Father Ray Kelly glories in the mystery of faith and the way music moves the spirit.
“I’m just an ordinary guy – you know, a priest who likes to sing,” he said Thursday afternoon before singing before a packed St. Timothy Catholic Church.
Kelly is an Irish priest and far from ordinary, as nearly 89 million YouTube fans will attest. Simon Cowell called him “one of my favorites,” after Kelly sang “Everybody Hurts” on “Britain’s Got Talent.”And Kelly’s version of that R.E.M. song – which he performed at St. Timothy — actually saved and transformed one woman’s life.
“After I sang it on television, I got a letter from a viewer who said she was desperate,” Kelly, 70, said. “She told me she had given up on life and had already written a suicide note.
“She turned on the TV, and heard me sing that song. She cried and cried and cried. She wrote me that after hearing me sing that song, she just couldn’t kill herself. She told me I saved her life. She was wrong. The Lord – through me—saved her life.”
Kelly moved through nearly a dozen songs Thursday, with help from Maestro Bill Doherty and the St. Timothy Choir. Both will appear on Kelly’s upcoming Christmas CD, “Awe and Wonder of Christmas,” which comes out Dec. 7.
The set list included his breakthrough number, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which turned him into a YouTube star. He sang it at a wedding Mass he officiated in Ireland. That video led to a record contract with Universal Records and a stint on the Irish version of “Dancing With the Stars.”
Despite all the commercial and media success, what matters most to him is the priesthood.
“I don’t feel I’m performing when I sing at Mass,” the 70-year old priest said in a glistening Irish brogue. “But when I sing for the public, I try to bring a sense of spirituality to my performance.”
That was the case at St. Timothy. Many were in tears when he sang “Everybody Hurts” from the altar. He turned “Hallelujah,” into a spiritual prayer and earned a rousing, emotional standing ovation. Kelly also sang such Irish standards as “Danny Boy,” and “Galway Bay.”
Here is a previous video of him singing “Hallelujah.”
Kelly had more songs on this day in the Villages. “This is a church so I thought we should do some hymns, please feel free to join in,” Kelly said. He was joined by Doherty on “How Great Thou Art,” and “Amazing Grace.”
The Choir offered uplifting versions of “Jesu Joy” and “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands.”
Kelly, who once performed in what could be labeled a “Boy Band,” during his youth, was right at home covering some pop numbers, including “New York New York.” Some of the people were dancing in the isles when he sang that Sinatra standard. He was equally powerful on a Luther Vandross song, “Dance With My Father.”
Kelly, in a way, is a throwback to a traditional Irish priest –straight out of “Going My Way.” Like Bing Crosby in that film, he has a glint in his eye and quick sense of humor.
“Some priests like to golf; some like to fish—me, I like to sing,” he said. He also knows that the music business can be challenging.
“There are a lot of ups and downs,” Kelly said, noting he did not win the talent contest and had his recording contract dropped.
“But that doesn’t bother me, I sing to make people have a sense of peace and joy,” he said.
“Father Ray is an incredible talent, and we’re so proud to be a part of this Christmas album,” Bill Doherty said.
The deal came through after Doherty met with Tracey Coryell, who lives in Oxford and is Kelly’s manager. “We had lunch together to talk about bringing him here,” Doherty said.
Turns out that Coryell’s father –Larry – recently moved to the Villages and is part of the St. Timothy Choir.
“It’s incredible to have all these connections,” Doherty said. “It seems like an angel is watching over us.”
Tracey Coryell says that Kelly, “is a natural singer; he exudes charm. He’s so down to earth and so real, people identify with him. He cares about people and that comes through in his voice and actions. I fell in love with his voice the first time I heard him sing.”
Larry Coryell, her father, said it was a joy to sing in the choir backing Kelly at St. Timothy.
“His music has a way of touching people,” he said. One of those people Thursday was Bernadette Coffman, who grew up with Kelly back in Tyrrellspas, Ireland.
“He was kind of a quiet, nerdy kid but he loved to sing,” she said. “I was kind of surprised when he became a priest; he was in his late 20s. It turned out great, he truly loves being a priest and helping people. And he’s still singing.”
But singing is only part of Kelly’s ministry.
“There’s so much more to him than his beautiful voice,” Doherty said. “There is a spellbinding spiritual energy when he sings, that is both calming and healing.”
Maybe, that’s the way God planned it for Father Ray Kelly.
Tony Violanti covers arts and music for Villages-News.com. He was inducted into the Buffalo NY Music Hall of Fame as a music journalist.