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Singing priest returns to Toledo

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    Father Ray Kelly is a full-time pastor at a parish in County Meath, Ireland. He uses his allotted vacation days to schedule his overseas tour as the ‘singing priest.’

    BARRY MCCALL

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    Father Ray Kelly, the singing priest.

    BARRY McCALL

When Father Ray Kelly stepped up to the altar at his parish church in County Meath, Ireland, in 2014, it wasn’t the first time that he had shared a song while presiding over a wedding.

It wasn’t even the first time that a videographer, hired by a happy couple to document the nuptials, had caught him singing on camera.

It was, however, the first time one of these videos had taken off online. And that’s proved to be an unexpected game-changer for the 64-year-old priest, now a recording artist, who will wrap up the second leg of his “Hallelujah Tour U.S.A.” in Toledo at 7 p.m. Sept. 19.

“I feel like one of the luckiest guys in the world,” Father Kelly said, speaking by phone from his parish in Ireland. “I love being a priest and I love singing.”

Father Kelly remains a full-time pastor in Ireland as he’s ridden the waves of his YouTube fame to recording deals, late-night television appearances and a string of benefit concerts in Ireland and abroad. The “singing priest,” as he’s known online, kicked off the first part of his “Hallelujah” tour in July in an initial performance at the Historic Church of St. Patrick in Toledo. He continued through the end of the month with stops in Cincinnati, San Francisco, and Orlando.

The second leg of the tour, which follows a return to his Irish parish in August, begins Sept. 9 in Marshfield, Mass. Father Kelly returns to Toledo to conclude the tour at the invitation of Maury Collins, a local resident who was instrumental in coordinating that first July concert.

Mr. Collins said he reached out about a “back by popular demand” performance after noticing that the priest’s weeklong September tour schedule would not have had him back in Ireland to celebrate Mass by Sunday, anyway.

Balancing a religious vocation with a performance career hasn’t proved too difficult for Father Kelly, who said he schedules overseas performances during his allotted vacation days. He knows a priest will be available to serve his parish while he’s away. He also said he enjoys the blessing of his bishop, who watched alongside him with interest as the wedding video took off on social media in 2014.

That video racked up more than 50 million views by the time Father Kelly took off for Toledo in July. It catches the bespectacled priest in a personalized rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” that drew a rousing applause from wedding guests.

Father Kelly said he knew the song would be a surprise for the bride and groom, who, in contrast to many of the local couples who would have already been familiar with his ability to carry a tune, did not specifically ask for one.

He also knew, at the time, that he was being recorded, he said. But he didn’t think anything of it until he received an email, a few days later, from the honeymooning couple. They thanked him for a lovely wedding and, as a by-the-way, sent him a link to a video-sharing website that sounded sort of familiar to the priest.

“I’d heard of YouTube just like I’d heard of WiFi, but I wasn’t hugely big into computers or anything like that,” Father Kelly said. “I got a bit of a shock: YouTube, What’s YouTube?”

Even more shocking was the video’s rapidly rising view count.

“About an hour, maybe two hours later, the phone started ringing,” he said.  “‘Father, hey, you’re on Facebook, you’re on Twitter, you’re on YouTube. It’s a thousand hits, it’s 2,000 hits’ and on and on and on like that.”

That popularity came with an overwhelming number of requests for interviews, television appearances, and recording deals. Holy Week, leading up to Easter, came as a conveniently timed excuse for Father Kelly to temporarily keep them at bay.

“Holy Week gave me kind of a respite from the media,” he said with a laugh. “Then the following Monday, Easter Monday, I said, ‘Here I am, You can come at me now again.’

“And they’re still at me,” he joked with a reporter in August.

Father Kelly has since signed on with Universal Music and released two CDs: Where I Belong (2014), which went platinum with more than 40,000 sales, and An Irish Christmas Blessing (2015). While Irish and religious songs stand out on his repertoire, Father Kelly, who has been singing since he was a child and who pursued voice training in Dublin before he entered the seminary, said his musical interests are broader than that.

As a priest, for example, he’s performed in local productions of Broadway-style shows like Fiddler on the Roof and Jesus Christ Superstar. As a seminarian, he was one-fifth of a boy band that initially organized to raise funds for an African aid project.

That’s not to mention the benefit concerts in which he’s participated over the years, including through a Dublin-based group of priests who would sing to raise money for a variety of causes. That group often received an invitation to perform in the United States around St. Patrick’s Day.

That his U.S. tour kicked off in Toledo is largely a scheduling coincidence. It began rolling when a representative of Father Kelly, in coordinating the U.S. tour, reached out to Mr. Collins as president of the Lucas County Ancient Order of Hibernians. Mr. Collins, coincidentally, had just stumbled onto Father Kelly’s viral “Hallelujah” video on Facebook about a week before receiving the text message.

He’d been immediately impressed.

“On most [videos on social media], I’ll watch for a little bit and then kick off,” Mr. Collins said. But on the “Hallelujah” video, “I watched the whole thing and then I watched it a second time.”

Mr. Collins and Father Kelly settled on Historic St. Pat’s as the venue for that initial concert. Father Kelly, who looked up photographs of the church online in advance, said he was “gobsmacked” by its beauty. The concert in July drew an audience of about 600, with ticket sales raising money for Deacon Tom’s Food Pantry at Historic St. Pat’s.

The food pantry serves roughly 75 to 125 people in the 43604 and 43609 area codes each day it’s open, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, said Deacon Tom Carone, who runs his namesake pantry. He said the concert raised an approximately $2,500 that helped buy infrequently donated items.

The upcoming performance will again benefit Deacon Tom’s Food Pantry. Tickets are $10 at the door or, in advance, by contacting the church at 419-243-6452 or Maury Collins at 419-699-6710.

Father Kelly said he’s looking forward to returning to Toledo, where he enjoyed a “warm and friendly” audience and where the Toledo Museum of Art struck him as particularly noteworthy. He and Mr. Collins also stopped by Tony Packo’s to sign a hot dog bun and enjoy a meal.

Mr. Collins said he’s likewise looking forward to the singing priest’s return. The viral video, he said, “as good as it is,” doesn’t compare to a live performance.

“It doesn’t do it justice,” he said.

Contact Nicki Gorny at ngorny@theblade.com or 419-724-6133.

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