The Celsus Kelly Collection

The Celsus Kelly collection, named for the late Fr Celsus Kelly OFM, is held in a restricted area not open to the public.

Fr Celsus John Kelly, born at Shepparton in Victoria on June 27th 1900, was a friar of the Holy Spirit Franciscan Province which at this time (1999) encompasses Australia, New Zealand, Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore. Formerly it also covered Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. This may well give a remote clue to what eventually became his outstanding work.

In the 1930s and into the 1950s he was especially interested in researching Franciscan history within Australia and New Zealand; and as far as it was possible with the paucity of material available locally, within the Pacific zone. This interest extended to identifying and describing Franciscan manuscripts and incunabula in Australia and New Zealand libraries such as Knox College and the Fels Library in Dunedin, the Alexander Turnbull and the Assembly Library in Wellington, Fisher and State libraries in Sydney and the Melbourne Public Library. Whilst resident in New Zealand, 1948-1954, pursuing his fields, he wrote prolifically for periodicals and newspapers, most of his articles appearing in the Catholic Review published in Auckland.

Fr Kelly's great research passion was for the Portuguese and Spanish explorations in search of the supposed Great Southern Land - the Terra Australis. His interest was fired because of their Franciscan connections, these friars being official chaplains on the voyages of discovery. The voyages themselves were at least partly inspired by the repeated Memorials of such friars as Fray Juan de Silva to the Spanish Kings Philip III and Philip IV and to Pope Urban VIII; and the reports of friars like Fray Martin de Munilla.

As there was nothing of real value on these Pacific explorations in Australia or New Zealand, Fr Kelly was given approval by the Provincial Administration in 1954 to pursue his investigations overseas. For the next twenty-one years he researched the great archives of Rome, Spain, Portugal, Mexico and Peru, the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris and the British Museum. It was during this period that he collected material and the Celsus Kelly Collection developed and Father Kelly's reputation as a world authority on Pacific exploration was established. He is credited with the rediscovery of some thousands of documents unsighted for centuries. He founded Franciscan Historical Studies (Australia) imprint and published six volumes between 1963 and 1973 under the umbrella title Austrialia Franciscana*, volume VI being in collaboration with Fr Gerard Bushell OFM also of the Holy Spirit Province. In 1965 he published his acclaimed: Calendar of Documents: Spanish Voyages in the South Pacific and the Franciscan Missionary Plans for Its Islanders*.

In 1966 he published for the Hakluyt Society his two volume: La Austrialia del Espiritu Santo: The Journal of Fray Martin de Munilla OFM and Other Documents relating to The Voyage of Pedro Fernandez de Quiros to the South Sea (1605-1606) and The Franciscan Missionary Plan (1617- 1627).

Fr Kelly assisted in organizing and was frequently a speaker at conferences and conventions dealing with his area of expertise. This was especially so in relation to the International Conference in Portugal which marked the Fifth Centenary Celebration of Prince Henry the Navigator who initiated the great period of exploration. In gratitude for his work for this latter occasion he was presented with a number of sets of the commemorative five-volume Portugalia Monumenta Cartographica for presentation to Australia and New Zealand libraries of his choice, one being St Paschal Library. These massive volumes of maps, a graphic history of centuries of exploration, must rank among the most magnificent examples of modern printing.

During his twenty-one years researching in the archives of Europe Fr Kelly microfilmed material relevant to the history of Australia for both the Canberra National Library and the Sydney State Library. Copies of this together with much other microfilm relating to the history of the Catholic Church in Australia and to the history of the Holy Spirit Franciscan Province gathered in ecclesiastical archives in Rome are also held in this Collection.

The Spanish Government recognized the work done by Celsus Kelly as of such significance for its own history that it decorated him with a knighthood, Knight Commander of Isabella La Catolica.

Celsus Kelly made regular return visits to Australia. He did so in 1975 for the celebration of his golden jubilee of ordination which fell on July 13th of that year. Although intending to return to Spain, this never happened. He died in Sydney on October 5th of that year at the age of seventy five.

Access to the Celsus Kelly Collection can be made available to bona fide scholars and researchers.

* These publications may be purchased from the library. Please contact