Monsignor Kelliher: Pugilist Priest

By Clarence George on December 7, 2015
Monsignor Kelliher: Pugilist Priest
"A tough man, if you got out of hand, he'd pick you up and throw you against the wall."

From 1928 to 1932, he fought first as the “Masked Marvel” and then as the “Red Devil” in Montreal, Toronto, Cleveland, and Buffalo…

“If the ‘sweet science’ has a soul, it comes in the form of individuals such as Monsignor Franklin Kelliher.”—Title Town USA by Mark Allen Baker

Upstate New York can boast its share of tough boxers. There was welterweight Bucky Lawless, who was born in Auburn and fought out of Syracuse, Tony Paul, lightweight from Buffalo (and brother Tommy, a 5’4” featherweight), Babe Risko, Syracuse middleweight, and Joe Banovic, a light heavy born in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, who fought out of Binghamton, as did heavyweight champ Jack Sharkey. There was Len Taglia, Allie George, Joe Matisi, Roosevelt Flagg, Rolly Johns, the DeJohn brothers (“DeJohns don’t lose; they are simply reactivated”), and Billy Backus, not to mention his uncle, Carmen Basilio, as well as Tommy Ryan and Jack Britton. So many Sweet Scientists. That doyenne of fisticuffs, Joyce Carol Oates, for instance, is from Lockport. Focusing exclusively on Buffalonians, in addition to Tony and Tommy Paul, there’s Rocky Fumerelle, Joey Giambra, Jimmy Goodrich, Steve Halaiko, Prentiss Hall, Rocky Kansas (and brothers Kid Kansas and Tony Tozzo), Lee Oma, Lou Scozza, Jimmy Slattery, Art Weigand, Dick Wipperman, and, oh yeah, Monsignor Franklin Kelliher.

Born on May 21, 1904, in Holyoke, Massachusetts, Father attended Holy Cross in Worcester, where he was the school’s heavyweight champ for two years, as well as one of New England’s best amateur fighters of the 1920s.

“Priesthood and pugilism,” writes Mark Allen Baker in Title Town USA, “who would have thought?” Kelliher, that’s who. Ordained in 1930, he was assigned to the Diocese of Buffalo. A friendship with pro wrestler Bibber McCoy resulted in a part-time and highly hush-hush career as a man in tights. From 1928 to 1932, he fought first as the “Masked Marvel” and then (even more unexpectedly) as the “Red Devil” in Montreal, Toronto, Cleveland, and Buffalo. A bout with Sam Cordovano resulted in Father being quite literally unmasked, and Diocesan Bishop William Turner brought Father’s mat career to an abrupt and permanent close. Though he used some of his déclassé dollars for his own and his parents’ benefit, much was put aside to eventually fund the Working Boys Home on Vermont Street (relocated to Busti Avenue following a fire).

In 1936, Monsignor Edmund J. Britt asked Father, who was already an assistant pastor at St. John the Baptist Church and chaplain at both the Eerie County Jail and Morgue, to take charge of the home, a position he’d hold for the next 39 years.

Prior to Father’s directorship, the home was “poorly disciplined,” as Baker describes it. Sportswriter Aaron Lowinger agrees, noting that “it had come to be run by the boys themselves.”

Father wasn’t having any of it.

“His first day on the job,” writes Lowinger, “he threw four boxing gloves down on the tables and offered any boy who resented the change of leadership an opportunity to knock him out of his position. ‘If you lick me, I’ll quit,’ he recalled. ‘If I lick you, you will take orders and obey.’ Kelliher, 36 years old at the time (he was actually 32), stood 6’1” and tipped the scales at 235 pounds. Still, he drew challengers and he managed to keep his job until his retirement in 1975.”

Father’s no-nonsense approach worked wonders, reminiscent of how Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney) handled Bim (Leo Gorcey), Crab (Huntz Hall), and the other Dead End Kids in Angels with Dirty Faces. In fact, as Angels came out two years after Father’s tenure began, perhaps the film’s writers had heard all about his “Little Way,” as St. Therese of Lisieux might put it.

Nor did he mellow with age. In 1969, Father wouldn’t allow a long-haired boxer to fight. “This is my amateur show,” he said, “and no boxer goes on here with long hair. None of our boxers, nor for that matter none of my boys in Boy’s Town, has long hair. It’s against my principles.”

“Kelliher, like many, felt that discipline could be acquired through participation in sports, especially boxing,” writes Baker. “Beginning in 1938, the fifty-boy home would enter a team of boxers in the local Golden Gloves tournament. Boxing shows were also conducted regularly and promoted to generate additional funds.”

Despite, or perhaps because of, Father’s curmudgeonliness (“You wouldn’t want to hear what I think of Elvis Presley,” as William Graebner quotes him in Coming of Age in Buffalo), he got things done, and most people approved of his approach. As David Condon writes in the February 27, 1962, edition of the Chicago Tribune, Monsignor Kelliher “is a regular guy who becomes a friend on the first handclasp,” adding, “Too bad he isn’t a Chicagoan; he’s our kind of people.” Noting that referring to Father as “The Bill Veeck of Golden Gloves boxing” was an inadequate tribute, Condon writes, “He’s spent as many as 15 hours, in one stretch, making a telephone sales pitch on Golden Gloves tickets. During a single day long marathon he took in $3,500 in ticket revenue thru his personalized salesmanship.” Condon includes an amusing and telling anecdote: “On the first night of Buffalo’s Golden Gloves tourney, police ticketed some autos around the Auditorium. From the ring, Monsignor Kelliher announced that he’d be in the lobby after the fights to give the motorists $5 each to pay their fines. That evening he gave out 15 five dollar bills. Alas, he later found police had written only 11 tickets.”

When the Buffalo Courier-Express stopped sponsoring the Golden Gloves in 1960, Father took the sponsorship on himself until poor health forced him to give it up.

In recognition of his efforts and successes, he was inducted into the Golden Gloves Hall of Fame in 1972. Father was also inducted into the Buffalo Boxing Hall of Fame in 2006. Other inductees that year include Big Boy Brackey, an entertaining heavyweight from the 1930s-1940s, promising but undisciplined 1960s welterweight Ted Whitfield, and Danny DiLiberto, aka Dan Toriani, who later became a pro pool player, a lightweight who fought from 1957 to 1959. Said trainer Angelo Dundee, “Danny was a heck of a fighter and whoever I put in front of him he knocked out. If it weren’t for his brittle hands he would have been a champion.”

Lowinger once visited Roy and Jim’s Lackawanna Community Boxing, a gym that’s “long, dank, punctuated by reds and blues, and lined with old fight posters. Cigarette smoke perfumed the air. Young men and boys were scattered throughout the room working at different stations: pounding speed bags, jumping rope, shadow-boxing, doing situps.”

Roy Brasch and Jim Giambelluca remember Monsignor Kelliher well, having fought on many of his cards. “He was a tough, tough man,” said Brasch. “He didn’t take no shit. If you got out of hand, he’d pick you up and throw you against the wall.”

Brasch’s reminiscence reminds me of a passage from Christian Jennings’ memoir of his time in the French Foreign Legion, Mouthful of Rocks, where he writes, “This was the padre assigned to our unit. He wore full combat kit and a large silver crucifix on a chain, which matched his parachute wings… A Spanish recruit I had been playing poker against suddenly started making faces and gesturing behind the Padre’s back, when suddenly, without taking his eyes off the Frenchman to whom he had been talking, the priest jerked his elbow backwards into the Spaniard’s face, slamming him against an oven.” As Catholic historian H.W. Crocker III observes, “Charming, n’est-ce pas? And a reminder that for most people, the faith is best taught by action and example rather than by words.”

As is boxing.

Speaking of setting a good example, did Father and his boys head over to Buffalo’s Broadway Auditorium on January 11, 1937, to see Joe Louis put the kibosh on Steve Ketchel (a replacement for Lou Poster) by second-round KO? It was a Monday, a school night, but dollars to donuts they did.

Boxing’s answer to Father Flanagan died on February 24, 1985, age 80, and is buried at St. Jerome Cemetery in Holyoke.

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  1. Ginny Wallace 12:58pm, 12/11/2015

    Hi Mr. George-
    My name is Ginny Wallace; I am the community relations Director for the catholic Alumni Partnership.  I work in conjunction with the Department of Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Buffalo.  One of my responsibilities is to write the Alumni Newsletter. I would like your permission to reprint this fabulous story and the accompanying photo in my newsletter. I am happy to give you full credit for authorship.  I
    Though I am not a boxing fan, I found the story exceedingly interesting and feel my readers would as well. 
    Please contact me at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)    Thanks!!

  2. Clarence George 08:18pm, 12/08/2015

    Nor me.  I know this elderly gentleman who lives in a shelter.  One day, he unexpectedly asked me if I knew the title of the Western starring Douglas and Quinn.  I did, which brightened his day.  So that’s three of us.

  3. Don Murray 07:45pm, 12/08/2015

    Gun Hill was not under-appreciated by me.

  4. Clarence George 07:01pm, 12/08/2015

    I didn’t know he was in that, but I remember him from “Last Train from Gun Hill,” a rather underappreciated Kirk Douglas/Anthony Quinn Western.

  5. Don Murray 05:55pm, 12/08/2015

    Earl Holliman is another vastly underrated actor. Always spot on, one of my favorites is “God’s Little Acre.”

  6. Clarence George 02:10pm, 12/08/2015

    I came across a story about a criminal who was ordered to complete his sentence at a Capuchin monastery, but ran away to the police begging to be returned to prison, where life was easier.

    Oh, and Mr. Murray, please tell our tall friend that I think he somewhat resembles the Monsignor Kelliher of the 1950s.

  7. Clarence George 06:57am, 12/08/2015

    Thank you very much, Mr. Murray, for your kind words and the link.  Your namesake is a very underrated actor (a bit reminiscent of Earl Holliman), but I’m not a big fan of “The Hoodlum Priest.”  I wonder if Father Clark (a Jesuit!) was as self-righteous as Murray made him out to be.  Also, never could warm up to Keir Dullea.

    Best,

    Ian Bannen

    P.S.  Today is the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (a Holy Day of Obligation), so Monsignor Kelliher is nicely bracketed between St. Nicholas and the Blessed Mother.

  8. Don Murray 04:57am, 12/08/2015

    You might want to watch the trailer of the video in previous comment.

  9. Don Murray 04:56am, 12/08/2015

    Great story, Mr. George. Here is a link to another priest who was good with his hands but not involved in boxing. You never know the man beneath the collar. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054991/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

  10. Clarence George 10:55am, 12/07/2015

    And my badger brush, Mike!

    Thanks very much, Peter, glad you liked it.  Yeah, Ted Whitfield is not a name that comes up too often these days.  I think he died a few years ago.

    You’re absolutely right, Eric, about Sergio Benitez.  There was even a movie based on him a few years ago, starring Jack Black.  All respect to Father Flanagan, but his “There’s no such thing as a bad boy” was inexcusably naive.  It wasn’t true then, and it’s certainly not true now.

  11. Eric 10:31am, 12/07/2015

    Mike…Just googled up some info. A newspaper out of Indianapolis ran an article about a “troubled lad” being given another chance in life by going to Boys Town in Omaha. Manson would run away from Boys Town after a few days and wind up back in an Indiana reform school.

  12. Mike Casey 10:05am, 12/07/2015

    Perhaps a good thing, Eric!

  13. Eric 09:47am, 12/07/2015

    Mike… I think Charlie was only there for a matter of days if I’m not mistaken.

  14. Mike Casey 09:38am, 12/07/2015

    Manson and Boys Town together does indeed boggle the mind!

  15. Eric 08:54am, 12/07/2015

    Sergio Benitez was a Mexican priest who used to wrestle to support an orphanage. Sports Illustrated ran an article on the guy back in the day. One guy that Father Flanagan’s Boys Town never quite turned around was some guy named Charles Manson. Manson was sent to Boys Town when he was 14 years of age, I believe Crazy Charlie’s stay in Boys Town wasn’t long at all, can’t remember if he ran away or was sent away.

  16. peter 08:33am, 12/07/2015

    Ted Whitfield! Haven’t heard that name in years!...I think Clarence George is the current patron saint of retired boxers, not St. Nicholas. Excellent article!

  17. Mike Casey 07:51am, 12/07/2015

    Very happy to stick with my razor and foam, Clarence!

  18. Clarence George 07:33am, 12/07/2015

    By the way, yesterday was the feast day of St. Nicholas, patron of boxers.  Just sayin’.

  19. Clarence George 07:15am, 12/07/2015

    Thanks very much, Mike.  Yeah, I’m not really sure how I find some of these characters.  With the Monsignor, at least, there was plenty of info.  A refreshing change.

    Very much my kind of priest, as well.  Used to be the norm (though Monsignor Kelliher is almost certainly unique in that he was also a pro wrestler; that’s him in the photo), but there still a few like him.  When I went to Confession one time, Father was so taken aback (I won’t go so far as to say disgusted) that I thought he was going to come around and wallop me.  Fortunately, he settled for having me pray the rosary instead.

    Not surprised by the action of the military chaplain, as the French Foreign Legion is unbelievably tough (some would say brutal).  If you neglect to shave, for instance, they’ll do it for you—with a lighter.  I knew a former Legionnaire.  Very surprising, as he didn’t seem at all the type.

  20. Mike Casey 06:37am, 12/07/2015

    Deep into the murky night, Mr George trawls the archives (and the odd cemetery) for the likes of Franklin Kelliher. Well, Clarence, I’m not deeply religious, but this man I like. Would love to have been there when he delivered that elbow smash. Keep ‘em coming, author!

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