Legendary Trappist Fr. Matthew Kelty dies

Legendary Trappist Fr. Matthew Kelty dies February 21, 2011

Another tall tree in the forest has fallen.

I had the good fortune of hearing Fr. Matthew Kelty preach several times at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.  He usually gave talks in the evenings for people in the retreat house, and his delightful, poetic, stream-of-consciousness ramblings, delivered in that melodious and ancient Bostonian voice, were wondrously soothing.  He would lumber into the chapel with thick file folders of faded clippings and scribblings and notes — some of them, his own poems, or fragments of poems by others — and just sift through them, talking about nothing in particular, until something caught his eye and captured his imagination, and then he was off and running.

Now comes word today that this great old monk, who knew and lived with Thomas Merton, has died at the age of 95.


The Rev. Matthew Kelty, perhaps the most public face of the Abbey of Gethsemani since the death of renowned author Thomas Merton, died Friday and will be buried Monday afternoon.

He was 95 and was “lucid and interested up to the last” before dying during a midday nap, said the monastery obituary.

Kelty published several books and, for many years, spent hours each day counseling people who had come on retreat to the remote Roman Catholic monastery in Nelson County, Ky.

Until he was recently slowed by age, Kelty gave nightly devotional talks to retreatants. Speaking in a crisp South Boston accent that contrasted with the immediate surroundings of rural Kentucky, he mixed his own observations with a sampling of poetry and prose by other writers.

“The community of Gethsemani is saddened today by the loss of its eldest member,” the monastery obituary said. “He spent the morning talking with community members who dropped in to see him. … Several community members, including Abbot Elias, were with him when he died.

“They don’t make them like him anymore, and we’re poorer for it,” said filmmaker Louisville Morgan Atkinson, who produced a documentary on Kelty in 2005, “Poetry of a Soul.”

Kelty long served as chaplain of the monastery’s guest house, even as age left him stooped and his hair nearly as white as his robe. He kept regular hours there, counseling anyone who wanted a listening ear.

Widows, divorcees, “troubled people and happy people” came to see him, Kelty said in a 2005 interview with The Courier-Journal. They ask about how to deepen their prayer life, how to deal with loneliness, how to forgive others — or themselves — for past offenses.

“In an active world, people keep busy,” Kelty said. “They keep the radio on and the TV on. A place like this is quiet. You can’t hide anything.”

Read more hereEternal rest grant unto him, O Lord …

Meantime, below is a video of one of Kelty’s talks.  His topic: Merton.

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9 responses to “Legendary Trappist Fr. Matthew Kelty dies”

  1. A faithful Trappist, a great priest, a gifted writer, an inspired spiritual master, a remarkable man. May he rest in peace.

  2. In August of 1973 I spent a few days at the small hermitage (in North Carolina, if memory serves) where Fr. Matthew was stationed. Since he was also the Work Master, one afternoon I was assigned the job of burning assorted notebooks and papers that he was in the process of clearing out. I have thought of it every now and then. The news of his death is one of those nows. Fr. Matthew told me that they held notes from his novicemaster’s talks during his novitiate at Gethsemani. Fully aware of who Thomas Merton was, I nonetheless followed the Work Master’s wishes. I think I must have offered some protests, but it never occurred to me to save or rescue the notes. Fr. Matthew was convinced that the time had come to leave them behind and who was I to argue? Having lived long enough and had the chances to leave many of my own ‘notes’ behind, I fully understand. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. He is heaven’s novice now. Rest in peace, faithful monk.

  3. In Morgan Aktinson’s documentary about Thomas Merton, one of the scholars interviewed said of Merton’s death. “That flame has gone out. Who is the next flame,” or something to that effect. I remembered that quote when I heard of Fr. Kelty’s death.

  4. I was blessed to hear him give his post-Compline reflections on a number of occasions. Of course, his perspective on the spiritual life was intriguing and very helpful.

    Certainly I’ll also remember that thick Bostonian accent–and the cowboy boots that he would wear under his habit, at least for while when I had the chance to hear him.

  5. Men like this. I should have surrounded myself with them years ago.
    The messages that they have, needs to be drawn into our parishes with accuracy and consistancy of their message. This will take more and more men and woman open to this call. Maybe I’m wrong, but from the mid 40’s to the 70’s there was a sort of brain drain from our parishes from all the resignations of our religious. Our elementary level and secondary catholic school system obviously has suffered. These were the people who created such talent in our church. Without them I have a hard time believing we will ever see again what we have had.
    I’m not beliddling all of the influx that we currently have and certainty need and I’m grateful. I just can’t help but to wonder about qaulity over quantity. And I’m a realist when it comes to, especially in some dioceses, that beggers can’t be choosers. But if we are serious about wanting to create a better future for our church, this necessarily means having our children influenced by these great teachers, we have to provide the enviornment for this influence to become real in our parishes again. Leadership from the orders is essential not optional.

  6. Was next to him at Mass for his 95th last November; I do
    my annual retreat at the Abbey T’giving week. Was there for his 9Oth also nd heard his famous evening meditations over the years until he gave that up. A wise spiritual giant.

  7. Never heard of Fr. Matthew Kelty until this article, but just looking at the picture of him makes me think he was a kind and gentle man who served his God well as a Monk. He will be an asset in his new home.

  8. On visiting the Abbey of Gethsemani in August 2010 I would have the permission and privilege of meeting this wise man.
    He had a wonderful sense of humor and a gift for insight. You could feel the presence of a mystic. After our private conversation and his wise guidance he then said the Our Father with me in Latin, blessed me and sent me on my journey with the words “remember God is writing your story.” May the gates of Heaven swing open for Father Mathew Kelty.

  9. I haven’t made a retreat at Gethesemani for many years….
    But the solitude, peace, and honesty of such an awesome place still follows me. THANK YOU to Father Matthew for his life-living words of wisdom.

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