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Bro. Pius Kelly - well remembered by Michaelians, Xaverians and Paulians, Myanmar Print E-mail



A film called The Quiet Man was produced in 1952, directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne as the quiet man. The film has aged well. If there was ever a quiet man in real life, it was Brother Pius. He was rarely known to shout or even raise his voice. He cut a popular figure at the St. Xavier's, Penang; St. Michael's, Ipoh and the St. Paul's Institution, Rangoon, Burma among the older generations of Old Boys at these schools.

He was born on the 21st January 1911 in Crotta, County Kerry, Ireland, a lovely part of that lovely County. Large families were the norm at the time and Patrick, his baptismal name, was the seventh child of a family of six boys and four girls. He attended the local primary school and is remembered as a quiet, industrious boy. He came from a small hurling area in a predominantly football county. He loved the game and was skilled at it. This may have been a pointer to his future prowess at badminton.
When he was fourteen years old, the school was visited by Brother Anselm, a recruiter for the De La Salle Brothers. In response to his appeal for volunteers, young Patrick offered himself and was accepted. So it was that, on the 25th August 1925, he set off for Castletown, County Laois, to begin his Lasallian formation journey. It was his first journey on a train and every time that the train swished under a bridge he would jump from his seat, to the great amusement of his companions.
His year of spiritual formation in the Novitiate began in the summer of 1927. He made the Novitiate seriously and fervently and it stood to him for the rest of his life. There followed two years of studies and then the decision to volunteer for the missions, to what was then called the Far East.

One of his companions relates: “Brother Pius and I started on our first missionary journey together in October 1930. We were accompanied by Brothers Mark O’Connor and Gilbert McKenna who were returning to the East after a short holiday in Ireland”. A trip through London and France brought them to Marseilles where they boarded a ship for Rangoon, Burma.

An unpleasant surprise awaited them on board when they were informed by the steward that they would not be able to use their cabin during the day because it was to be occupied by a hive of bees! These belonged to Brother Gilbert McKenna who was taking them to the Lasallian orphanage in Twante. It was dangerous to use the cabin during the day so they were obliged to spend all the time on deck. One of Brother Pius’ companions continues: “we could retire to our bunks after the bees had retired for the night but had to be out again by daybreak. We discovered that bees are early risers and a few stings can be more effective than any alarm clock!” Patience began to wear thin and there were veiled threats as to what might happen to the bees and their owner. Fortunately Rangoon was reached without mishap.

On arriving in Burma, Brother Pius was assigned to teach in the large and renowned St Paul’s Institution in Rangoon. He was given a class in the middle school. He mentioned later that he was very nervous when first introduced to his pupils. Most of them were Indian Sikhs, big burly fellows sporting turbans and even beards. Fortunately they were quite well behaved and before long he was completely at home with them.
One of the Brothers in the Community at the time was able to sum up Brother Pius rather well. “He was outstanding for his religious spirit, his cheerfulness, his fondness for the rosary and his devotedness to his class. He was rather shy and reticent”. A German Brother in the Community had this to say: “I remember how he helped me with my preparation for class, and how it was he who organized our games and our walks. During the summer vacation he never wasted a moment of time allotted for study. He was a most pleasant confrere at recreation”.

ImageThe pleasant and even tenor of Brother Pius’ life in Burma came to an end in 1937 when he was transferred to Malaya and assigned to the Community of St Xavier’s Institution, Penang. He had become very attached to Burma and regretted leaving it. One reason for the transfer was probably the threat of TB and when in Penang he was put on a stringent diet of raw eggs. Things were moving along nicely until the swift Japanese invasion and occupation of the country in December 1941. The school buildings were commandeered by the occupying power and the Brothers’ Community had to seek refuge in the Novitiate house, some miles away, in Pulau Tikus. (Note: Photo of SXI in the 1940's)


    Facade of St. Joseph Novitiate, Penang                          St. Joseph Novitiate's Chapel

They could no longer teach school. Their time was occupied mainly trying to get enough to eat by cultivating every square yard of the property and by fishing in the nearby sea. It so happened that there was a sizable amount of black and white cloth meant for robes and shirts. As it was feared that the Japanese would seize on this supply it was decided to cut it all up. Brother Pius was nominated assistant tailor and he was kept busy sewing all the cut- up cloth. All the Brothers’ health deteriorated during the war years and, with a TB history, Brother Pius’ condition in particular was worrying. Nevertheless he was able to continue his teaching duties when school reopened after the war.

In 1948 he was appointed sub-director of the flourishing St Michael’s Institution, Ipoh. The school was bursting at the seams with 1144 pupils and a staff of 7 Brothers and 22 lay teachers. Those lay teachers remember Brother Pius as quiet, somewhat shy, very much liked by his pupils and fond of games. Under the direction of the Director, Brother Denis Hyland, the school was extended and numbered 1700 pupils by 1952.

ImageThen, in 1955, Brother Pius was appointed Director of St Michael’s. The younger teachers in particular took to his style, sharing his interests and enthusiasms. These included games of all kinds, swimming, scouting, air cadets and St John’s Ambulance Brigade. The boys developed an astonishing enthusiasm for every kind of game and activity. Every student had to join a school-uniformed group and most were involved in some sport or other. Indeed Brother Pius’ name is linked with great successes in swimming and badminton right up to national levels. He himself was a keen swimmer and badminton player.

He was generous by nature and inclination and some took advantage of this to borrow money from him rather too freely. He often helped pupils in financial difficulties. His kindness also tempted some pupils to get up to pranks or to create disciplinary trouble. It was then that the “Pius System” was invoked. When he felt that a boy had overstepped the mark, the boy was called into the Principal’s Office. Brother Pius would switch on the public address system and give a few good whacks to the errant boy, the echoes of the whacks reverberating around the school. This somewhat innovative method of dealing with youthful offenders eventually got into the newspapers and was called the “Pius System”! In these circumstances the younger teachers would say something like “the whole town is talking about your new idea”, knowing that this would please him.

One of his students at the time recalls: “An exceptionally composed man of few words, Brother Pius is someone I fondly remember. Once a boy was reading a comic, placing it behind his textbook when the teacher was teaching. Brother Pius, during his rounds, saw this. He calmly walked towards the boy from behind and closed the boys’ eyes with both his hands. The boy, thinking the hands belonged to his friend, slapped them. He looked back…and never played that trick again”.

In those years most of the Brothers would make their annual Retreat in the country house on Penang Hill. On one famous occasion Brother Pius appeared clothed in a span-new white robe. One day a Brother was shaving upstairs. Task completed, he threw the basin of dirty water out the window. Brother Pius happened to be passing below and received a dousing, new robe and all. For years afterwards he could not be convinced that it was all an accident.

Towards the end of 1960, after having serving the normal two terms, Brother Pius was given a rousing send-off, complete with fife and drum. He had steered St Michael’s through hard and good times and could now take a deserved rest back in his home country.

After his holiday with his beloved family in Ireland he was asked to return to Burma, once again to St. Paul’s Rangoon. However, in 1963, he was asked to take charge of a new school in Taunggyi. He welcomed the appointment since he had been very fond of Burma and its people from his early years there. But just as things were taking shape a semi-communist group seized the reins of power in a 1963 coup. Brother Pius and six recently arrived Brothers were ordered to leave the country. On April 1st 1965, all mission schools were confiscated and nationalized. The Brothers were forbidden to teach and foreign Priests, Brothers and Sisters told to leave the country. It was a second and final sad farewell to Burma for Brother Pius.
Hong Kong provided the refuge and he arrived there on the 1st June 1964 and was assigned to teach Form 4 in La Salle College. A new Lasallian school situated close to the border with mainland China was being built at the time and after one year in La Salle Brother Pius was posted as one of the four pioneers of the new school and community. The other three Brothers were Felix Sheehan (Director), Hubert Pilz and Paul O’Connell. To this day the four ‘Houses’ of the school are called after them. Brother Pius was to remain there for the next fifteen years, entering fully into the life of the community and school.

ImageThe Brothers managed to create a warm family atmosphere in the school. Most of the students were farmers’ sons, many came to school on bicycles and for nearly all it was a first encounter with white-robed missionary teachers. Besides teaching English and Religion, Brother Pius as usual promoted games and sports, and was the advisor of the Red Cross Unit. (Note: Photo of Bro. Pius with his good friend Bro. Hubert)

Signs of ill health began to appear in the 70’s. He had never been very robust and was diagnosed with diabetes in 1973. He rallied and tried to carry on as usual but it was a strain and his ills were compounded by a stroke which affected his speech. Nevertheless he felt strong enough to pay a last visit to St Michael’s, his old school in Ipoh, Malaysia, and spent three months there. There was a regular stream of visitors to see him. A Brother who was there at the time recalls that he “wept as I led him to the plane on his departure, realizing it would be his last sight of Ipoh where he had been so happy”.
In 1979, the Brothers in Hong Kong decided it would be best for Brother Pius to take home leave followed by retirement in Castletown. They knew of his deep affection for his family and he spent the best part of a year in his brother’s house which was the old family abode. While there, he celebrated the Golden Jubilee of his taking the religious habit and Mass was said in the house.

In 1980 he was transferred to Miguel House nursing home in Castletown where he received every attention. By this time he was largely confined to a wheelchair. He remained his usual quiet and cheerful self but spoke little because of the effects of the stroke. At the end of the year his condition deteriorated and he had to be hospitalized but soon returned to Miguel House where he died on January 16th 1981. He was sixty-nine years of age.

Brother Pius’ Postings: St. Paul’s Rangoon, Burma
St. Xavier’s Penang, Malaysia
St. Joseph’s Novitiate, Penang
Home Leave
St. Michael’s Ipoh
St. Paul’s Rangoon, Burma
St. Theresa’s Taunggyi, Burma
La Salle College, Hong Kong
De Salle Secondary School, Hong Kong
Home Leave
Miguel House, Castletown, Ireland

The Gateway Bulletin – La Salle Hong Kong
Brother Patrick Tierney, Hong Kong and Asia Explorer.com


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