KANSAS CITY, Kan. — A Roman Catholic priest died Christmas Day after leading his parish for 63 years, ending what is believed to be the longest active tenure at a U.S. Catholic church. He was 98.

Monsignor Heliodore Mejak became a priest in 1935. He celebrated his first Mass at Holy Family Church on Aug. 1, 1944, and never left. The Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas believes Mejak was the nation's oldest active priest.

He celebrated Mass until about a week before his death despite failing health and eyesight.

"He couldn't see," said Kevin Fogarty, a Wyandotte County firefighter who had attended the church for about 10 years. "He wore 'welding goggles' with huge magnifiers. When he said Mass, it was obvious he was reciting from memory. He couldn't read it at all."

Holy Family, a Slovenian parish, drew parishioners who shared Mejak's theological conservatism. He resisted attempts to have laymen serve Holy Communion and said it should be served only from a priest's hand, not in the hand of the recipient.

Mejak also ignored a Second Vatican Council recommendation for parishioners to shake hands or hug as a sign of peace during Mass, saying it distracted from the Eucharist.