TAMPA — The Rev. Michael Kennelly, an Irish immigrant who played a major role in the history of Jesuit High School, died Jan. 3 in New Orleans. He was 96, the oldest priest in the Jesuits' New Orleans province, which stretches from New Mexico to South Carolina.
Under his leadership, the school founded in 1899 moved from its downtown Tampa location to Himes Avenue, on what was then rural land.
"He bought the land back when everybody thought it was a crazy thing to do, because nobody would ever take their kids there," said Richard Gonzmart, a 1971 Jesuit graduate who owns the Columbia Restaurant.
Father Kennelly left Tampa Jesuit to found another high school in Houston, then served four years as president of Loyola University in New Orleans before returning to Tampa.
"He was a visionary," said Father Richard Hermes, Jesuit's president. "He was a man who had a deep conviction in what his purposes were, knew the mission of the school and always had his eyes on the goal."
Considered a legend by many, Father Kennelly tackled his largest tasks with an approachable demeanor, friends say.
"He was just a regular guy," said former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco. "Take the collar off, and you would never know he was a priest."
He spoke with a thick Irish accent and was a good storyteller.
"Whenever you were saying goodbye to Father Kennelly, he would always reply with, 'Keep the faith,' " said David Agliano, who owned the Valencia Garden Restaurant.
Agliano, 54, recalled an incident that brought Father Kennelly's character into sharp relief. Agliano wanted Father Kennelly to baptize his children in Agliano's church.
The church refused because Father Kennelly, a Jesuit, did not belong to the Diocese of St. Petersburg.
"I called father and he said, 'When do you want it done?' " Agliano recalled. Agliano gave him a date.
"You show up and I'll be there," Father Kennelly replied.
The baptism went off without a hitch — in the same church that had refused permission.
The incident was typical of Father Kennelly, who plowed through obstacles without fear or bluster.
Michael Kennelly was born in Kilbaha, Ireland, on May 22, 1914, just before the outbreak of World War I.
He immigrated to the United States in 1929 and graduated from a New York high school in 1933.
He spent the next 20 years equally dividing his time between postgraduate studies and leadership of Jesuit high schools, including his first teaching stint at Tampa Jesuit from 1940 to 1943.
Antoinette Midili, who used to answer phones at the adjacent Sacred Heart Church downtown, said she used to tease Father Kennelly for his stern demeanor with students.
"I said, 'Those poor boys are scared of you the way you talk,' " said Midili, 85.
At the same time, she said, "If you needed him, it seemed like he was always there."
He was ordained a priest in 1946 and returned to Tampa Jesuit as president in 1953.
By then, the school founded in 1899 had outgrown its downtown location at Florida Avenue and Madison Street.
Father Kennelly raised the money for the $600,000 school and additional properties of both sides of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, pulled the permits and designed the campus with St. Anthony's chapel at its center.
Along the way, he befriended everyone from construction workers to contractors. "He baptized their children," said Hermes. "He had a knack for being a part of their lives."
He left Jesuit in 1959 and founded Strake College Preparatory School in Houston. He served as Loyola's president from 1970 to 1974.
He spent a decade at Sacred Heart Church in Tampa, adjacent to the old Jesuit campus. He returned to Tampa Jesuit as vice president from 1990 to 1997, then went back to Sacred Hart as pastor emeritus.
He retired in 2002 and moved to a Catholic assisted living facility in New Orleans, where he died.
"If you live 96 years, and you touch as many lives as that man did, you've done your job," said Greco.
A memorial service at Tampa Jesuit on Thursday, in St. Anthony's Chapel, will allow friends and former students to say goodbye — or "keep the faith," as the case may be.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.