During one of World War I's many horrific battles in France, an American was blown 30 feet backwards by an enemy shell that exploded nearby. He got to his feet and marched forward, as many other men did.

The only difference is that the man was Rev. Francis A. Kelley, a priest of the Albany Diocese who was serving as a military chaplain.

Father Kelley's bravery and concern for Doughboys are about to be saluted by Rensselaer County, which is adding him to its Hall of Heroes, thanks to Paul Coffey of East Greenbush. The hall honors outstanding people who did extraordinary things.

Mr. Coffey found Father Kelley without knowing he was looking for him. A recent retiree from IBM, Mr. Coffey had more time for one of his favorite hobbies: "I'm an amateur historian on Albany and its environs," he told The Evangelist.

One day, he and other history buffs were identifying Civil War veterans interred in St. Agnes Cemetery in Menands. While there, they decided to look for medal winners from other wars. One of them was Father Kelley, so Mr. Coffey decided to research the priest's life.

Likeable hero
"The more I looked," he recounted, "the more I liked him. He was a local hero who did so much but was, as far as I could tell, virtually forgotten."

Mr. Coffey decided that Father Kelley deserved to be in the Hall of Heroes because of "his dedication to Troy: the seminary in Troy, St. Mary's parish and Washington Park." When the priest's WWI military chaplaincy was added to his resume, Mr. Coffey said, "his national prominence made him a shoo-in" for the museum.

A native of Cohoes who had been stationed in Cairo, Troy, Fort Edward and Gloversville, Father Kelley performed the everyday tasks of all priests. But, when WWI broke out, he served soldiers of the 27th Division in France, an experience that earned him the nickname "the Fighting Chaplain."

'Fighting Chaplain'
Amid battles, Father Kelley raced to fallen men to carry them out of harm's way and give them the last rites. Three times, he was the victim of gas attacks, which left his lungs permanently damaged. One dying soldier scolded the priest for exposing himself to danger.

"For God's sake," the man said, "get back of the lines. The men need you." In response, Father Kelley gave him water. Just before dying, the serviceman said, "You're some priest."

The chaplain had the same admiration for soldiers. "None of them," Father Kelley once said, "was ignorant...of the danger in which he stood. Too many around them were falling, victims of shells, of gre­nades, machine guns and rifles."

Before each battle, Father Kelley said, he "found the lads not only willing, but anxious, to make their peace with their God above" and praying for Him "to guard them, guide them and protect them."

The priest considered his time amid battles "a happy privilege" because he was able to minister "to hundreds of the wounded and dying....As for the attitudes of the American soldier toward the chaplain, I can say that [he] is much beloved by his men because...their trials [are] his trials, their joys his joys, and their sorrows his sorrows."

Many honors
Father Kelley's fame spread beyond France. The New York Times saluted his "coolness, bravery [and] esteem for the men." Great Britain's King George V gave Father Kelley the British Military Cross. The U.S. Army honored him with the Distinguished Service Cross, bestowed by General John J. Pershing.

The medal's citation told how Father Kelley was "constantly at the front caring for the wounded and supervising the burial of the dead, often under heavy shell and machine-gun fire."

After 18 months in the military, the priest returned to America and resumed his pastoral duties. He also became the first national chaplain of the American Legion.

In 1931, Father Kelley died at the age of 43, perhaps due to the gas attacks he had experienced. The New York National Guardsman magazine eulogized him: "All who knew him and the splendid work he did will deeply and reverently mourn his passing."

Revered by rabbi
The magazine recognized him as a priest who was "respected and revered by Jew and Gentile alike," due to his "most magnetic personality, endowed with a wondrous gentility." Agreement came from Rabbi Lee Levinger, executive director of the Young Men's Hebrew Association in New York City, who had served with Father Kelley in France.

"I could never have accomplished one-half of the work I did," the rabbi said, "without the constant friendship and hearty support of such co-workers as Father Francis A. Kelley....I have seen Father Kelley on the battlefield,...always most eager to be with the boys when the danger was the greatest, always cheerful, yet always a priest, doing the noble work which won him his medals and his popularity."

Father Kelley's plaque is scheduled to be unveiled on June 14, Flag Day.