Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Patrick Kelly (1907–1984)

by Frank Hills

This article was published:

John Patrick Kelly (1907-1984), solicitor, Catholic lay leader and hospital administrator, was born on 15 February 1907 at Bulimba, Brisbane, second of three surviving children of Michael Kelly, an Irish-born police constable, and his wife Beatrice Annie, née Baldwin, from Queensland. John was educated at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart School, Thursday Island, when his father was stationed there, and in Brisbane by the Christian Brothers at St James’s and St Joseph’s (Gregory Terrace) colleges. At Terrace he was captain of the first XIII and first XI and also represented the school in swimming and athletics. Later he played first-grade Rugby League and Rugby Union. He graduated from the University of Queensland (BA, 1930).

Admitted to the Bar on 6 September 1932, Kelly formed his own firm of solicitors (known from 1939 as John P. Kelly & Co.) and practised until the 1970s. (Sir) James Duhig was a client; in 1950 Kelly briefed Alec McGill, a Protestant and a Freemason, when Duhig was sued for professional fees by Hennessy, Hennessy & Co., the architectural firm that had drawn up plans for Holy Name Cathedral.

President of the Christian Brothers Old Boys’ Association in the 1930s, Kelly supported its objectives, including the influencing of national affairs, assertion of a Christian concept of society and resistance to the spread of anti-Christian principles and propaganda.

He founded (1933) the Aquinas Library, which was to become a Brisbane cultural institution: among other activities it established study groups based on those run by the Campion Society of Melbourne and published Kelly’s 1944 inaugural Aquinas lecture Aquinas and Modern Practices of Interest Taking, with an introduction by Colin Clark. In the 1940s Kelly was lay director of Catholic Action’s Brisbane secretariat. He was chairman (1938-80) of the Mater Misericordiae hospitals advisory boards; stressing that they were `advisory’, he would say wryly: `the nuns on Mater Hill run that hospital’. The Sisters of Mercy, grateful for his contribution, established the John P. Kelly Mater Research Foundation in 1982. He had been appointed OBE in 1966.

A friend said that Kelly had `a somewhat formidable personality’ but that he was `generous and compassionate under his somewhat severe and authoritarian exterior’. Outside the Church, his interests were gardening and reading. He was deputy-chairman (1954-57) and chairman (1957-77) of the State’s Literature Board of Review. On 23 January 1937 at St Patrick’s Catholic Church, Fortitude Valley, Brisbane, he had married Margaret Maud Hishon (d.1968), a public servant. Survived by his four daughters and son, he died on 12 June 1984 in the Canossa Hospital, Oxley, and was buried in Hemmant cemetery. At his funeral Mass Archbishop Francis Rush referred to his warmth and wit and `quiet enjoyment of the absurd’. Kelly’s portrait by Sir William Dargie, commissioned by the Sisters of Mercy, is held at the Mater.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Gregory, Expressions of Mercy (2006)
  • F. Hills, `The Rise and Fall of the Aquinas Library 1933-1991’, Proceedings (Brisbane Catholic Historical Society), vol 4, 1994, p 47
  • Madonna, Mar 1994, p 39
  • F. Hills, `John P. Kelly (1907-1984)’, Proceedings (Brisbane Catholic Historical Society), vol 5, 1996, p 76
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 3 Feb 1983, p 5, 13 June 1984, p 16
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

Frank Hills, 'Kelly, John Patrick (1907–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


15 February, 1907
Bulimba, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


12 June, 1984 (aged 77)
Oxley, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.