherd and direct connection to the Pope," said Navy Cdr. Thomas Falkenthal, Air Station chaplain.   "For Father Kelley, his faithful dedication and selfless service to God and country is a tremendous example of what priesthood is about."

Falkenthal had started writing up the package to award Kelley seven months ago.   Everytime he thought the Vatican had approved the medal, he invited Kelley to mass only to find out more time was needed.

"He (Falkenthal) told me to come to mass for something special in November, no, then January, then February, and finally on April 1," recalled Kelley.  "I was beginning to think it was an April Fool's joke!"

"I knew something was going on with the Archbishop, but I just thought he would say, 'I was a nice guy,' and that would be it."

In on the surprise were Kelley's brother and sister-in-law, Don and Betty from Wallingford, Pa., and his sister, Suzanne Bojanowski from Boca Raton, Fla.

"From the time he was 10, holding mass in our basement with the kids in our neighborhood, we knew Tom was born to be a priest," said Don.  "We are very proud of all he has accomplished."

During Kelley's twenty years with the Marines, he served with 1st Marine Division as head Chaplain, 3rd Marine Division, 1st Marine Air Wing, two tours at Parris Island and one at MCRD San Diego.

"Everyone told me bootcamp was 11-weeks long," said Kelley, about his three tours at recruit depots, "I would tell them they were wrong, 'It's 11 years!'" 

On his formula for success, Kelley offered these two pearls-of-wisdom. 'Always look for the likenesses in your fellow man and not his differences, and instead of trying to demand respect, take responsibility."