Tributes to Renowned HIV Campaigner Fr Michael Kelly SJ

By Sean Ryan

Tributes have been paid to an Irish Jesuit priest who spent much of his life championing the rights of those with HIV in Africa. Father Michael Kelly SJ, who spent more than 50 years in Zambia as a missionary and educator, died on Friday January 15th 2021 after a short illness.

The death of the Tullamore-born priest at the age of 91 was announced by the Jesuit order of which he was a member. Fr Kelly came to prominence for his expertise on the Aids pandemic in Africa and the need for education, which he called the “social vaccine”, to stem its spread.

Fr Kelly obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in Maths and Mathematical Physics from University College in Dublin in 1952, both with first class honours. He went on to receive a licentiate in philosophy in 1955. In 1970 he moved to Zambia and lived and worked in Africa for over 50 years where he served in various education roles, including as headmaster of Canislius College and as Pro Vice-Chancellor of the University of Zambia.

Father Michael completed his PhD studies in the area of child and educational psychology in 1974 and subsequently became a senior lecturer and Dean of the School of Education in the University of Zambia (UNZA), in 1975. He served as pro-vice chancellor and deputy vice chancellor and became professor in 1989.

While teaching and lecturing in Zambia Fr Kelly said that while his work was enjoyable “there was also the sadness of knowing that many have died, especially that many died from AIDS’’.  He said at the time “Very soon after the world became aware of this terrible scourge, I saw that it was a challenge that we would have to do something about through our schools, not only in Zambia but all over the world.

This realisation drew me into thinking, teaching, writing and speaking about the give-and-take between AIDS and education, into speaking out on behalf of orphans, and eventually into a wide range of AIDS-related areas’’.

The seriousness of the AIDS pandemic led to Fr Kelly’s tirelessly work to educate and promote safe behaviour among youth and those most at risk from HIV throughout sub-Saharan Africa and much further afield,. He also became active in other policy areas, such as strategies for HIV prevention, and human rights.

A prolific researcher and writer, Father Michael  authored 15 books, and many original research articles. Throughout his long and distinguished career, Father Michael also worked as a consultant to organisations such as the World Bank, UNESCO, UNICEF, the FAO, UNAIDS, Oxfam, Irish Aid, and many more.

Since 2006, Irish Aid has honoured his achievements through the annual Father Michael Kelly HIV/Aids event, often timed to coincide with World Aids Day in December. Among the many honours in recognition of his outstanding work, Father Michael was awarded Honorary Degrees by University College Dublin in 2006 and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) in 2012. In 2012, Fr Kelly received the President’s Award for the Irish Abroad and last year An Post issued a stamp in his honour as part of their Irish Abroad series.

Paying tribute to Fr Kelly’s work on the occasion of his passing the President of Ireland Michael D Higgins said: “I offer my condolences to his family and many friends. Ireland and Zambia mourn the loss of a true hero.” Mr Higgins said: “He epitomised the great work of Irish missionaries in the education and health spheres in so many parts of the world. “His humanity shone through in his work and in his encounters with all who were fortunate enough to have met him.”

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney TD said he was very sorry to hear of Fr Kelly’s death, whose work, he said, was “inspirational”. “He leaves a legacy of achievement, driving policy changes not just in Zambia but on the international stage,” the minister said.

“Among those inspired by Father Michael were those generations of Irish officials who have worked in the Embassy of Ireland in Zambia since it opened in 1980, and who today also feel his loss.” Fr Kelly was laid to rest in Zambia.

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