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KELLY, JEAN-BAPTISTE, Roman Catholic priest and vicar general; b. 5 Oct. 1783 at Quebec, son of John Kelly, a carter, and Marguerite Migneron; d. 24 Feb. 1854 in Longue-Pointe (Montreal).

As a boy, Jean-Baptiste Kelly was picked off the street by the parish priest of Quebec, Joseph-Octave Plessis*, and dispatched to primary school. He must have displayed potential for the priesthood, because in 1797 he was sent to the Petit Séminaire de Québec, where, according to a professor, he demonstrated “very great application in all things.” In 1802 he was elected prefect of the students’ Congrégation de la Bienheureuse-Vierge-Marie-Immaculée – the highest position in the fraternity; his assistants were Jacques Labrie* and Louis-Joseph Papineau*. From 1803 Kelly served under Plessis, then coadjutor bishop of Quebec, as assistant secretary, and from 1805 as diocesan secretary before being sent in August or September 1806 to assist Vicar General François Cherrier* at Saint-Denis, on the Richelieu. Cherrier quickly came to appreciate his “charming lieutenant vicar,” whom Plessis, now bishop of Quebec, ordained priest on 9 Nov. 1806.

Two years later Kelly was sent to the arduous mission of Madawaska in New Brunswick. Plessis considered a three-year stint in the eastern missions excellent training and a severe test of character and discipline for mature young priests before they assumed responsibility for an established parish. On 16 Oct. 1808 Kelly reached Saint-Basile, N.B., a community of some 100 families to whom Plessis, through a pastoral letter, had expressed his displeasure “that your church is in ruins, that the presbytery is badly maintained, that the tithes are paid negligently, [and] that luxury, entertainment, and licentiousness reign among you.” Alcohol was a major social concern; merchants and innkeepers sold liquor to the Indians at profits of 250 to 300 per cent. With such gains, “even my sexton wants to become an innkeeper,” Kelly lamented, “and we already have nine!” Kelly was unable, despite constant efforts, to get the church rebuilt or the presbytery improved, and in 1809 he was obliged to seek refuge in an abandoned former presbytery, “open to the air on all sides.” His problems only began at Saint-Basile, where he resided, for his mission included the Saint John valley south to Fredericton, and he made regular forays downriver which lasted as long as three months. In no community did he find complete facilities: chapel, presbytery, and communion silver. The Indians presented a particular challenge; they were Malecite and his dictionary was Abenaki.

Kelly had little time for study, but what leisure he had, he devoted to scripture and theology, as well as to English, French being his native tongue. Unlike most missionaries, he was not lonely; coming from a large, poor family, he had brought out four sisters, whom he supported. Moreover, the paternal Plessis counselled him regularly and in detail. Even so, Kelly suffered from the spiritual isolation that in the end bested most young priests sent to the missions. “I think,” he wrote in January 1810, “that if St Jerome had had to go sixty leagues on snowshoe to obtain absolution and had needed confession as frequently as I, he would have given up the solitary life very quickly.”

Kelly’s ordeal ended in October 1810 when Plessis sent him to Saint-Denis to replace Cherrier, who had died the previous year. The promotion was a major one, for Saint-Denis was large, prosperous, and well disciplined, and it boasted a spacious and beautiful church. After piling up substantial surpluses in the parish treasury from 1810 to 1812, Kelly nearly emptied it between 1813 and 1817, on work inside the church by Urbain Desrochers and on the purchase of six paintings by European artists from a large collection sent to Lower Canada in 1816–17 by Philippe-Jean-Louis Desjardins*. In his selection of these paintings, Kelly displayed a refinement of taste in religious art uncommon among the clergy of his time. Trained under Plessis’s influence, Kelly, unlike most of the older clergy, appreciated the importance of education, but his efforts to resuscitate a college established in the parish by Cherrier in 1805 were ultimately unsuccessful in the face of competition from another begun in 1809 at Saint-Hyacinthe by the Reverend Antoine Girouard*.

In addition to carrying a heavy parish charge, Kelly was employed by Plessis for diocesan affairs. In 1811 he accompanied the coadjutor bishop, Bernard-Claude Panet*, on a pastoral visit from La Malbaie to Quebec, and in 1816 he was with Plessis on another to Upper Canada. As well, Plessis consulted Kelly on the abilities and dispositions of the priests in parishes around Saint-Denis, a consultation he normally reserved for archpriests and vicars general.

By September 1817 Plessis felt Kelly was ready for a greater challenge. The parish of Saint-Pierre, in William Henry (Sorel), constituted a promotion in tribulation. Not only was it one of the five largest in the diocese and growing rapidly, it was tough. The soldiers in garrison were saintly in comparison to the engagés of the northwest fur trade, who raised boozing, brawling, and blasphemy to art-forms. In 1820 Kelly declined an invitation by Plessis to conduct a mission in the northwest. “I am so happy when spring comes to get rid of my voyageurs,” he replied, “that I have no desire to meet them elsewhere.” His income dropped, and his expenses rose from what they had been at Saint-Denis; his presbytery was declared structurally unsound about 1819; his church was old, dilapidated, and too small. The project that he initiated in 1822 to build a new church took ten years to complete and occasioned the usual disputes over location and assessment of the parishioners. Resourceful, Kelly used the stone from the old church to build a new presbytery.

An acute shortage of clergy obliged Plessis to add the charges of Île du Pads (Dupas) and Drummondville to Kelly’s load. Kelly abhorred the latter, particularly because of its Irish population, but from 1818 to 1824 he faithfully struggled over the atrocious road to it. In 1822 he completed a small wooden church, Saint-Frédéric, that afforded a rare moment of joy. “The Protestants are jealous of it,” he crowed, “theirs will never look as good as this one.” In 1824 he was permitted to relinquish Drummondville to John Holmes, but he continued to serve Île du Pads until 1831.

In William Henry as in Saint-Denis, Kelly promoted Catholic education. Following a policy instituted by Plessis, he boycotted the Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning [see Joseph Langley Mills*], and by 1831 he had founded an English school; presumably one or more French schools already existed. In 1821 he had been a founding subscriber to the Association pour Faciliter les Moyens d’Éducation dans la Rivière-Chambly, formed to enable promising clerical prospects to attend the Collège de Saint-Hyacinthe.

Because the governor’s summer residence was at William Henry, Kelly was able to keep Plessis and his successor, Panet, informed of the reactions of Lord Dalhousie [Ramsay*] to the controversial appointment in 1820 of Jean-Jacques Lartigue* as Plessis’s auxiliary bishop at Montreal. Dalhousie’s threats to subjugate the church to royal authority angered Kelly, who felt that the church should be an independent social power. He wrote to Panet in 1827: “I believe . . . we must not let ourselves be frightened by that man, that it will be necessary to bare our teeth. . . . We have a right to raise our voice and to make ourselves heard together at the foot of the throne. . . . Because we have been quiet spectators in politics it is thought that we feel nothing. It is quite clear that our enemies bear ill-will not only to the constitution of the country but also to its religion.”

Although there was in Kelly a strain of French Canadian nationalism (which in part explains his repugnance for the Irish), he was as distrustful of the nationalist Canadian party, which dominated the House of Assembly, as he was of the colonial administration. When the assembly attempted to challenge the power of the clergy in parish administration by loosening the latter’s control of the fabriques, Kelly urged Panet to intervene energetically: “It is time that a dike was erected against that body, ambitious and intoxicated by its success with the [British] ministers . . . it is trying to invade everything and take to itself not only the legislative and ecclesiastical power, but also the executive and judicial power.” In 1834–35 he angered local nationalists led by Wolfred Nelson* when he refused to permit the erection in Saint-Pierre cemetery of a political monument to one of their followers, Louis Marcoux, slain during the elections of 1834. About 1837, as the government and the Patriote party moved steadily toward armed conflict, Kelly, who was convinced of the strength of the clergy’s influence in Canadian society, urged Lartigue to speak out because his voice “at this time would be much more powerful than all the English bayonets in the country. . . . It would be too late to wait for the government to strike several blows from which the factious would certainly profit to stir up the countryside. Once this impetus has been given, in vain will you try to make yourself heard; and the insidious would not fail to say that you were bribed by the government or that you came to its aid in your own interest.” In William Henry, Kelly’s own influence did much to brake the fervour of the rebellion movement.

In 1839 Kelly was suspected of having helped Dr George Holmes, murderer of Louis-Pascal-Achille Taché, seigneur of Kamouraska, to flee to the United States. It is only certain, however, that he dissuaded Holmes from committing suicide. Holmes, a brother of John, was the lover of Taché’s wife, Joséphine d’Estimauville, Kelly’s relative by marriage, and he had for some time past been a favourite visitor to the presbytery. Two years after the murder, Kelly’s testimony in favour of Joséphine at her trial for complicity probably helped obtain her acquittal.

By 1842 William Henry had exhausted Kelly. Ignace Bourget*, who had succeeded Lartigue, sent him and another ailing priest, Joseph-Sabin Raymond*, to Europe to restore their health and to try to resolve a number of issues facing the church. In Britain late that year they requested, in vain, the return to Lower Canada of the exiled rebels of 1837–38. A search for Irish priests to send to Montreal was scarcely more successful. In Paris they failed to persuade either the Filles de la Charité de Saint-Vincent de Paul or the Frères de Saint-Joseph to start communities in Montreal. Finally, in Rome, where they arrived in January 1843, they were unable to obtain the appointment of a coadjutor for Bourget or the creation of an ecclesiastical province in British North America. In both defeats Kelly detected the influential hand of the agent of the Montreal Sulpicians, Jean-Baptiste Thavenet*, with whom Kelly and Raymond also failed to settle the financial accounts of several Lower Canadian religious communities for which Thavenet was the European financial agent. The fruitless voyage destroyed several of Kelly’s illusions. Still in ill health, he was dismayed to feel for the first time the inertia of old age and was thoroughly disenchanted with the quality of piety demonstrated by Parisians and Romans. “I am impatient to be back,” he wrote to Bourget in March 1843, “for in the end, our country is as good as any other.”

Kelly was in William Henry by August. Although his mission had been a failure, Bourget rewarded his efforts by naming him vicar general and a canon of the cathedral of Saint-Jacques, Montreal, the following month; the archbishop of Quebec, Joseph Signay*, who had made Kelly an archpriest in 1835, also appointed him vicar general. In the few months following his return, Kelly was troubled by a revolt of some parishioners who wished to retain his interim replacement, but their complete discomfiture in the election of wardens in December 1843 confirmed that he had imposed his authority on the parish. He did much to improve the welfare of his parishioners. In November 1843 Jean-Baptiste Meilleur*, deputy superintendent of education for Lower Canada, told him that his six schools were too many for the size of his population. In 1846 he founded a parish library containing 400 volumes. He had also founded a temperance society, and when in 1848 he blessed two bells purchased by the parish as a monument to temperance, an astonished Jacques Viger commented, “It is a beautiful act of contrition and humility on the part of a parish formerly so – drunk!” That year Kelly began the establishment of an institution for the care of the poor and the sick and for the education of girls. In 1849, after he had built a new presbytery at his own expense, the old one was transformed into a college (to which he contributed £150) run by the Christian Brothers.

In the 1840s Kelly was gradually overcome physically by what Bourget described as his “immense task” at William Henry (renamed Sorel in 1845). By December 1849 he had retired to the Hospice Saint-Joseph at Longue-Pointe where he spent the next four years, increasingly infirm, mentally incapacitated, and in debt. He died there and was buried by Bourget in the church of Saint-Pierre, Sorel.

One of Kelly’s parishioners, journalist Georges-Isidore Barthe*, described him as “a man of handsome and big stature, of very distinguished manners . . . admired for his knowledge and respected by all citizens, Catholic and Protestant.” His historical significance lies chiefly in his having been, like Charles-Joseph Ducharme, Thomas Maguire, and Charles-François Painchaud*, an outstanding member of that generation of priests trained under Plessis who, by applying the bishop’s principles, notably of parish ministry and education, contributed more than has been recognized to leading the clergy from its numerical weakness in the early 1800s to its position of independence and influence under Bourget.

James H. Lambert

AAQ, 12 A, G: ff.53, 56v, 59, 79, 99, 140; H: f.3v; 210 A, VI: f.295; VII: ff.207, 275; IX: f.214; X: ff.77, 171, 357; XI: ff.23, 75, 437, 466–67; XIII: f.426; XIV: ff.195–96, 289–90, 446, 540–41; CD, Diocèse de Québec, I: 151; II: 111; 69 CD, III: 135; 311 CN, IV: 23–40; VI: 155; 26 CP, VIII: 129; H: 89–90. ACAM, 420.101, 843–1, 854–1; 901.017, 831-1; RC, I: ff.89, 90, 96v, 110–11v, 169–70; II: ff.104, 114, 142v, 146; III: f.186v; RLB, III: 158–59, 190–91, 300; RLL, V: 281, 339, 353–54. ANQ-Q, CE1-1, 27 mai, 5 oct. 1783; CN1-230, 20 févr. 1824. AP, Saint-Denis (Saint-Denis, sur le Richelieu), Livres des délibérations de la fabrique, 1791–1845; Livres de comptes, I (1775–1823). Arch. de la chancellerie de l’évêché de Saint-Hyacinthe (Saint-Hyacinthe, Qué.), XVII, C.25, 1810–17; C.66, 1817–50. ASQ, Fichier des anciens; Séminaire, 103, nos.42, 45; 178, nos.2, 148, 160, 163. “Les dénombrements de Québec” (Plessis), ANQ Rapport, 1948–49: 24, 49, 67. La Minerve, 25 Feb. 1854. Desrosiers, “Inv. de la corr. de Mgr Lartigue,” ANQ Rapport, 1941–42: 399, 413; 1948–49: 346, 380–82, 389, 406, 416, 420–21, 445, 459, 473. Léon Pouliot et François Beaudin, “Correspondance de Mgr Ignace Bourget,” ANQ Rapport, 1955–57: 183, 185, 195; 1965: 99; 1969: 39–40, 113, 117. Thomas Albert, Histoire du Madawaska d’après les recherches historiques de Patrick Therriault et les notes manuscrites de Prudent L. Mercure (Québec, 1920). Allaire, Hist. de Saint-Denis-sur-Richelieu. G. I. Barthe, Drames de la vie réelle, roman canadien (Sorel, Qué., n.d.). Chabot, Le curé de campagne. Chaussé, Jean-Jacques Lartigue. Azarie Couillard-Després, Histoire de Sorel de ses origines à nos jours (Montréal, 1926). Claude Galarneau, Les collèges classiques au Canada français (1620–1970) (Montréal, 1978). Lambert, “Joseph-Octave Plessis.” Lemieux, L’établissement de la première prov. eccl. Pouliot, Mgr Bourget et son temps, 2. Côme Saint-Germain, Regards sur les commencements de Drummondville (Drummondville, Qué., 1978). F. M. Dufresne, “Le drame de Kamouraska,Québec-Hist. (Montmagny, Qué.), 1 (1972), nos.5–6: 72–76. Sylvio Leblond, “Le drame de Kamouraska d’après les documents de l’époque,” Cahiers des Dix, 37 (1972): 239–73.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

James H. Lambert, “KELLY, JEAN-BAPTISTE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 3, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/kelly_jean_baptiste_8E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/kelly_jean_baptiste_8E.html
Author of Article:   James H. Lambert
Title of Article:   KELLY, JEAN-BAPTISTE
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1985
Year of revision:   1985
Access Date:   December 3, 2023