Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James Michael Kelleher (1909–1964)

by Kevin Hilferty

This article was published:

James Michael Kelleher (1909-1964), newspaper editor, was born on 30 September 1909 at Maryborough, Queensland, son of Irish-born parents Cornelius Kelleher, labourer, and his wife Margaret, née Walsh. Educated locally by the Christian Brothers, James was employed as a journalist on the Maryborough Chronicle before moving to the Rockhampton Morning Bulletin. In 1932-36 he was based in Asia where he became chief sub-editor on the Hong Kong South China Morning Post and gained an appreciation of Asian affairs rare among Australian journalists of his generation.

Returning to his native land, Kelleher obtained the chief sub-editorship of the Sydney Sunday Sun and Guardian. On 9 April 1940 at St Vincent's Catholic Church, Ashfield, he married Irene Sadie Maria Malone, a telephonist. Archbishop (Cardinal Sir) Norman Gilroy merged the Catholic Press and the Freeman's Journal into the Catholic Weekly in 1942 and appointed Kelleher editor. Working closely with Gilroy, he provided a channel for the Church's communications. He gave the newspaper an attractive format and, as circulation grew, expanded the range of contributors and features.

Kelleher brought to the Catholic Weekly 'a wide journalistic experience, an agile mind and a sense of dedication'. He wrote the popular feature, 'Front Lines', 'one of those personal columns of comment which people seem to enjoy when the opinions expressed coincide with their own'. In 1960 Pope John XXIII appointed him a knight commander of the Order of St Gregory the Great. Kelleher wrote Roman Fever (Sydney, 1962), 'a history of the Catholic campaign for justice in educational matters' and a polemic against liberalism.

Inaugurated in an era of comparatively unquestioned faith in Church and hierarchy, the Catholic Weekly had suffered from the political tensions of the 1950s and the pressures for Church reform eventually manifested in Vatican Council II (1962-65). In 1956, when the Weekly expressed the Sydney bishops' view that there was no need for a split in the Australian Labor Party in New South Wales, clergy and lay people sympathetic to the Anti-Communist (later Democratic) Labor Party roundly attacked the newspaper. On religious matters, the Weekly reflected the hierarchy's conservative position. New magazines sprang up to cater for readers who were impatient with the official Church press. Although it survived after rival newspapers had folded, the Weekly never regained its peak circulation of 63,000 in the 1960s.

Gilroy and a predominantly clerical board dictated editorial policy for the Catholic Weekly, often against Kelleher's journalistic judgement. The cardinal examined proofs of articles and frequently made changes. It was an editorial issue that led to Kelleher's third heart attack. Colleagues saw him leave his office in July 1964 for St Mary's Cathedral to argue against a change which Gilroy wanted made to a report. Kelleher never returned. He died of a myocardial infarction on 9 August at Lewisham General Hospital and was buried in Woronora cemetery. His wife, daughter and two of his three sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Ormonde, The Movement (Melb, 1972)
  • P. O'Farrell, The Catholic Church and Community in Australia (Melb, 1977)
  • E. Campion, Rockchoppers (Syd, 1982)
  • Catholic Weekly (Sydney), 13 Aug 1964
  • K. Hilferty, 'The Formation of a Diocesan Editor or the Education of Young Kevin', Australasian Catholic Record, 65, no 3, July 1988, p 303.

Citation details

Kevin Hilferty, 'Kelleher, James Michael (1909–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 17 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


30 September, 1909
Maryborough, Queensland, Australia


9 August, 1964 (aged 54)
Lewisham, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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