Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Kelly, William (1823–1909)

by G. J. O'Kelly

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

William Kelly (1823-1909), Jesuit priest, was born on 21 October 1823 in Dublin, Ireland. After secondary education he entered Maynooth seminary but was expelled because of a poem he wrote in sympathy for the 'Young Ireland' movement. Later he applied for admission to the Society of Jesus and was accepted on 24 April 1850. On 21 September 1865 he arrived at Port Phillip with Joseph Lentaigne who became rector of St Patrick's College, East Melbourne; they were the first Irish Jesuits in the colony. For the next twelve years Kelly was officially master of the matriculation class at St Patrick's but was also appointed by his superior, Joseph Dalton, to teach philosophy and theology to the students for the diocesan priesthood then housed at the college.

Kelly's repute as a versatile scholar did not rest simply on his classroom activities. He excelled as a polemicist and was the most celebrated Catholic preacher in Victoria from 1866 to 1877. Almost weekly the press carried reports of his Town Hall lectures and apologias. Dr James Goold's diary for 1869 has him preaching at thirteen special functions all over Victoria, and Howard Willoughby claimed that 'Father Kelly is the orator chosen in Melbourne when the Church has to show that her right hand still possesses its cunning … He is the controversialist called upon to confute error in the lecture-hall, and win ringing applause from fiery partisans'. He was very popular and his speeches were often interrupted by 'deafening applause'. Perhaps his most celebrated doctrinal controversy was with Dr John Bromby in several Town Hall lectures on the existence of hell. From 1869, although Kelly's most frequent topic was secular education, he also lectured in such diverse fields as history, zoology, literature, physics, astronomy and chemistry. In 1871 his paper on tests for arsenic to the Royal Society of Victoria won him election to its council in 1872-73. Optics and astronomy were his favourite fields and in 1882 the Royal Astronomical Society invited him to join the party which intended to observe the transit of Venus from the Blue Mountains.

In 1878 Dalton sent Kelly to Sydney as prefect of studies at St Kilda House, the forerunner to St Aloysius College. In Sydney he revealed himself less as a polemicist and more as a scholar, and so never attained the popularity that he had in Victoria. In 1888 he was recalled to Ireland to profess Greek and Hebrew to the Jesuit theological students at Milltown Park. At 80 he was credited with undertaking the study of Persian. He died on 30 January 1909 in Dublin.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Willoughby, The Critic in Church (Melb, 1872)
  • Age (Melbourne), 1 Feb 1909
  • Jesuit and St Patrick's College records (Jesuit Provincial Archives, Hawthorn, Melbourne).

Citation details

G. J. O'Kelly, 'Kelly, William (1823–1909)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kelly-william-3937/text6195, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 28 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014