Compassionate is one word friends and parishioners use to describe the legacy left by Father Alex Kennedy.
Kennedy died on Friday, Aug. 18, of unexpected health related issues while visiting Tulsa.
Kennedy recently marked his 27th year in the priesthood, having served the St. Elizabeth Catholic Church parish in Grove for the past 20 years.
As friends reflected on Kennedy's impact within the Grove community, multiple stories began to emerge about his compassion - as well as his dry, sarcastic sense of humor and his ability to spar with words on a variety of issues.
For Grove Police Chief Mark Morris, his 20-plus year friendship with Kennedy began, when his former wife left her purse at church.
Kennedy invited Morris to lunch - an act of hospitality which would actively run through his life - and the pair "became fast friends."
Morris estimates the two have shared lunch and or dinner, at least four times a week for the past 10 years - often times with groups of different diners.
From the American Grill and the Summit, to most recently 1909, Morris said Kennedy liked to fellowship during meals because he was a foodie.
Through the meals, Morris said, Kennedy became like an uncle to his two children and an extended member of the Morris family.
"He was like no priest I've ever seen," Morris said. "He really honestly, tried to help out people who were downtrodden or having a hard time.
"He had a big heart for helping people. He would give you the money out of his own pocket - and do so many times. He was compassionate, no matter who you were or your social status."
Morris said Kennedy's friendship blessed him in multiple ways.
"I've met a network of people that he's introduced me to, and gotten to know them very well," Morris said.
For Kelly Sarwinski, Kennedy wore multiple hats. He was not only her priest, but also a work colleague since 2010.
Sarwinski served alongside Kennedy as the administrative assistant and director of religious education and youth ministries.
"He made every single person feel like they were the most important person to him," Sarwinski said. "He made everyone of us feel special. He made all of us feel like number one."
Sarwinski said Kennedy's compassion for people spread to others despite beliefs or denominational status except for one area - politics.
She joked that Kennedy, a former lawyer, could "pick a Facebook fight regarding politics" with the best of them.
"He would get out his lawyer keyboard and rip people to shreds," Sarwinski said. "He talked more about politics than religion on Facebook, because he assumed everyone knew he was religious."
Beyond the pulpit
Todd Merrill, owner of the American Grill restaurant, in Grove, saw a different side to Kennedy.
Merrill said Kennedy would often come into the restaurant for lunch or dinner, up to eight times a week. During this time, Merrill saw Kennedy interact not only with his staff but also his clientele.
"He was a friend to pretty much the entire staff," Merrill said. "He knew everybody by name and was always extraordinarily friendly.
"He was always approachable, open. He was not your typical Catholic priest."
Merrill said when Kennedy learned Merrill's 14-year-old niece began working at the restaurant to save money for a car, he would often slip her a $20 to put towards the bank fund.
Sarwinski said Merrill's experience with Kennedy was common.
"He was the best example of giving to everyone, at any time, anything you had," she said. "People would come to the church needing money for gas, utility payments and he just kept giving.
"When he was asked why, he would say 'because we are supposed to.'
"He would say 'if they take advantage of us, it's between them and God. But we will always give.' He taught me to give anyway, love anyway and ask for forgiveness anyway. And to never turn down a friend for dinner."
Kennedy's giving spirit opened up the door for Dennis and Mary Boyles to step out in faith and become integral members of the Grove Backpack program. The pair serve on the outreach board which provides meals for students within the Grove School District each weekend.
"He loved kids and was a huge supporter of the backpack program," Boyles said. "He loved kids and encouraged Mary and I to get involved."
For the past few years, members of the St. Elizabeth and First United Methodist Church congregations have joined together to host a chili feast to raise funds for the backpack program.
Merrill joked while Kennedy could eat Macaroni and Cheese "pretty much every day" he would often go "off menu" and ask the kitchen to prepare him something unique.
Merrill said he even came up with the sandwich, now knowns as "Father's BLT." In addition to bacon, lettuce and tomato, the sandwich also includes four different types of cheese - made and toasted on panini bread.
"He probably ate it at least four of the eight times he was here a week," Merrell said.
Sarwinski said she was among those who had a standing Wednesday breakfast meeting with Kennedy.
"He never missed a breakfast," she said. "He wanted one on one time with everyone. I'll miss the intimacy of our friendship."
Paul Beyer, the grand knight for the local Knights of Columbus, was part of another weekly lunch group.
"It was sort of his method for keeping in contact with the parish," Beyer said. "I think I'll remember his interesting contrast. He and I were in totally opposite positions politically, but he still expressed a great love and respect [for me].
"I'm going to miss the comradery of those weekly lunch meetings. I've been a lifetime Catholic. I believe this is the first time in my Catholic lifetime, I have such a strong personal relationship with a priest."
People also remember Kennedy's ability to play a practical joke - much to the chagrin of his intended target.
"He liked to come in [to American Grill] and sit down," Merrill said. "Virginia [Flores] would wait on him and walk away from the table.
"He would pull out his cell phone and call the hostess, asking when he would get some service. He was fun to be around. You couldn't always tell if he was serious or joking."
Morris said at times, Kennedy would find himself laughing at the responses to one of his jokes.
"When he would truly laugh, it would light up the room," Morris said. "When he got tickled, it was fun to watch."
During her first week on staff at St. Elizabeth, Sarwinski fell victim to Kennedy's jokes.
By accident, she took home the church's handset for the phone. When she met him in Vinita, she apologized and said she would return the phone.
"He said, 'oh my gosh, the Knights met last night and they noticed the handheld missing. So they reported it stolen to [Detective] Jamie Highly,'" Sarwinski recalled. "He convinced me to call the Grove Police Department and leave messages for Mark Morris and Jamie Highly, to tell them to disregard the property report about the stolen phone.
"The next day, he called me and he could hardly talk, he was laughing so hard. He said 'even if it's the Pope's phone, I don't think it would be something they would call the police about.
"He thought it was the funniest thing, and I fell for his sense of humor. It was so dry and convincing."
Carl Reherman saw Kennedy's humor in action over a meal which included Reherman's two granddaughters.
"We were talking about music - Alex was a big fan of most genres," Reherman recalled. "But he said he didn't care for this disco, the 'Staying Alive' music.
"The twins were sitting on the other end of the table, and they just started doing the John Travolta move from Saturday Night Fever.
"He just laughed and laughed."
Morris said he will miss talking to Kennedy each day, either by phone or text.
"I knew anytime, I could call or get advice from him when I was frustrated," Morris said. "He would always be there listening. He may not have given me the advice I wanted.
"Now that he's gone, it leaves a huge hole. I'll miss the fact that I can't pick up the phone and talk to him."
Merrill said he learned a great deal about compassion from Kennedy - especially the kind for other people, with a non-judgemental attitude, saying it did not matter who a person was, through gender, age, sexual orientation.
"He was very kind," Merrill said. "He was approachable. He was just very easy going."
Sarwinski said she learned to be a better parent through Kennedy, joking that despite the situation, Kennedy always picked her children's side.
"It was a great comfort and balance to respond like that, because maybe I was being too much of a mom and being hard on them," Sarwinski said. "Sometimes I would tell them, 'the only reason you are doing this fun thing, is because Father Alex said so.'"
She also learned lessons concerning peace, love and mercy.
"For him it was a real thing," Sarwinski said. "It was not just something he talked about, but it was something that happened."
Sparring with words
Merrill said Kennedy and Henry VanDam would often get into verbal sparring matches based upon their worldviews - Kennedy a liberal Democrat, and VanDam a conservative Republican.
"It was fun to watch them with each other," Merrill said. "Sometimes it was loud, but it was just fun to watch and it was entertaining."
VanDam jokes their sparring began when Kennedy and his friends "adopted [him in] like a wayward son" and welcomed him to join one of the weekly luncheons at American Grill.
VanDam said in reality, the lively discussions often included Kennedy and Morris. The men even gained a nickname.
"We were by far, the most "Unholy Trio" around," VanDam said with a laugh.
"By far, I'll miss the manner and fun of eating with him and being around him and his full entourage," VanDam said. "We got to be good friends. He was a funny guy."
Morris said while he did not always agree with Kennedy, their differing views helped Morris learn to explore other ideas.
"He forced me to do that," Morris said. "To not see the world as you see it, but through other world points."
Services for Father Kennedy
Services in honor of Father Alex Kennedy will take place in Grove and Tulsa.
Events in Grove
A service of Rosary will take place at 5:30 p.m., Wednesday, Aug. 23, with Mass with Bishop David Konderla at 6 p.m, at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church, 1653 113th St NW, Grove.
Following Mass, a time of fellowship and dinner will take place in the Parish Hall at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church.
Events in Tulsa
On Friday, Aug. 25, visitation and Rosary will take place at 7 p.m., at Holy Family Cathedral on Boulder Avenue between Eighth and Ninth Streets in Tulsa.
Funeral Mass will take place at 11 a.m., Saturday, Aug. 26, also at Holy Family Cathedral in Tulsa.
Directions may be found by visiting: http://holyfamilycathedralparish.com/parish/directions.
More about Kennedy
Father Alex Kennedy served St. Elizabeth Catholic Church parish for more than 20 years.
Kennedy was born in England, at the age of 5, he moved to Canada from Scotland with his parents for one year, before the family relocated to the Port Huron, Michigan area.
At the age of 21, Kennedy moved to Tulsa to complete his undergraduate and later his juris doctorate at the University of Tulsa.
Prior to becoming a priest, he served as an oil and gas attorney in Tulsa.
Kennedy said he came to the vocation of priest late in life, attending seminary after turning 40.
He said as a teenager, he felt a calling to become a minister, but decided to pursue other opportunities.
"I loved working as an attorney and I loved the travel, but I felt like I should be a priest," Kennedy said in 2015, at the time of his 25th anniversary in his ministry. "I had a feeling I needed to do something different for people."
Kennedy said he listed to God's calling and pursued the priesthood.
After attending seminary, Kennedy was ordained to the priesthood on June 1, 1990.
Following his ordination, he served as pastor at Sacred Heart and Assumption parishes in Muskogee, and was an associate pastor at St. Joseph in Muskogee.
He subsequently served as pastor of St. Monica and St. Augustine, both in Tulsa.
For 15 years he served the joint assignment of Holy Ghost in Vinita and St. Elizabeth in Grove. For the last few years, he has served solely served the Grove congregation.
Since he arrived in Grove, the congregation of St. Elizabeth has grown into a multi-generational congregation going from five children to more than 90 within its student ministry.
"It was basically a retirement parish at first," Kennedy said. "Now there are a lot of younger families, professional families and working families.
"I think Grove will continue to grow."
Kennedy counted the growth within the parish, as well as the religious education program, as some of the highlights within his time at Grove.
Kennedy said based his ministry on Matthew 25, which encourages people to serve others.
"We need to take care of each other," Kennedy said. "We are saved by grace. We have on obligation to reach out to others, as Jesus reached out to us. We need to take care of the needs of other people, especially those who are less fortunate."
Kennedy said he strongly believed in the ministry outreach of the Grove Backpack program, a joint ministry of First United Methodist Church and St. Elizabeth Catholic Church.
Members of the two congregations joined forces in the last several years to raise funds for the program, which provides non-perishable meals for students in need within the Grove Public School System.
"The saddest thing for me, is to see a child go hungry," Kennedy said.
Kennedy said his life in Grove was a "well balanced life" with friends, church and his relationship with God.
An expert in bioethics, Kennedy received a certificate from the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia.
He was a member of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and the Society of Law, Medicine and Ethics.
He also served as the chairman of the ethics committee at the Jane Phillips Medical Center in Bartlesville and on the Institutional Review Board for St. John Health System as well as their ethics committee.
Kennedy said he was most influenced by Father James Halpin, a "great priest, reliable, old-fashioned priest, who pastored the church he attended as a seminarian. He said Halpin had a "influenced him greatly."
He said Mark Morris, who serves as Grove's Police Chief, was like his brother, saying he had a lot of acquaintances but considered Morris a "real friend," saying true friendship is hard to come by easily.
At the time of the interview, in 2015, Kennedy said he was reading Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life Kindle Edition by Cardinal Walter Kasper.
Kennedy was reading it because it talked about the importance of mercy and its fundamental nature in a person's life through relationships with others, friends or foe.
"The divine response to the gospel is mercy," Kennedy said. "It's the message of Jesus to be merciful."
Kennedy said it might surprise people to know he liked shooting target practice, especially with his 40 caliber Glock and his 45 caliber Colt 194 semi automatic.
"I just enjoy shooting, more for the sport than protection," Kennedy said.