Hadji Shabbazz, aka Tommy Williams, the 1958 CYO 118-pound champion, works out at CYO’s boxing gym in the basement of the Mission of Our Lady of Mercy.
In 1955, when Bishop Sheil stepped down, he had an amateur sports juggernaut on his hands. Seeking a tough-minded successor with a passion for boxing and social welfare, he tapped none other than Fr. Kelly to take his place as head of the CYO. Fr. Kelly accepted the position with vigor.
“Athletics represents the finest character development program in the world. One learns the fundamentals of life, the principals [sic.] of justice, according to the rules, and courage, despite adversity,” he told the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1954. “That’s why we’re going to continue the program to the best of our ability. We are carrying on the great Bishop Sheil’s work.”
First on Fr. Kelly’s to-do list: decentralize the CYO’s activities and broaden their scope.
“Our 1955 athletic program for youth will be bigger and better than ever,” Fr. Kelly told the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1954. “We intend [on] taking our various activities directly to the boys in parishes in all sections of the Chicago archdiocese.”
This agenda shifted the CYO’s main boxing gymnasium to the basement of the Mission of Our Lady of Mercy. Fr. Kelly also established satellite CYO gymnasiums on the north, south, and west sides, in effort to increase the number of contestants in various competitions. His plan showed results: CYO teams won Chicago’s Golden Gloves team title for five consecutive years, from 1955 to 1960. Father Kelly ran the CYO for ten years, until 1965.
During the late 1950s and 1960s, the CYO’s gymnasium became a renowned halfway point for professional boxers traveling across the country. Its central location became a popular stop over where pros would train and do publicity for a few days. Boxing luminaries such as Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay), Tony Zale, and Jack Dempsey all visited the CYO gym.