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Kelly, Kevin Thomas (1910–1994)

by David Kehoe

A former Ambassador to Portugal and Argentina, Kevin Thomas Kelly, who died on Wednesday aged 84, was one of the early members of Australia's fledgling diplomatic service.

Mr Kelly, who helped blaze the trail in that service from 1945 after serving in naval intelligence during World War II, was also a pioneer of Catholic lay activity in Melbourne and Australia.

Mr Kelly was born in Ballarat in 1910 into a family active in the early labour movement. He was fond of recalling how, as a child, he was bounced on the knee of the future Prime Minister, James Scullin, a friend of his father's.

Mr Kelly's influence in Catholic Church affairs began in 1931 when he joined the recently formed Campion Society, in Melbourne. The society encouraged a Catholic lay intellectual movement, designed to help young Catholics understand their faith and defend and promote Catholicism in a Protestant-dominated society.

An eager and able debater, Mr Kelly became, along with another early member of the society, Bartholomew Augustine Santamaria, among the most influential members in the early society, travelling the country to establish Campion cells. His zeal also prompted him to found, with Brian Harkin, the Catholic Evidence Guild.

He was a regular contributor to the Catholic Worker newspaper established by B. A. Santamaria in 1936, and to other Catholic publications.

Despite his early association with Mr Santamaria, Mr Kelly we never an unquestioning Santamaria devotee and as a member of the Catholic Worker board he agitated successfully to have joint editors appointed to edit the paper with Mr Santamaria.

One of Mr Kelly's most significant contributions to Catholic life was his introduction to Australia of the ideas of the Juenesses Ouvriere Chretien (Young Christian Workers) movement founded by Belgian priest Joseph Cardijn.

After joining the External Affairs Department Mr Kelly worked in Noumea, South Africa, the UN, India and Nepal before being appointed Ambassador to Argentina (1963-66), assistant secretary in the Department of Foreign Affairs (1967-70), and Ambassador to Portugal (1971-74).

Fluent in French, Italian, Spanish, German and Dutch and with a good understanding of South East Asian languages, he was respected in the department as a linguist and a specialist in South-East Asian issues.

Upon retirement he turned his mind full-time to Church affairs, particularly to promoting the writings of the French Catholic lay philosopher, Jacques Maritain.

He is survived by his wife, Margaret, and daughters Anne and Barbara.

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David Kehoe, 'Kelly, Kevin Thomas (1910–1994)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 September 2020.

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