Route 66 ghosts: Joliet’s Father Kellen Ryan of Victory Center

The Carmelite fathers and friars have a significant presence in suburban Chicago and in Joliet.  They have a priory on the old Smart-Madden estate in Darien in the Maddens’ former summer home, Castle Eden, as well as a local parish there (Our Lady of Mt. Carmel), a shrine to St. Therese of Lisieux (aka the Little Flower), a senior citizens’ residence, and a retreat center.  In Joliet, they once managed St. Mary Carmelite Parish downtown as well as Joliet Catholic High School at 29 N. Broadway St., up on the upper bluff west of the Des Plaines River.  And it’s at that former high school and the building called the Victory Center that the ghost of a Carmelite priest and practical joker made its presence felt.

First, the background.  St. Patrick Parish is the oldest Catholic parish in Joliet.  The church’s original location was on Broadway near Jefferson Street.  Once a newer church was built further west on the upper bluff, the old church building and parish hall remained.  Around 1917, Cardinal Mundelein of Chicago directed the Christian Brothers to renovate the old parish hall and found De La Salle High School for boys on the premises.  The school opened in 1918 with only two classrooms.  A new school building overlooking Bluff Street was built in 1927.  That same year, De La Salle won the national high school basketball championship, the first of many titles the school’s teams would win during the following decades, beginning a sports tradition that led to the renaming of the renovated parish hall as the Victory Center.  Its tall spire can still be seen to the southwest from downtown Joliet and the path of historic Route 66.

 

 
Like many local institutions, including St. Mary Parish downtown, De La Salle suffered financially during the Great Depression and was taken over by the Carmelites in 1933 at the behest of the Archbishop of Chicago.  The Carmelites promptly renamed the school Joliet Catholic High School.  The following year, 1934, Joliet Catholic won the National Catholic Basketball Championship, setting the stage for its future reputation in high school sports.

Born William Ryan in 1939, our ghost-to-be entered the Carmelites’ High School Preparatory Seminary in Niagara Falls, Ontario in 1953 at age 14.  Two years later, he transferred with his entire class to the Carmelite school in Hamilton, MA.  It was during his senior year that he was given the religious name Kellen.  After earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in history from St. Bonaventure (Franciscan) University, he was ordained a priest May 27, 1965.  In 1966, the fun-loving young Carmelite arrived at Joliet Catholic and proceeded to make a name for himself as a happy trickster.  With his good humor, Father Ryan was soon famous with the students.

That sense of humor could test his fellow friars’ patience at times.  One oft-retold anecdote about Father Ryan tells of one night when he raised the alarm in the middle of the night, saying that a priest had been beaten up and was now resting in the rectory.  When the other friars hurried over to the rectory, they found it bedecked with party goods.  “He just wanted a party,” said the Rev. Kevin McBrien, O.Carm., a former faculty member at Joliet Catholic now living in North Hollywood, CA..  “He was very down to earth, very personable. … You can see why perhaps many hoped his spirit lives on.”

According to Father McBrien, Kellen Ryan was also a bit of a good-natured maverick.  He remembered one summer when Father Ryan took it into his head to become a truck driver.  He’d drive his truck all day, then belly up to the bar after work for a drink or two with the other drivers (presumably, this ended when the school year began in the fall).

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The popular Father Ryan eventually became dean of the school.  Alas, the charming young priest only lasted six years at Joliet Catholic before his life came to a premature, unfortunate end.  The following account was given to Joliet Herald-News reporter John Foley and published on Oct. 31, 1988:

… On Saturday, March 5, 1972, Father Kellen prepared to visit his parents in Chicago.  The Rev. John Knoernschild, OFM approached him to say goodbye.  “Have a nice time,” Knoernschild said.

Early the next morning, on Sunday, March 6, Father Kellen apparently fell asleep at the wheel of his car as he was driving back to Joliet.  At about 4:10 am, his car left McCarthy Road near Lemont and struck a garage, a tree, and the telephone pole.  His car erupted into flames, and Father Kellen was killed.  He was 33 years old.

The legend of Kellen Ryan’s ghost was born the same day the man died.  As Knoernschild walked down the hall that evening, the jukebox in the cafeteria began to play a rock ’n’ roll song.  “It went on real loud,” Knoernschild recalled, “and I thought, ‘Now, who is in there?’  And I went to check.”

The jukebox was playing, but no record was on the turntable.  He immediately thought of Kellen Ryan, who often used to turn the jukebox on when he was in the cafeteria.

On April 6, a month to the day after Father Kellen’s death, the dean who replaced him, Mike Nadeau, reported seeing the ghost of Kellen Ryan in his bedroom during the night.  He said the ghost, dressed in a Carmelite habit, was sitting at a nearby rocking chair.  Was it a dream?  Nadeau is open to that possibility.  But he did get up the next morning and find the March 7 issues of the Herald-News – which contained Father Kellen’s obituary – lying on the floor, although he never kept newspapers more than a week.  He also noticed that his clock had stopped at 4:10 am, the approximate time of Kellen’s death.  “I’m very open to the fact that it might have been a ghost,” said Nadeau, now principal of a school in western Illinois. …

The ghost of Father Kellen also seems to get around.  On the 7th anniversary of his death, for example, an organ at the Carmelite Hall in Washington, DC reportedly began playing by itself shortly before the 5:00 pm vespers service. …

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Other Carmelites at Joliet Catholic reported sightings of Father Ryan over the years.  Both the Rev. Lucas Schmid. and the Rev. Bernhard Bauerle on separate occasions reported seeing a hooded Carmelite figure sitting at the foot of their beds at night that then revealed itself to be the spirit of Kellen Ryan, who reassured each in turn that everything was all right and he himself was fine – then disappeared.  In Father Bauerle’s case, the appearance was in 1977, about five years after Father Ryan’s demise.

A janitor remembers being so busy one night with his chores on the third floor of the old building that he only half noticed figure in a Carmelite habit approaching him with the cowl raised.  That wasn’t unusual, given that the faculty was Carmelite.  As the figure walked past him, the janitor said: “Good evening, Father.”  The friar mumbled something in return and continued down the hall, at which point the janitor realized he hadn’t heard any footsteps.  Surprised, he turned and stared after the figure, which also turned around and looked back at him – but there was no face inside the hood.  And then the figure vanished.

There were also several occasions on which the lights in Father Ryan’s former classroom, Room 306, would come on spontaneously during the wee hours of the morning when no one was there.  The friars would go up to the classroom, turn out the lights, lock the door and leave, only to see the lights flicker on again before they had moved more than a few steps down the hall.

The old Victory Center building was the former church and parish hall for St. Patrick's, remodeled into a high school around 1917.  Joliet Central High School made its home there until 1990.

The old Victory Center building was the former church and parish hall for St. Patrick’s, remodeled into a high school around 1917.  Joliet Central High School made its home there until 1990.

March 6, 1982 was the 10th anniversary of Father Ryan’s death, and it did not go unobserved at Victory Center.  Early before dawn that morning, there was a loud, incessant knocking at the priory’s back door, which then switched to the doorbell ringing repeatedly.  When a priest finally hurried down to answer, he found no one there.  A living person might have been responsible, of course, but the priest who answered the door noted the absence of foot prints in the snow.  Besides, it was 4:10 am – Kellen’s hour.

You might say the merry prankster developed a following at the school.  While the school remained on Broadway, seniors used to be invited to spend the night locked in the building on the anniversary of Kellen Ryan’s death.  One year, the burglar alarm went off in a room on the other side of the building that used to be Father Kellen’s office – and the phenomenon repeated for the next two years.

As many as 100 students would gather for the ‘Kellen watch’ evenings to play sports in the gym, eat pizza and tell ghost stories about the priest.  “We’d go over the stories,“ said Father John Comerford, “and the students would make enough noise to wake the dead.”  However, the gatherings ended during the mid-1980s when Comerford was transferred to a school in California.

In 1990, the all-male Joliet Catholic High School merged with the all-female St. Francis Academy, operated by the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis, and became Joliet Catholic Academy (JCA).  At that time, the Joliet Catholic High students moved to the St. Francis Academy campus at 1200 N. Larkin Ave., in the NW section of Joliet, where members of both religious orders teach the students to this day.

Lookng south at the Cass Street Bridge, you can see over to the far right, just above the horizon, the pillared tower of Victory Center, the former home of Joliet Catholic High School.  (Photo copyright 2014 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved)

Lookng south at the Cass Street Bridge across the Des Plaines River, you can see over to the far right, just above the horizon, the pillared tower of Victory Center. This is the former home of Joliet Catholic High School. (Photo copyright 2014 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved)

The Victory Center was eventually sold to a nursing home/assisted living facility chain, which kept the name, and the memory of Father Ryan began to fade among the students and faculty of JCA.  But the friendly ghost made a few more appearances even after the students had left.  The Will County Ghost Hunters Association reportedly gained access to the property to investigate those reports and took photos with both flash and night vision devices.  One image obtained during the investigation appeared to be a person looking off to the left with his arms crossed.  A distinctive chin and nose were visible.  Some folks thought the figure appeared to wear a Carmelite robe with its hood drawn.

No further sightings have been heard of since the property became the Victory Centre of Joliet, an assisted living facility for senior citizens.  Perhaps the kindly priest didn’t want to frighten any of the elderly residents into a heart attack.  Will the spirit of the jolly Carmelite ever return to the old Victory Center now that his former classroom and office are gone?  Nobody knows.  Perhaps a vigil is in order.  We’d recommend holding it on March 6th, 2016 – that will be the 50th anniversary of Father Kellen Ryan’s death.  If ever a festive event were called for, it’d be on a 50th anniversary.  Maybe he’ll show up with party favors.

 
Until next time,
your spooky storyteller, Marie

 

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