The Fr. Skelly Few Knew

As we prepare to celebrate the anniversary of the death of Fr. Joseph Skelly, this recently discovered historical document speaks volumes of who he was.

A few days ago (June 16)  Pope Francis once again spoke of the “saints next door” who have not been beatified or canonized, but who supported and transformed families and communities with the strength of their Christian lives”.

On July 8th we will celebrate the anniversary of the death in 1963.  He certainly “supported and transformed families and communities” in his promotion of Mary. What we may not know is “the strength of his Christian life.”

The style and vocabulary of this contemporary document reflects that of the late 1930’s. But it reveals the inner spirit of the founder of the Central Association of the Miraculous Medal.
Source: Anne Eckley Branca (his former secretary)

While working late one evening in an alcove off Father Skelly’s second-floor office in the old headquarters of The Central Association on Price Street, I suddenly became aware of voices. They appeared to come from the reception room on the floor below, which normally at that hour would be deserted. It was during the early days of construction on Mary Immaculate Seminary at Northampton, and the supervisor of construction was expected to report that night to Father Skelly on the progress of the work and on any difficulties encountered.

As was his custom, Father Skelly had left the office before six o’clock and crossed the street to St. Vincent’s Rectory for his usual light supper. I was to telephone him when Michael O’Brien, the construction superintendent, arrived.

Michael was a quiet, friendly man, low-voiced and gentle like Father Skelly himself, yet a man of extreme capability in his field of work. Father Skelly highly valued Michael’s services and advice, and waited always with apparent eagerness for the hour when Michael would arrive from Northampton for a one or two-hour discussion of problems en¬countered, corrective steps taken, and the progress made in the building of the new Seminary. On this occasion the construction superintendent, it appeared, would be late in arriving as it had been raining intermittently and driving was hazardous.

So I descended the stairs to the first-floor reception room to investigate the voices which had startled me. As I approached the room I was surprised to discover that one of the voices was that of Father Skelly; I had not heard him return. Yet the second voice was that of a stranger, harshly strident, almost belligerent, but with a perceptible break which bespoke despair and frustration.

Who is this man, I wondered. It was no unusual occurrence for “cranks” of various kinds to drop in at the office during regular workday hours. They came bent on seeing Father Skelly in person in order that they might grind whatever strange, distorted “axe” their hearts and minds were carrying. We tried always to shield Father from such encounters as he was over-sensitive to the mentally distressed and the brood dissatisfactions of these unhappy and unfortunate individuals. He was indeed a man of great compassion.

But as I reached the door of the reception room, I realized that the tall, gaunt man standing over Father Skelly was not a crank. Here was a human derelict… a still vaguely handsome man who, somewhere along the way, had gone wrong. Father himself was seated in a chair at the far corner of the reception room, and in process of removing the strong black shoes he had recently acquired (the Northampton terrain was any¬ thing but gentle, and he made frequent visits to the site of construc¬tion.) When the shoes were off, he removed his black socks. Then, insisting that the derelict sit down, he himself placed on the man’s feet the socks and shoes he had removed from his own. Though the man towered over him in size, Father’s shoes and socks appeared to fit perfectly.

As I slowly withdrew from the doorway, the man suddenly stood up, and the still strident voice thundered, “The man gave me his shoes!” He spoke not to me, not to Father Skelly; he seemed to speak to the world that had hurt him ••• but possibly he was speaking to God. His eyes wandered wildly from picture to picture on the reception room walls of the medium-sized statue of Mary which graced the mantel-shelf. Then back again to Father Skelly standing in bare feet beside him. “Youvgave me your shoes, priest ••• God bless you!”

As I ascended the stairs to return to my work, Father Skelly called after me, “Please telephone the Rectory and ask the housekeeper to send over my slippers; they are in my room, beside the wardrobe.” I promptly did so.

Some ten to fifteen minutes later Father returned to his office on the second floor, his feet clad only in a well-worn pair of slippers.

I met that poor fellow when I was crossing the street; “I threw his torn shoes in the waste-basket.” This was his only comment.

Michael O’Brien arrived within the next half hour, and together he and Father plunged into an earnest discussion of the work completed that day on the new Seminary and the facets of construction to be tackled next morning. I interrupted to say “Good night”, then gladly left tor home, for the hour was growing late.

There was a real chill in the air as I walked to Germantown and Chelten Avenues to board a bus. I kept thinking about the poorly clothed derelict Father Skelly had befriended little more than an hour earlier.

Over and over I heard his thundered words, “The man gave me his shoes!”

I prayed that God would clothe the “poor fellow”, through some other kindly soul, with a coat or possibly a warm sweater.

Then there came to my mind, as the bus moved along, an unforgettable but totally unrelated proverb which Father Skelly had once quoted in a letter to the Promoters and Members of Mary’s Family of the Miraculous· Medal:

“I had no shoes, and went about complaining-¬ until I met a man who had no feet!”

As the bus passed Mary’s Central Shrine on Chelten Avenue, I whispered a word of thanks for the privilege of having as my “boss” a man of God as priestly and Christ-like as was Father Skelly.

On Monday, July 8th, the crypt where he is buried will be open. People will be invited to visit and pray a special prayer being distributed that day.

Perhaps we can pray for the strength to give our shoes and socks to those who need them.

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