ANTIGO — With a smile, a nod and a final “bless you my dear,” Fr. Omer Kelley stepped away from the altar at Antigo’s Aspirus Langlade Hospital chapel Jan. 20.
The final Mass for employees drew several dozen hospital staffers. A second Mass, for the entire community, was held Jan. 21, concluding his four decades as chaplain at the Catholic health care facility.
Fr. Kelley, 94, was ordained 68 years ago, and the years have taken a toll. He suffers from hearing loss, has trouble standing and kneeling, and at the concluding service wore a bandage on his forehead from a stubborn injury.
But the diminutive priest retains his impish Irish humor and humbleness.
“There is not much use saying ‘I wish I were a better priest,’ because that is true,” Fr. Kelley said in his homily. “It has been a glorious time here all these years.”
He added, with his usual deprecating humor, “I feel like such a fake. I know myself. I am a pretty good pretender. I wish I were a better priest.”
His congregation would disagree.
In remarks opening the service, Aspirus Langlade Hospital CEO Dave Schneider reflected on Fr. Kelley’s “wonderful ministry.”
“We want to celebrate with you the work you’ve done and (we) are praying for your continued health,” Schneider said.
He compared the priest to the humanitarian, Albert Sweitzer, who stressed service, compassion and helping others. “This is a perfect statement to describe your life. You are truly the reflection of the Lord in all you do,” said Schneider.
The administrator also read the Prayer of St. Francis, which speaks of sowing love, faith, hope, light and joy.
“Father, you are our St. Francis,” he said.
Fr. Kelley called Schneider a friend as well as a leader, and gave a special thanks to the three members of the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph, Srs. Dolores Demulling, Adele Demulling and Jean Bricco.
“I owe them so much,” he said.
A native of Madison, Fr. Kelley was ordained for the Capuchin Order in 1949, earning degrees in philosophy and theology before completing post-graduate studies at Gregorian University in Rome. In 1980 he was incardinated into the Diocese of Green Bay.
His career included several years in education and ministering for three years to expatriate Catholics in Saudi Arabia. In 1976, stating he would “love a little parish,” he became pastor of St. Wenceslaus Parish in Neva. It was a position he held for 18 years, retiring in 1994. The following year he began serving as hospital chaplain in Antigo.
He also served as priest moderator at SS. James and Stanislaus Parish in White Lake and Langlade for 11 years.
While stressing that no one can replace Fr. Kelley, Schneider said the hospital has recruited a new chaplain, Fr. Robert Obol, as director of mission services. He comes to Aspirus Langlade from Kansas University Hospital and began duties Jan. 23.
“Fr. Kelley has served the entire community in an exceptional way,” added Schneider. “The words he shared with us will echo in our hearts forever. He is one of the great people.”
Fr. Kelley ended his Mass with words of love, reciting a prayer, usually offered silently after Communion, that speaks of God’s love.
“That’s what you have given me, by loving me,” he said. “Love and strength.”