NEWARK — When Father Mark Kelleher was a student at Temple University and seriously entertained the thought of a priestly vocation for the first time, one thing was clear.
“I did not want to do diocesan priesthood. I wanted a religious community, a religious order,” he said earlier this week.
Naturally, Father Kelleher was eventually ordained for the Diocese of Wilmington, and in October he will celebrate 20 years of priesthood. But the line from his native Kennett Square, Pa., to his current position as pastor of Holy Family Parish in Newark was anything but straight.
He grew up in a faithful Catholic family, but they were not very involved with their parish. He got involved in the Newman Center at Temple, and the chaplain there was the first priest he got to know on a personal level. He interviewed with the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales and happened to visit the Trappist monastery in Spencer, Mass.
“When I was there, I thought, this is what I was looking for,” he said.
After graduating with a degree in music education, Father Kelleher worked for a year on a mushroom farm in Kennett Square, then entered the Trappists. He stayed for four years, going through the novitiate and two years of simple profession.
“Then it was time to go,” he said. “Circumstances led me to decide that that wasn’t it. So I returned home to Kennett Square. I began to meet some diocesan priests from Wilmington, and that led me to apply to the diocese for seminary.”
Despite his experience with the Trappists, Father Kelleher spent five years studying and discerning at Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.
“It was good that I did the full five years because I needed the five years of real discernment,” he said.
The Trappists are a cloistered, contemplative order, very different from other religious congregations or the diocesan priesthood. Father Kelleher, 54, said he needed the five years to sort everything out and make sure he was making the correct decision.
“For me, it was a year-by-year discernment process,” he said.
He was ordained by Bishop Michael A. Saltarelli in 1996 and served as an associate at St. Mary Magdalen in Wilmington and Holy Angels-St. John the Baptist in Newark before being appointed the pastor of Our Mother of Sorrows in Centreville, Md., and its mission, St. Peter in Queenstown.
He enjoyed his 10 years on the Eastern Shore. His parish was a mix of native farmers and other rural folks, government workers who traveled each day to Washington, D.C., and professionals who crossed the Chesapeake Bay to Baltimore for work.
In 2014, he was transferred to Holy Family, “much busier than Centreville was. A larger parish, a larger staff.” He brought with him his two dogs and cat, but they spend a lot of time at his parents’ house.
A few young people have asked him about the diocesan priesthood or, when they find out about his previous vocation, the Trappists. If they are still in middle or high school, he encourages them to continue in school. He refers all of them to the vocations office and gives them this advice:
“They should get a degree and live a little bit, experience that time of life. If the desire is still there, then pursue it.”