Pastors' Memoirs

Owen Thomas Kelly, 1903-1988

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Owen Thomas Kelly was a person of faith, patience, love, endurance and especially laughter. He taught many of us, by word and deed, that Christians should be joyful people. He enjoyed meeting and helping people. Dr. Kelly would frequently go to a church to preach and begin by telling some outlandish tale about the pastor or a leading layperson. The response would be laughter by that person and everyone else. Yet, with the laughter, there was always an overriding call to faith in Jesus Christ. That was his hope and witness for most of his 84 years.

It was a contagious witness. During his life, 43 persons entered the ordained ministry under his guidance, over 2,500 couples knew his love and concern as he counseled and married them, thousands of little children knew they were loved by God and him as he took the time to listen and "play" with them, and thousands more knew him as a compassionate pastor and friend in times of joy and sorrow.

Owen T. Kelly was born July 26, 1903, the youngest of five children, in Norfolk Country, Virginia. He graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in Portsmouth, Virginia and worked for 10 years at Norfolk Naval Shipyard and Seaboard Railroad. During this time, he was youth director of the Epworth League in the Portsmouth district and vice president of the Virginia conference Epworth League.

In 1929, after answering a call to the ministry, he entered Randolph-Macon College. He graduated in 1933 but not before marrying Mary Margueritte Brownley the year before. After college, he entered Union Theological Seminary in Richmond and served the Ashland Circuit. In 1935, he became pastor of St. Paul's in Richmond.

The year 1939 saw he and Mary go to Trinity Church in Orange. It was a great time in his ministry. He loved that town and all its people. Indeed, at one time or another during those war years, he occupied the pulpit of most of the town's churches. All the denominational churches in Orange jointly requested that the Methodist Church return him to their town. He was asked to serve on the Draft Board and make the difficult decisions about who would go off to war. Dr. Kelly told of going down to the railroad station with each young man and having prayer with him. When those young men returned, he would be waiting at the station with open arms.

His love for people, especially young people, did not end there. In 1944 he returned to Norfolk County to serve Cradock Church. It was late in the war years and Cradock was a community with hundreds moving in and hundreds moving out. Dr. Kelly became a part of the community serving as chaplain for the high school football, basketball, and baseball teams, chaplain for the fire department, and sponsor of the Hi- Y and Tri-Hi- Y .The Cradock High School Yearbook was dedicated to him in recognition of his love and service to the community and its young people.

It would be the same at First Methodist in Hopewell. He would always tell, with a twinkle in his eye, of the Hopewell High School football team under his chaplaincy and prayers winning three state championships in a row.

There would follow Memorial Church in Lynchburg and then the Charlottesville District superintendency. Those who knew him as their district superintendent can attest to the fact that he was more than an administrator. He was a pastor to the preachers and their families. In 1959 his alma mater, Randolph-Macon College, saw fit to award him the Doctor of Divinity degree.

In 1963, Dr. Kelly was appointed to Epworth Church in the Norfolk District. In speaking of his appointments, he would never leave Epworth off. He was proud to have been pastor to its people.

During his years of service in the church, Dr. Kelly served on numerous conference boards. He was a member of the Board of Evangelism, Board of Missions and the World Service Commission. He was elected four times as a delegate to General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference.

Retirement to the Great Bridge area of Chesapeake came in 1970. It was retirement in name only. Within the year he was back serving five months as district superintendent in Lynchburg. That was just the beginning. From 1971 to 1987 he served from two months to 10 months at Knotts Island, Hickory, First, Mt. Pleasant, and Foundry United Methodist churches. Then, there would be what he called his "missionary work." He would frequently fill the pulpit of the local Baptist, Christian and Presbyterian churches. He served as interim pastor of Great Bridge Presbyterian, having the church garden dedicated in his honor by the Young Adult Sunday school class. When he wasn't serving as an interim pastor, he would be preaching somewhere, frequently on short notice. He rarely took more than four to six Sundays off a year. In recognition of his love and service to his adopted community, the citizens of Chesapeake named him "First Citizen" in 1984.

His wife, Mary, passed away in April of 1982. She had been a source of strength to him throughout their ministry. After a stroke confined her, he spent much time lovingly looking after her needs. He is survived by a daughter, Mrs. Page K. Vaughan and two granddaughters, Patricia Vaughan Haymer and Susan Vaughtan Felton, and their husbands.

A Service of Death and Resurrection was held at Oak Grove United Methodist Church in Chesapeake, April 6, 1988. The service was conducted by Dr. Lee B. Sheaffer, Norfolk District superintendent, the Rev. W.S. Volskis, pastor of Oak Grove, and the Rev. Thomas L. Mercer Sr. Burial was in Chesapeake Memorial Gardens.

Many of us have lost a dear, trusted friend. He was like a grandfather to me. A month before his death he came to Lynchburg to baptize his third Mercer baby, Luke Owen. He spoke that morning a message he had proclaimed recently from many pulpits. He spoke of the caring, courage and commitment it takes to be a Christian. He spoke of the dangers and trials he saw in the days ahead for those who would follow the call of Christ. But then he spoke of the faith and hope that was available to all who hear the call and follow the Master. That was the witness of his life.

-Thomas L. Mercer Sr.




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Background photos courtesy of VDOT.

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