Coincidentally, it was the day that we celebrate Love that I interviewed one of the most beloved men in Wayne Township. Friday was Valentine’s Day and Father Dan Kelly had just woken from a mid-morning nap when I had the pleasure of meeting him for the first time.
He is sixty-nine years old, the retired Pastor at Wayne’s Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) Catholic Parish, and he is in hospice care, dying slowly from a cancer that stems from chemotherapy treatment of his previous bouts with cancer.
“In 2017, after an MRI, they discovered I had innumerable cancerous lesions all up and down my spinal cord, my hips my pelvis and ribcage," he said. "Ultimately I was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma which is a cancer of the plasma cells.”
Father Dan began therapy to treat these lesions, but his platelet count started going down drastically along with all his blood counts. He was then diagnosed with MDS, Myelodysplastic Syndromes. This is when your bone marrow is unable to produce enough healthy blood cells.
Blood transfusions were keeping him alive. “I would sometimes spend three days a week at the cancer center, eight hours a day getting blood transfusions,” he said. “Ultimately, I was told that any more chemo would be more harmful than helpful.” The priest chose hospice, knowing that the time to join his heavenly father was approaching.
“What’s ultimately going to happen to me is my hemoglobin count which is low, will continue to drop and my organs will begin to shut down. They’re shocked that I am still alive,” he said with a tired but genuine and contagious smile.
The retired Pastor lay in his bed with the covers up to his chest and his head propped up to look at me as we spoke. He was vibrant, and jovial and a pleasure to talk with, but behind the smile and in his eyes, his sickness was evident. We spoke for almost two hours as he told me the story of his life, and how he became a priest and how special the last few weeks have been for him.
I began to think that, maybe Father Dan is staying with us here on earth longer than expected to allow the chance for all the people whose lives he has touched to come say goodbye.
Over the last few weeks, the retired Pastor has been visited by, at least, hundreds of friends, colleagues and past parishioners. One of Kelly’s friends who I spoke with told me she thought at least one-thousand people have come to visit. No matter the number, they all have visited their beloved priest and friend to share their love and support for a man that has given only love for them in hundreds of different forms.
Karl Grebe is a parishioner at IHM and shared with me how Father Dan helped him battle his alcoholism. “If I hadn’t stopped drinking, I would be dead right now,” said Grebe. “He gave me the help and support I needed at the lowest point in my life.”
“I have a Dad today,” Grebe’s daughter, Hillary told Father Dan in a recent phone conversation. “It’s because of you being there for him; supporting him and being a friend. And, for being tough on him when he needed it.”
Father Dan lived in Mountain Lakes as a child and was visited recently by a friend that he first met when he was two years old. Besides family, she is who Father Dan has known the longest in his life.
As an Eagle Scout, young Dan Kelly was the Director of the Boy Scout Camp at Allamuchy during the summers of his college years. A friend, who worked for him at the camp, and is now part of the US Olympic Swimming Team went out of his way to visit Father Dan last week. “We told so many stories,” said the Priest. “it was a very emotional moment.”
As a student at Loyola College in New Orleans, the talented Father Dan studied classical voice, graduating in 1972, a lifelong lover of the Opera. He recently received a call from a fellow student there. “Cheryl is a contemporary of mine,” he said. “We both studied under the same Voice teacher. She’s a music professor now at Temple University.”
After Graduating from Loyola, Kelly worked as a professional ski instructor as far away as Idaho before eventually coming back to New Jersey to begin a career as a music teacher at Pope Pius XII High School in Passaic for eight years followed by one year of teaching at Pope Paul VI High School in Clifton.
Colleagues and students from both schools have visited him over the last few weeks. “These friendships go back forty-something years, and they’ve stayed vibrant,” he said.
Speaking about the students who came to visit, he said: “I taught them when they were thirteen and now, they are in their fifties.”
In 1978, while teaching at Pope Pius, he was asked to teach Freshman Theology. “I laughed at first but struck a deal. I said: ‘You pay for the courses and I will do it,” he said. The schools sent him to a seminary in Mahwah where he took the needed courses, and then over the next few years he transitioned from the music teacher to the full-time Theology teacher.
After Pope Pius closed its doors, Father Dan taught at Pope Paul VI in 1983 and it was there that he made the decision to become a priest. “When I was young, I put Priests up on pedestals, but at this stage, I realized that they were human and I began to see that I could do it.”
Kelly went to St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore from 1984 -1987, where he received a Masters of Divinity degree and a Bachelors of Sacred Theology degree, graduating with a 3.97 Grade Point Average.
“After graduation, I was thrilled to be sent back to St. Nicholas parish in Passaic because I taught there for ten years,” he said. “And, six months after being installed there as a Deacon, I was ordained a Priest on December 12, 1987.”
“I’ve had a lot of parishioners come visit me from St. Nicholas,” he said. “And, I’ve been out of St. Nicholas for twenty-two years!” he said in wonderment.
Twenty-two years ago, in 1998, Father Kelly came to Wayne as the associate Pastor at IHM, and five years later became the Pastor, where he remained until he was forced to retire in 2017 because of his illnesses.
The parishioners of IHM in Wayne are the majority of his visitors. These are his current flock though Father Dan is officially retired. These are the people who he has counseled, heard confessions, blessed, baptized and married. This is his family and the love shared between Pastor and Parishioners is genuine, strong and beautiful.
In Novermber, 2005, Father Dan went to the hospital for a persistent sinus infection and was later diagnosed with Mantle Cell Lymphoma, a rare form of cancer that affects white blood cells. The treatment for this was high doses of chemotherapy.
“I had to go get chemo for seven straight days, then three weeks off, then seven straight days, then three weeks off,” he said.
At one point during this, Father Dan was put in an ice bath for a 104 fever that wouldn’t go away. He was rushed to the hospital at one point with a collapsed lung.
“That year, I was in Hackensack Hospital for eighty-six days on and off,” he said. Eventually, his cancer went into remission, but he needed to get full body scans on a regular basis to monitor its regrowth.
Because of this, the lung cancer they found in him was caught early and the small, affected part of his lung was removed.
“The next year, out of nowhere, I had a bilateral cerebellum stroke,” he said. This affected his balance.
“I couldn’t walk. I was in the ICU for two weeks and then went through acute physical therapy, I used to call it Boot Camp, where they got me on a cane; and then I was in outpatient physical therapy for six months.”
“It was in 2017 that strange things started happening,” he said. “I got the Shingles, I had acute bronchitis. I would get feet fungal infections that nothing could cure. Then, over the period of two days, I couldn’t get out of bed because the pain was so bad.”
He went to his neurologist because he has some dislocated discs from his skiing days. “I was a mogul person,” he said, smiling. “I loved to bounce the moguls. I used to tease all the time: ‘If you can’t die doing a run, what fun can that be?’”
It was the neurologist who ordered the MRI that led to the discovery of the cancerous legions that riddled his body.
“When all those lesions on my back were discovered and my neurologist said to get to my oncologist right away, I didn’t go for five weeks,” he said, then paused and asked: “Do you want to know why?” a wry smile touching his lips.
“Why?” I dutifully asked.
“We had first communions,” he said, the smile growing wide, and I couldn’t help but smile with him. “I didn’t want to ruin it for those kids. I had to do what I had to do first.”
“Was this a microcosm of how you were as a priest?” I asked him.
“I think so,” he replied in a soft voice.
“This is why you’ve had a parade of hundreds of people come to visit you, share their love for you and support you, as you’ve supported them,” I told him.
“I guess so,” was all he could say.
Before me, laid out on the bed, too tired and weak to move more than his arms as he spoke was a humble man. In his own words, he is an ‘ordinary man,’ who was dying, and yet he had about him an air that made me feel very comfortable telling him, genuinely: “I’m happy for you.”
“Thank you,” he said, the grimace of tears touching his face for a moment.
“You know, I idolized my Dad,” he said. “He was a mechanic and had a gas station and about four hundred people showed up for his wake. He was a remarkable man, and I used to tell people that I could never fill his shoes.”
“And yet…” I said.
“And yet…” he repeated with a shrug of one shoulder and a half a smile. “I think his influence has profoundly touched my life.”
“It must be weird to hear it right now, given these circumstances, how lucky you are,” I told him.
Father Dan smiled. “Trust me, I’ve always felt that I’ve lived a blessed life,” he said. “I never once asked ‘Why me?’,” he said. “Never once.”
God’s Greatest Gift to us is Love
“Has it been these last couple of weeks that you’ve just begun to realize how impactful your life has been on so many lives?” I asked.
He nodded, emotions etched on his face. “I feel grateful that I was able to touch so many lives,” he said. “Very Grateful.”
“I would never have expected it,” he said, his thoughts, perhaps straying to his high school years, where young Dan Kelly wasn’t very popular and did not have a lot of friends. “I would never, ever have expected the impact I seemed to have had on so many,” he said in wonder.
“All I did was what I felt I was called to do.” Emotions began to pitch his voice higher. “It wasn’t extraordinary, I just did what I was called to do.”
“And then…” he began, but had to stop, his face grimacing with coming tears. With deep emotions warping his voice, he struggled to say: “And then, I hear these stories, over and over again of what I did.” A pause, a breath and Father Kelly calmed.
Using a bit of self-deprecating comedy, he said: “In my opinion, they’re exaggerating, but if it touched them in that way…” His head shook back and forth in wonder. “Unbelievable.”
“I didn’t set out to touch so many lives in the ways that I have. I simply went out to live God’s love among them.”
Father Dan has lived an extraordinary and full life. Every year, he took two major trips. One to ski out west in Colorado, Idaho, or California. The other trips took him around the world. “I’ve been very lucky.”
When he was in college, young Dan Kelly studied Opera Production and Voice for a semester in Munich, Germany. “That’s where I got the travel bug,” he said. “I’ve been to every country in Europe, at least once, Russia twice, Turkey, the Greek Islands, Egypt, and Israel.”
Bishop Spencer is his close friend and travel companion and together they have traveled the world.
“I was ordained on December 12, which is the Feast of our Lady of Guadalupe, so we were taken down to Guadalupe for the celebration of the feast and the anniversary of my ordination.” On various trips, Father Dan and Bishop Spencer went to Pueblo, Cancun and to see the pyramids of Mexico.
“The collars stayed home,” he said.
“Undercover?” I asked.
He laughed. “Yes, undercover.”
A Man of Love.
“I have a strange analogy that I’ve always used,” he said. “The kingdom of God is New York City. That’s a stretch to begin with, don’t you think?” he asked with a big smile.
Continuing, Father Dan said: “I can get there through the tunnel. I can get there over a bridge. I can take the ferry. I can take a helicopter. If I’m really courageous, I can take a rowboat and if I’m stupid as hell, I can swim across the river. There are many ways to get there. The object is to get there!”
“So, there is no one way to simply find the kingdom,” he said. “And the kingdom, to me, is: Choosing every day, the best you can to live Christ’s love in this world. That’s the Kingdom of God.”
It’s this philosophy, that has shaped Father Dan to be the man he is, and, it is quite clear that because Father Dan actually lived this philosophy, this belief, this faith is why this humble priest may be the most beloved man in Wayne.
One might think that visiting someone in Father Dan’s state would be sad, but I left his room after our two-hour visit and told Doug Coyle, a parishioner who was there taking care of the priest: “That was wonderful.”