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Kelly, Austin Michael (1891–1978)

by J. Eddy

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Austin Michael Kelly (1891-1978), Jesuit provincial and missionary, was born 20 September 1891 at Blackrock, County Dublin, Ireland, fifth child of Edward Kelly, commission agent, and his wife Teresa, née Burke. Educated at Belvedere College, Dublin (1903-08), and at the National University of Ireland (B.A., 1911), Austin entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus on 29 February 1912 at Tullabeg and took his first vows on 1 March 1914. Following a short juniorate at Rathfarnham, he was sent in September 1914 to study philosophy at Stonyhurst College, Lancashire, England. He returned to Dublin and taught (1917-21) at Mungret College. In 1921-25 he studied theology at Louvain, Belgium, and was ordained priest on 31 July 1923.

After serving his tertianship at Tullabeg, Kelly was posted to Australia in 1926 as prefect of discipline and sportsmaster at Xavier College, Melbourne. On 15 August 1929 he took his final vows. He was minister (1928-30) and rector (1931-37) of St Aloysius' College, Milson's Point, Sydney, and founding rector (1938-47) of St Louis School, Claremont, Perth, the first Jesuit establishment in Western Australia. Cultured, deeply pious and meticulous, he was an outstanding headmaster, ever on the alert to encourage the initiatives of the young teachers he was training, even when he would not himself have done the things they were doing, or done them the way they did. He soon became one of the most prominent and influential churchmen in Perth, and a trusted adviser to ecclesiastical and secular leaders.

In October 1947 Fr Kelly was appointed by Rome to head the Australian vice-province of the order, which, from his base in Melbourne, he steered towards final autonomy from the Irish Jesuits. In 1950-56 he had charge of the newly created Australian and New Zealand province. He judged that the increased membership of the order—which was growing towards its maximum of three hundred and fifty—justified expansion of its works, and he seized the initiative by undertaking the management of new schools, parishes and university colleges in Hobart, Adelaide and Brisbane. Businesslike and energetic, Kelly exerted to the full the organizing ability that his long experience in office had honed. His determination, rhetorical skill and wide circle of influence ensured that the works of the order, and with their success its morale, would flourish.

Some considered his standards impossibly high and his manner unduly autocratic. When he accepted, on behalf of the Australian Jesuits, the challenge of maintaining a foreign mission in Bihar, India, and when the first group of six were sent to Ranchi in 1951, a few critics warned that resources would be overstretched. In this enterprise, however, as in many of his projects, Kelly's thinking was far ahead of his time. He long held that the considerable achievements of the Australians in the Hazaribagh-Palamau region ranked among the most visionary and generous national gestures of the period. On the conclusion of his provincialate in Australia he was appointed superior of the Hazaribagh Mission, and set off in September 1956 on a new phase of what had, in many respects, always been a missionary career.

In Bihar, Kelly was in some ways ill-attuned to the national style which the Australian Jesuits had adapted to India, and his health had become impaired. But he doggedly saw out six years of administration, planning, exhortation and visitation; and he enlarged the foundations of the mission by liaison with an expanding number and variety of religious and secular 'co-missionaries'. In 1962 he returned to reside at the Jesuit Church of the Immaculate Conception at Hawthorn, Melbourne, where he was based (except for the year 1964 which he spent at Lavender Bay, Sydney) until he went in 1974 to Caritas Christi hospice, Kew. He died there on 11 October 1978 and was buried in Boroondara cemetery.

Impressively able, distinguished in appearance, urbane, energetic and imaginative, Kelly was a remarkable 'lace-curtain' Irishman who had become an enthusiastic and loyal patriot in his adopted country. He was impatient of the mediocre, a practical leader rather than a natural scholar, and he remained a staunchly private man, despite his whole-hearted pursuit of public goals and cultivation of a wide circle of prominent friends. Very dedicated to the educational and spiritual projects of his Church and order, he was ecumenical in outlook and sustained a lifetime cultivation of books, fine arts, music and theatre.

Select Bibliography

  • U. M. L. Bygott, With Pen and Tongue (Melb, 1980)
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 2 Oct 1947
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Sept 1966
  • West Australian, 21 Oct 1978
  • Society of Jesus, Australian Province Archives, Hawthorn, Melbourne.

Citation details

J. Eddy, 'Kelly, Austin Michael (1891–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kelly-austin-michael-10674/text18973, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 26 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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