There was his disarming sense of humor, reflected in the signs he put on the doors of the confessional booths, which read, "Your Name Here." There was his knack for attracting attention, such as when he'd ride his homemade airplane-style bicycles through town, earning him the nickname "the flying priest." And there were his everyday actions, parishioners said, which exemplified the message of giving and self-sacrifice ubiquitous in his sermons.
Kelly, 53, died this week doing one final good deed. While driving to the funeral of another priest, Kelly pulled over in the Hamilton area about 9 a.m. Wednesday during a fierce wind storm to remove a fallen tree from the road so no one would get hurt. That was when he was struck and killed by another falling tree, authorities said.
To the mournful congregation of more than 1,700 families, Kelly's act was the exclamation point on the end of years of devoted service.
"The angels swooped down and carried him off," said a damp-eyed parishioner, Ruth Showalter, outside the Loudoun County church yesterday. "That was him. He got out there for people."
Kelly's father, John F.J. Kelly, put it another way.
"The good Lord needed an outstanding priest," said Kelly, 80, of Foneswood, Va. "He needed him now."
Friends said Kelly's compassion, diverse biography and quirky talents helped him win the hearts of congregants and non-Catholics alike in Purcellville, though he had been at St. Francis for less than three years. Kelly was born in Newport Beach, Calif., the son of a Marine. His family eventually settled in Alexandria in 1969, and Kelly graduated from Mount Vernon High School.
He walked several paths before finding his calling, congregants and relatives said, serving in the U.S. Navy — where he attained the rank of boatswain's mate, 2nd Class — studying history at what was then Mary Washington College and later working alongside his father as a private weapons and security consultant for the military. He was ordained in 1995, but his love of the military and history never faded. He was a Civil War reenactor, playing the part of a Union soldier from a Massachusetts unit known as the "Irish Brigade."
His gift, parishioners said, was his ability to combine those experiences into a powerful message and manner. In the confessional booth, congregants said, he had a gentle demeanor, encouraging people to "be merciful on yourself." When called for, he could be firm, and he often repeated the slogan "Improvise, adapt and overcome" — a popular saying among Marines — to those facing challenges. After preaching, he implored churchgoers to "continue the march."
"We're fighting to overcome ourselves," said Nicole Robertson, 25, in explaining Kelly's command. A convert to Catholicism, Robertson said she would not have joined the church if it weren't for Kelly. Robertson said she was unable to attend classes necessary for conversion because of a conflict with her work schedule in 2007.
So Kelly improvised, adapted and overcame.
"He agreed to meet with me one-on-one," Robertson said. "We met every week. After I came fully into the Catholic Church, he really was a father to me in many ways."
Kelly, who also served at St. James in Falls Church, St. Ambrose in Annandale and Sacred Heart of Jesus in Winchester, had a reach that extended beyond the walls of the church's gleaming white building. Around town, he was famous for riding bicycles that he crafted to look like World War I and II-era fighter planes and appeared with them in parades.
In the afternoons, he would often ride from his residence at the church and wait on the corner for passing school buses full of waving, giggling children who lit up when they saw the flying priest.
"All the kids would be waving, waving waving," said Janice Rees, a staff member at the church. "You'd see the occasional pickup truck full of workers heading home, looking curiously, like, 'What the heck was that?' "
Parishioners said a fixture of Kelly's sermons was a command to spread God's message through good deeds. Kelly was driving on Harmony Church Road, south of Holmes Mill Road, when he came across the fallen tree. For some, the fact that he died while trying to shoulder the burden of a tree has taken on special meaning.
"He always spoke of the 'tree of the cross' — Jesus dying on a tree," said Dorothy Gessner, 81, a parishioner for 48 years. "The other day, when I was praying, the thought came to me: [Kelly] was killed by a tree. He was very close to Christ."
In a homily last weekend, Kelly, whose funeral is Tuesday, cited a Bible passage that conveyed how giving "completes" an individual. Although they were shocked and saddened, those who knew him said the way he died was not a surprise.
"You never had to ask for help," said parishioner Sheila Cowling of Leesburg. "He was there."