Fr Michael Kelly, of O’Connor Square, Tullamore and a citizen of Zambia. From the Sources of Offaly History Series, No. 9, oral history from the Diaspora, or the scattered Offalians around the world.

How many Offaly people have emigrated? They have stories we would like to hear and to archive for Offaly History Centre. This is some of Michael Kelly’s story. You have one too, whether living at home or abroad. So sit down and start writing. The words will flow. Thanks to Michael Kelly SJ for this report. He appears on a postage stamp and is an honorary citizen of Zambia and of Tullamore. We will add this latest report to the almost 250 stories we hold from Offaly people who wrote it down or talked to us. Like our offalyhistoryblog to receive it free every week and sometimes twice a week. Almost 70,000 views so far this year

ON MONDAY, August 22, 1955, a young Irish Jesuit stepped off a plane at the City Airport (which is now a Zambia Airforce base in Longacres). It was his first visit to Africa, and he fell in love with it. He talks about the cheerfulness, generosity and openness of the Zambian people, as well as their suffering. A mathematics genius, he dedicated his life to educating young Zambians, and later to the fight against HIV and AIDS. Sixty-five years later, Father Michael Kelly says he is now looking forward to going home. And by “home”, he is not referring to his native country – Ireland – but to Heaven.  

In fact, Fr Kelly renounced his Irish citizenship in 1968 to become a Zambian citizen because, as he puts it, “I wanted to identify with the people of Zambia as wholly as possible”. “I’m Zambian through and through. I don’t have any other citizenship, and at the moment I don’t have any passport at all, either Zambian or any other, because the only passport I need is going up there,” he says, motioning his hand upwards. Fr Kelly, who turned 91 in May, is now bent over and needs a third leg in form of a cane, but retains a sharp mind and an amiable, pious face.  

“I’m the oldest Jesuit in this part of the world,” he says with a tinge of pride. Usually candid, the priest does not shy away from talking about his own death. “Oh yes I look forward to it,” he tells me when asked on the subject. “I’m very anxious for that day to come. I suppose when the time comes there will be a little bit of fear, that’s human, that’s natural, but we all want to go home, and that’s what I want.” What will he ask God when he meets Him? “Why were you so long in preparing a place for me? I thought I was going nine years ago when I was 82,” replies the priest.  

In 2012, Fr Kelly spent seven weeks in hospital after he underwent heart surgery. He describes a near-death experience he had at the time, where he heard his name being called on the Other Side. And asked what he would like to be written on his headstone, the priest hesitates for a moment before saying: “He has gone home to God.” “I think that would be enough,” he says, perhaps noticing the incredulous look on my face at his answer. “The idea of home, and the idea of God.” When it comes to talking about his own achievements the priest, who is also a university professor and has authored fifteen books, is reticent. But the man known as the father of education in Zambia because of his immense contribution to the sector, has won accolades for his work both in Zambia and Ireland.  

In 2018, he received one of the highest national honours bestowed by the President, the Grand Commander of the Order of Distinguished Service. Then earlier this year, the priest got a stamp of approval – quite literally – from his birth country. A postage stamp bearing his image in recognition of his selfless contribution to humanity was printed. He later told the Irish Times that it felt almost unreal that he had been honoured in such a manner. “After all, the stamps are in Ireland and I’m here. When I see them on an envelope I might feel more real about it,” he had said.  

On the stamp, the priest’s face is placed in-between two distinguished women, author Edna O’Brien, and Mary Elmes, who saved the lives of hundreds of Jewish children in Paris during the Second World War. Which may be, in itself, symbolic, for Fr Kelly does think of himself “a bit of a feminist”, and has been involved in the promotion of girls’ education back when it was not very fashionable to give girls equal opportunity as boys at education. And where women empowerment is concerned, Fr Kelly has gone as far as suggesting that women should be allowed to occupy top leadership positions in the Catholic Church, including the papacy. And he does not seem to care that such suggestion is generally frowned upon within his church. “Yes, I did say that I looked forward to the day when we might have a female Pope.  

But I don’t expect that I will live long enough to see that day! It will be a long time in coming, but I feel that it must come so that women – the other half of the human race – are duly recognised in the Church for the role they can play, no longer just as handmaidens and servants, but as full and equal ministers of God’s word and of the sacraments,” he says. Fr Kelly thinks one step in that direction has already been taken. In June 2016, Pope Francis approved of a special preface to be used at masses on the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene and he referred to her as “the Apostle of the Apostles”. The Pope also raised her feast-day to the same liturgical level as that of the rest of the Apostles. “If Mary Magdalene could be designated as the Apostle of the Apostles and as one whose apostolic duty was honoured by the Apostles, surely the time could come when it would be right to have a woman as the leader of the apostolic church, as the leader of the other apostles,” argues Fr Kelly.  

He also thinks some priests should be allowed to marry. “This would help address the question of the shortage of priests that is being experienced in many parts of the world; this would be an added benefit, but in my view the principal reason for establishing a married clergy should rest in a theological awareness of the sacramentality of marriage and the deeper understandings that a married clergy could bring to issues, problems, challenges and satisfactions affecting married people,” he says.  


Three priests in the Kelly family

Fr Kelly says he always wanted to become a priest from the time he was a little boy. “I liked the message of the Catholic Church on Christianity. It appealed to me,” he says. He was also inspired by two of his uncles who were priests. One of them was martyred in Manila in the Philippines. “He was an influence to me. I admired him a lot,” says the priest. He also says boys in his school were encouraged to go into the priesthood. The young Michael left his country in turmoil, with the Irish Republican Army agitating for the unification of the predominantly Roman Catholic Irish republic with the predominantly Protestant Northern Ireland. But he found the situation was no different in his new country, which was fighting for independence from Britain. “I came to Zambia when it was Northern Rhodesia and in the federation, and I saw at once how much people didn’t like the federation, and I saw at once that the right course for the country to take at that time was independence,” he says.  

mixed school in southern Africa

Fr Kelly’s first stop was Canisius Secondary School in Monze, where he spent six months learning Tonga, and became fluent in the language. Among the local people, he became known by the penname Kusekaseka (one who laughs a lot), but the pupils just called him “Smiler”. “The boys used to say, ‘Even as he beats you, he smiles’,” recalls Fr Kelly. Back in 1965, his pupils included two of President Kenneth Kaunda’s sons Panji and Wezi. Another of the Kaunda boys, Waza, had also enrolled at the school, and was taught by Fr Kelly’s elder brother, Robert, who was also a Jesuit. Looking back, Col. Panji Kaunda says the Jesuits “were wonderful teachers”. Fr Kelly recalls once when Waza was sick at school, and was sent back home to recover.  

A few days later, the priest drove to Lusaka to pick up an expatriate teacher from Ireland, and then he was told to pick up Waza from State House. “So with the teacher in the car, I drove to State House to collect Waza. It was a strange experience for the teacher who just got off the plane,” he recalls. When he arrived at State House, he was told the President’s wife, Betty, wanted to see him. “So we went into State House, into a parlour, and Mrs Kaunda came down and talked to us very graciously. And in the parlour there was a big piano, and this teacher said to Mrs Kaunda ‘do you mind if I play the piano?’ “Mrs Kaunda said ‘of course play away’ and for about 15 minutes he played us all sorts of lovely tunes.  

the beauty of the wild

It was such a strange welcome for a foreigner coming into our country,” he says. “That must have been 1965. At that time you were allowed to drive through the main gate of State House on Independence Avenue,” says the priest. He also had a few encounters with President Kaunda. Fr Kelly remembers once when he almost got into trouble. During a meeting with President Kaunda at State House, he walked behind his back, which enraged the president’s handlers. “During the meeting I got a notion I had to go out to the bathroom, and I got up from my seat and I walked behind the people and when I came back I heard them talking about me,” he says.  

But President Kaunda quickly jumped to his defence. “Kaunda immediately said ‘don’t mind father Kelly, he’s one of us’,” he says. There were three other Irish Jesuits who became Zambian citizens as Fr Kelly, and during the same period. “They all died as Zambian citizens and they are buried here, and I will be buried here too,” Fr Kelly says. Ends 

Perhaps Southern Africa has something over O’Connor Square or Tullabeg