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Churches: Rector who rebuilt Episcopal parish answers another call

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

The Very Rev. Edward T. Kelaher wasn’t looking to uproot his life and leave behind the church he helped build.

Frankly, he would rather stay in Pawleys Island, where his children and 3-year-old granddaughter would be close, and finish the job he started in 2004 as rector at what is now Christ the King Waccamaw.

But when God told him he was needed somewhere else, he couldn’t say no.

“I’ve been saying no for 8 years,” said Kelaher, 56, mentioning offers he has had from other churches. “I knew I was supposed to stay here.”

Yet he had recently started talking to God about his future. Then the phone rang and he knew he was supposed to accept an offer to lead a church near Washington, D.C.

“I knew with great certainty that I was supposed to go. There was no mistake about it,” Kelaher said.

Neither his parishioners nor his family were happy about the news, but after hearing his reason, they couldn’t argue. One member of the church told Kelaher that, while he doesn’t want to see him leave, he couldn’t respect him if he stayed.

Kelaher gave his last sermon at Christ the King on July 31. Now, he and his wife, Patty, a registered nurse, are packing up to be in Washington by early September.

Kelaher’s first sermon at All Saints Episcopal Church in Chevy Chase, Md., will be Sept. 11, the 10th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

“It will be a landmark day in many ways,” Kelaher said.

When Kelaher took over Christ the King, which met then in the gym at Lowcountry Prep School, his congregation consisted of 38 people who remained in the Episcopal Church after All Saints Waccamaw voted to leave the church, taking the parish property with it.

The split sparked a lawsuit that wound through the state courts and was headed to the U.S. Supreme Court when it was settled last year.

“I think his greatest role here is he turned our parish from a backward looking church to a forward looking church through all the trauma of the last seven years,” said Rick Bruce, senior warden at Christ the King. “It was a very bitter, fractured group and he’s just done an incredible job and helped a lot of people personally along the way.”

Kelaher’s flock has now grown to about 200 and the thriving church has moved into a renovated furniture store, which has been transformed into a traditionally beautiful chapel. The parish recently bought 7 acres on Highway 17 where it plans to build a church.

It never occurred to Kelaher he wouldn’t be part of the construction process.

But there’s no question that Kelaher has left his mark, said Guerry Green, who has been part of the church since it started.

“One thing about our church, we’re relatively small, but for the size of our church, we have always given a lot to the community,” he said.

That’s Kelaher’s influence. Leading by example, he taught the church to look outside itself and help others first.

Green describes Kelaher as “genuine,” and recalled how he didn’t draw a dollar of pay for his first three years as rector.

Growing up in New Jersey, Kelaher always knew he wanted to be a priest, he said, but he started out as a lawyer. He was from an immigrant family and that was their idea of “living the American dream.”

“I climbed their mountain,” Kelaher said. He had a successful practice and won a national award for his pro bono work.

He was 33 when he said God spoke to him and the message was clear: Kelaher was supposed to preach the gospel.

“It has been the greatest joy I could have ever walked into,” Kelaher said. But he still puts his law experience into practice. A major focus of his work as an attorney was helping abused and neglected children, something he still does and will continue to do “as long as I draw breath,” he said.

Kelaher’s law experience gives him a unique perspective according to Bruce.

“He’s able to help people in ways most priests can’t because he has an understanding of the real world beyond the pulpit,” Bruce said. “He’s a unique individual who has touched the lives of countless people way beyond our church.”

Bruce wasn’t a member of the church when Kelaher took over. He and his family first got to know Kelaher when he visited Bruce’s mother, Cynthia, in the hospital while she was battling cancer.

“They immediately bonded,” Bruce recalled.

When Bruce’s mother was released from the hospital, he took her and the rest of his family to one of the church’s services, which were still in the gym. It was the first time Bruce had met Kelaher and he’ll never forget the reaction when the rector spotted his mother.

“He lights up like a light bulb and comes running across the room grinning from ear to ear and gives her the biggest hug, and we’ve got tears running down our eyes,” he said. “I could just see the connection.”

His mother died a year and a half later, but the Bruces kept going to Christ the King and became close friends with Kelaher and his wife.

“He’s a dear man and a dear friend, and he’s done so much for people behind the scenes,” Bruce said.

Kelaher hopes to do the same at his new church, where church officials say they need “a proven and effective leader and builder.” The church is moving “from a period of consolidation and renewed growth to a period of expansion,” both of programs and outreach.

Dozens of candidates, most suggested by parishioners, were interviewed for the job. Kelaher was selected by a committee.

“He was a combination of everything we were looking for,” said Todd Miller, who co-chaired the committee.

The church is currently led by the Right Rev. Edward Salmon Jr., who was bishop of South Carolina and not only received Kelaher into the Episcopal Church, but ordained him as a priest and assigned him to Christ the King.

Salmon is going to a seminary in Wisconsin for two years before retiring back home to St. Louis.

The congregation at Christ the King wanted to give Kelaher and his wife a big send off, said Bruce. They were all “extremely emotional.” But the Kelahers asked them to keep it simple. The church had a pot luck supper for the couple and they were presented with a scrapbook of letters, photos and mementos of their time there.

“I have been blessed by the people who loved me here,” Kelaher said. “I wish I could stay forever, but God is sending us somewhere else and we have to be obedient and go.”

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