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Bringing the faith to rural America

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Pavlo Pakhomenko / NurPhoto / NurPhoto via AFP

Ray Cavanaugh - published on 04/16/24

The founder of one of Church's most desperately needed organizations was a visionary and an author.

As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, the Catholic Church was booming in many U.S. cities. Some urban communities were all but overtaken by the influx of Catholic immigrants. In most of the rural U.S., however, Catholics comprised a far smaller portion of the overall population. As the nearest Catholic parish was often simply too far away, many of them became estranged from the faith.

An answer to this problem arrived in the form of the Catholic Church Extension Society, which brought Catholic worship, the sacraments, and social services to under-served, mostly rural areas across the United States. The founder, brainchild, and first president of this organization was Francis Kelley.

Kelley was born in 1870 in Prince Edward Island, Canada, where he received his education at St. Dunstan’s College. At age 22, he was ordained a priest in Detroit. He then served as an Army chaplain and captain with the Michigan National Guard during the Spanish-American War of 1898. 

In the early 1900s, Fr. Kelley — then serving as a pastor in rural Lapeer, Michigan — increasingly began to think about the difficulties faced by rural U.S. Catholics. 

Financially successful Catholics in U.S. cities often donated money, but it tended to go into nearby projects or to faraway endeavors in their ancestral homelands. Meanwhile, the rural U.S. tended to go neglected, except by the Ku Klux Klan, for whom Catholics were high on their list of hate targets.

To combat these difficulties and to assist priests and parishes in rural areas that were often lacking resources, Fr. Kelley founded the Catholic Church Extension Society in 1905 with the assistance of the Archbishop of Chicago. The first donation to the Society came from a newspaper boy who contributed one dollar. This was no small sum of money for a paper boy in that era, and Kelley regarded his contribution as the best possible omen. 

The Catholic Church Extension Society initially operated along U.S. railways. Fr. Kelley even established a mobile railroad chapel that brought Mass to many thousands of the nation’s most geographically isolated Catholics. 

Eventually, donated vehicles enabled the mission to venture further into rural territory. And reaching even more Catholics yet was the organization’s magazine, the Extension, which Fr. Kelley edited and published. At its peak, the Extension would have a colossal three million subscribers. 

Women leaders from Catholic Extension speaking at a press conference at the Vatican
Women leaders from Catholic Extension speaking at a press conference in the Vatican in 2023.

On June 25, 1924, Kelley, then age 53, was appointed the bishop of Oklahoma. One of his biggest challenges was dealing with the clergy in a geographically vast diocese where the priests themselves had become a bit rough after many years of frontier life and estrangement from any religious or secular authority figures.

Aside from his ecclesiastical and editorial duties, Bishop Kelley — who was a friend and occasional drinking companion of writer H. L. Mencken — was himself an accomplished author in both fiction and nonfiction.

Among Kelley’s corpus of work included the vividly-titled Blood Drenched Altars, about the persecution of the Church in early-20th century Mexico (Kelley, in fact, founded a seminary in Texas for priests and seminarians forced out of Mexico.). He also wrote novels in the mystery and science-fiction genres.  

After suffering a heart attack in 1942, Bishop Kelley’s health never quite recovered. He died in Oklahoma City on February 1, 1948, at age 77. By that time, he had been a bishop for 23 years and a priest for well over half a century. 

And the organization he founded would endure far longer yet. Almost 120 years after its establishment, the Catholic Church Extension Society (now known as Catholic Extension) continues to assist, covering a range that now extends to over 15 million U.S. faithful. 

~

Fr. Kelley preached the funeral homily for Mother Cabrini. Read about that below:

Tags:
FaithMissionaryUnited States
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