Killyleagh To Pawtucket

Thankyou to Mary for sending me this story.

This is a story written by James Bruno about my grandfather, Thomas J. Kelly, printed in the Providence Sunday Journal in April of 1959. He was so gifted. Poppy sang like an angel and when he wasn’t singing he was whistling. My grandmother told my mother that she fell in love with him when she heard him sing. Lucky for me. I miss them both.

The title is "Pawtucket’s Singing Sexton" and "Thomas Kelly an Irishman Who Proves it in Music."

"They laughed when I walked on stage with my melodeon, but when I played an Irish jig and Marion Miliken danced as an Irish colleen–that got ‘em.”

You can see from the foregoing, that Thomas J. Kelly is an Irishman, and he loves to sing about it. Seems everything he does is in some way Irish. He was describing the recent “Irish Revue” of St. Mary’s Church in Pawtucket.

Mr. Kelly is Pawtucket’s “Singing Sexton.” The Irish tenor, who lives at 23 Randall Street, sings for weddings and funerals and at anniversary Masses at St. Mary’s Church.

A few minutes after meeting Kelly you discover why his favorite song is “Little Town in Auld County Down.” He was born there, 51 years ago.

Church sextons, it is said, are often seen but not heard. Not so with Irish Kelly, who wears an irrepressible smile, is proud of his Irish brogue and is happy with a sheet of music or a broom.

Kelly opens the church doors at 6:30 every morning. He sweeps, dusts, takes care of the boiler, the altar, the grounds and a multitude of other things. He’s the man who swings on the rope to peal the church bell.

But there is no such thing he’d rather do more than sing Irish songs. And this he does at every opportunity. His favorites are, “Rose of Tralee,” “Danny Boy,” “Doonaree,” and “The Isle of Innisfree.”

His Irish heritage was bestowed upon him the day he was born in the Town of Killyleagh, in County Down, on the shores of Strangford Lough Bay.

When he was only nine months old, his parents emigrated to the United States, but they returned to Ireland after two years, because Papa Kelly’s doctor prescribed Ireland’s green hills for the elder Kelly’s failing health.
So while his father farmed, young Kelly worked in a linen mill, played on the soccer and cricket teams, went to St. Mary’s Parochial School in Killyleagh. He sang in school shows, concerts, and joined the dramatic societies, singing wherever he could.

In 1929, at 22, Kelly and his mother returned to Pawtucket, to the home of his uncle, Thomas Laverty, 13 Clyde St. He found work, joined the Knights of Columbus, attended a lot of “Irish kitchen parties,” and sang his way to a local radio station, where he landed a job. He and Nora Casey were “Irelands’ Own Entertainers” for about a year in 1931.

At one of those kitchen parties, Mr. Kelly met Mary Dornan, who was Irish. She was born in County Armagh in the Town of Lurgan, and that was fine with Kelly. They were married.

Then came Eileen, now 19, a student nurse at Roger Williams General Hospital, who will graduate this year, on scholarships; and James, 18, a graduate of St. Raphael Academy, Pawtucket, who is Army bound; and Maureen, 17, who will graduate from St. Mary’s Academy, Bay View, in June, and plans to enter the Order of the Little Sisters of the Poor; and Patricia, 16, a sophomore at St. Xavier Academy, Providence.

Mr. Kelly worked for 13 years at the Anaconda Wire and Cable Co., rising to position of foreman. He took the sexton’s job at St. Mary’s Church, Jan. 27, 1947, when it was offered to him by the late Rt. Rev. Msgr. Cornelius J. Holland, then pastor of the church. There was nothing in the agreement about Kelly’s singing.

However, the “singing sexton” of St. Mary’s has always been at home, whether he was singing the Angelus in the choir loft, whistling a tune as he performed an ecclesiastical errand, or hammering away at the work bench in the boiler room.

So, whether you enter the old church on Pine Street to meditate within its quiet walls or attend a crowded service there, chances are you’ll see Mr. Irish himself in one of his many roles. Look for a fair-haired man, who appears to know his way around and whose deep blue eyes practically spell I-R-E-L-A-N-D


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