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OBITUARY: Father James J. Melley, 74

All he ever wanted was to serve in the priesthood

MIAMI | His brothers went into sales, insurance and electrical work. For his sister, it was nursing. But Father James J. Melley wanted only one future: the priesthood.

And he got his wish, becoming an archdiocesan priest in 1977 -- three decades of ministry that took him to two coasts, and even aboard a famed battleship.

Father Melley died of a heart attack in the Los Angeles area on July 1. He was 74.

"He wanted to be a priest since he was 6 years old," recalled his brother, Joseph. "All of his interest was in that."

Born in Baltimore in 1944, Father Melley moved with his family to downtown Miami the following year. His mother, Mary, ran a boarding house. His father, Lawrence, converted a garage into a grocery store, where he helped out along with his two brothers.

Father James Melley, who died July 1, 2018, served four churches in South Florida.

Photographer: Jim Davis

Father James Melley, who died July 1, 2018, served four churches in South Florida.

As a child, Father Melley was already known for his good-natured ways, said his brother Joseph, 87. "We never had an argument. He was just a great, easygoing brother."

His calling, however, was to a different realm than groceries. Joseph remembers Father Melley often attending Mass at Gesu Church — even saying pretend Mass as a child. Aside from piano lessons, he had few other interests, brother Joseph said.

"He always talked about [the priesthood]," Joseph said. "He was always interested in church, religion and God."

Bolstering that desire was a religious education: He attended Sts. Peter and Paul Elementary School, then Gesu Junior High School, then Archbishop Curley High School. He also earned a degree in English at the University of Miami.

The young man who would become Father Melley continued to help at the downtown Gesu Church, Joseph recalled. "He got me to drive a school bus, and we picked up Cuban kids to go to Mass and catechism. And he got all the kids on the bus singing."

He did a stint in the Navy and briefly tried religious life before finally taking the plunge and entering St. Vincent De Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach. He became a priest on May 14, 1977 — one of the last to be ordained by Miami's founding Archbishop Coleman F. Carroll, who died in July that year.

The new priest served as associate pastor at Immaculate Conception Church, Hialeah, from June 14, 1977 to July 29, 1980; St. Anthony in Fort Lauderdale until Jan. 7, 1981; St. Agnes in Key Biscayne until March 1, 1982; and Holy Spirit in Lantana ending June 14, 1984.

In 1983, however, Father Melley sensed another calling: the U.S. Navy. "He saw the need for chaplains," brother Joseph said. Archbishop Edward McCarthy, Miami's second archbishop, counseled him to wait a year; then, when he was convinced the call was genuine, he released Father Melley to serve there.

Father Melley served at sites including the World War II-era battleship U.S.S. New Jersey and the U.S. Marine base at Camp Pendleton, California. He also ministered to the Cuban "balseros" being held at the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo during the mid-1990s. He rose to the rank of commander but developed asthma and, in 2000, after retiring from the Navy, was granted permission to minister in California.

He never returned to Florida, instead living in an apartment in Burbank. He ministered at St. Cyril, St. Charles Borromeo and elsewhere in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He retired from fulltime ministry on Nov. 1, 2009.

He did visit family in Florida occasionally. On those visits, he occasionally said Mass at Nativity Church in Hollywood, the family parish, brother Joseph said.

Besides Joseph, Father Melley's surviving relatives include 12 nephews and five nieces.

A funeral is planned for July 21 at St. Charles Church in North Hollywood. Father Melley's family in South Florida also plans a Mass at Nativity, although no date has been set yet.

This article has been updated with additional material since it was orginally posted.

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