Irish Men behind the Missions: Bob Kelly SJ

Jesuit missionaries and volunteers were remembered at the annual Memorial Mass on 30th November at Milltown Institute.

One such Jesuit was Fr Bob Kelly SJ who died in 2005. We continue our series Irish Men behind the Missions with Bob’s inspiring story, written by his colleague Fr Charlie Searson SJ.

An unusual mission in Zambia

Fr Bob Kelly SJ was born in Tullamore, County Offaly in the midlands of Ireland on July 13th 1925. After attending the local Christian Brothers’ school he joined the Jesuit Novitiate in Emo in 1943 and in 1951 was missioned to Zambia, then known as Northern Rhodesia. He spent 54 years of his life there.

Bob prepared himself to announce the Gospel by immersing himself in the local culture and language. As a scholastic and later as a priest, he taught at Canisius Secondary School near Monze where he was the Spiritual Father. His pupils remember his ““office” as a place where boys could drop in for a chat or to read.

Bob developed the school canteen as a social area and he made sure that a film was sent up each week from South Africa. He took photographs and wrote articles about school life for the school magazine. He was later sent to St Edmund’s, a Christian Brothers’ Secondary School in Mazabuka, where he spent nine years in similar work.

Up until now Bob had followed a missionary path that is familiar to many Irish missionaries announcing ““the joy of the Gospel” through education and pastoral work.

However his missionary life was about to make a major turn.

The Pioneer work begins

Since his schooldays Bob had been a member of the Irish Pioneer Total Abstinence Association[1]. The Pioneer Association had been brought to Zambia in 1958 by Fr Barney Collins SJ and soon spread rapidly accross the country.

Like Ireland, Zambia has an ambiguous relationship with alcohol. While some people drink very moderately there is a large group in both countries who drink far too much, causing grave harm to themselves and their families.

To address the problem of excessive drinking, the Bishops of Zambia set up a National Pioneer 0ffice in 1978 and Fr Bob Kelly was appointed as the first National Director of the Pioneers in Zambia.

Bob gave up the security of his work in schools and parishes and took to the road. Zambia is a very large country, about 12 times the size of Ireland. Bob visited each diocese in the country several times over in the next 17 years.

Motivated by love and compassion

Bob was also involved in another aspect of missionary work which others often neglect. Before the era of computers, he spent long hours writing excellent manuals which put down in a clear, convincing style the purpose of the Pioneers. The title of one of his booklets sums up his dream: A Christian Solution to a National Problem. The Pioneers still depend on Bob’s books today. He was at pains to point out that the Pioneers are focused not on alcohol but on the love of God as revealed in the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Pioneers are motivated by that love and by compassion for families torn apart by alcohol related harm.

The ability of the missionary to address a wide range of social issues - in addition to announcing the Gospel, celebrating the sacraments and calling people to a life of prayer - is a sign that the mission respects the culture while also evangelising it. Bob loved the local culture but was not afraid to challenge it. Drunkenness is never something to excuse or to joke about. For him, it was contrary to the Gospel.

Bringing fire on the earth

Bob was famous for his dynamic school retreats. His book of hymns Songs of Praise is still widely used today and has gone into its fifth edition. He wrote 10 very popular books on spirituality. Much of his excellent material is available on the web:

In 1995 he handed over the management of the Pioneers to Fr Paddy Joyce (from Galway, Ireland) but he remained active in parish work in Kitwe and Lusaka until his death in 2005 at the age of 80.

The life and work of Bob Kelly in Zambia over 54 years exemplifies in dramatic form the great missionary words of Jesus: ““I have come to bring fire on the earth and how I wish it were blazing already!” (Luke 12:49). Through his teaching, retreats and parish work and his tireless dedication to the spiritual and organisational aspects of the Pioneers, Bob made a unique contribution to the integral evangelisation of Zambia.

Continuing Bob Kelly’s Pioneer work

After over 100 years of the Church’s presence in this part of Africa, most of the present missionaries are Zambian bishops, priests, religious and laity. They are the ones who are spearheading the missionary work.

However we still need missionaries from overseas.

In November 2013 the Ministry of Health in Zambia produced its first draft National Alcohol Policy. This policy has still not been approved by the Cabinet and implemented through the various line ministries. The work so well carried out by Fr Bob Kelly SJ still waits for missionaries to complete it.

Why not join us in this very valuble work and get in touch? I’m Fr Charlie Searson SJ and I can be contacted at:[email protected]

Author: Fr Charlie Searson SJ

For more information on the Irish Pioneer Total Abstinence Association see: