Kelly, Nora (1871–1964)

By: Cecilia Gutierrez Venable

Type: Biography

Published: May 16, 2019

Nora Kelly was a co-founder of Our Mother of Perpetual Help Rest Home and the Divine Providence Hospital, later renamed the Brownsville Medical Center, both of Brownsville, Texas. She also served on the Santa Rosa Hospital staff in San Antonio, where she initiated the Crippled Children’s Association and helped raise additional funds for the Children’s Hospital at Santa Rosa Medical Center.

Nora Kelly was born on February 19, 1871, in Brownsville to William Kelly, one of the last steamboat operators on the Rio Grande, and Mary Anne (Gallagher) Kelly. Her father, an accomplished businessman, emigrated from Ireland to New York in 1860 and came to Texas with the U.S. Army. After he fought in the battle of Palmito Ranch, the last battle of the Civil War, he stayed in Brownsville. On May 14, 1870, in Brownsville, he married Kelly’s mother, a widow of international shipper Jesse S. Thornham, who died in a hurricane in 1867. Nora Kelly had two brothers, two sisters, and three half-brothers. As children, Kelly and her sisters attended the Academy of the Visitation, a Catholic boarding school for girls in Mobile County, Alabama. In 1905 her family joined other prominent families, including James B. Wells, to establish the Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church, Brownsville’s first Catholic church for English-speaking congregants, completed in 1913, under the leadership of Rev. Henry A Constantineau. Nora Kelly served as the secretary of the fundraising committee.

Once Kelly and her sister Anna returned home from boarding school, they helped their mother work as caretakers for several elderly individuals who were blind. Soon the three Kelly women established a formal institution, the St. Joseph’s Home for the Aged and Blind, for that purpose. The home, located on East Washington Street in Brownsville, opened on March 27, 1901. Kelly’s mother operated this new facility, and Kelly and her sister worked as caretakers. In 1909 Nora Kelly worked as a professional nurse in Corpus Christi, Texas, and in 1910 she was as a teacher at the Academy of the Visitation in Mobile, Alabama. During this period, she returned home often to help her family through several difficult experiences which included her brother Jesse S. Thornham’s arrest and lengthy murder trial from 1907 to 1909, and the frequent illnesses of her brothers Alfred Thornham and John W. Kelly, both of whom died in 1908. She also helped her sister Anna plan her society wedding, set for June 7, 1907, to Mack Richardson, a U.S. Army lieutenant stationed in San Antonio, and Nora tried to ease her sister’s heartbreak and embarrassment when Richardson failed to show for the ceremony and days later committed suicide. Sadly, a few years later, Nora Kelly’s mother died on November 12, 1914.

With a desire to expand care at St. Joseph’s Home to include children of working mothers and homeless children, Kelly partnered with Elizabeth Fernandez in 1913. To raise money, the two women sold tamales on the street corner until Fernandez’s husband, John G. Fernandez, vice president of Merchant’s National Bank, and Kelly’s father provided financial support for the home. The two families also appealed to the city and county for additional funding. Frances J. Wheeler, the wife of Jesse O. Wheeler, publisher of the Brownsville Herald, joined Nora Kelly and Elizabeth Fernandez, and the trio, with a loan from the Merchant’s National Bank, leased a building on Madison and 6th Street.

Kelly continued to expand the scope of work done at St. Joseph’s Home and received a significant boost from national exposure during the Mexican Revolution. On June 4, 1913, the home served as a receiving station and improvised hospital, one of many set up in the city, for injured soldiers hurt when Gen. Lucio Blanco attacked the federal garrison in Matamoras, Mexico. The plight of these soldiers and injured civilians drew curious people, seeking firsthand knowledge of border town conditions, to Brownsville. One of these witnesses, Florence J. Harriman (Mrs. Jefferson Borden Harriman), railroad heiress, social activist, and suffragist, met with Kelly and discussed the problems of Kelly’s meager facility. When Harriman returned to Washington, she wrote letters and articles detailing her observations and made national headlines. Harriman’s description of the dire need of hospital facilities in Brownsville noted the small, private hospital was the only hospital facility available for U. S. troops in the area. Her description earned a rebuke from the U.S. Secretary of War Newton D. Baker who pointed to field hospitals. Nevertheless, Harriman’s appeal was successful. She created the Borden Harriman Charity Fund and provided Kelly nearly $15,000. With the funds, Kelly purchased property and established the Divine Providence Hospital. Then she enlisted the Sisters of Mercy in Laredo to staff this new venture. The building, dedicated on June 1, 1917, served the Sisters of Mercy until 1923, when a new hospital, Mercy Hospital (later Brownsville Medical Center) was established.

Kelly retained the old building as the Providence Charity Home and returned to caring for the elderly and indigent. After the death of her father in 1921, she moved to San Antonio, Texas, to be closer to her siblings Anna Kelly, Mary Geraldine Kelly, and Jesse S. Thornham, and his wife and children. Her brother William, a West Point graduate, lived in Honolulu, Hawaii, and served in the adjutant general’s office. He died suddenly on a visit in Austin, Texas, in 1927. Kelly’s sister Anna died in San Antonio in 1928. She left management of Providence Charity Home to the Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate under the name Our Mother of Perpetual Rest Home. She visited Brownsville often and, with Fernandez and Wheeler, continued to raise funds for the home throughout the 1930s.

In San Antonio Kelly found another avocation when she worked for Santa Rosa Hospital, helped establish the Crippled Children’s Association, and raised funds for a children’s hospital. In 1949 Kelly returned to Brownsville and resided in Mother of Perpetual Help Rest Home, the legacy of her lifetime of work, until her death due to arteriosclerosis on March 12, 1964. She was ninety-three years old. She, like her sisters Anna and Geraldine, who died in 1956, never married. Her funeral service was held at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, the church she helped start, and was attended by her godson Most Reverend Mariano S. Garriga, bishop of the Corpus Christi Diocese. She was buried in the family plot in the Brownsville City Cemetery. In 1954 Pope Pius XII honored her with the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal, the highest honor bestowed to laypersons by the Vatican, in recognition of her distinguished service to humanity and the Roman Catholic Church.

Visit the Texas Women Project's standalone website

The Handbook of Texas Women project has its own dedicated website and resources.

Visit Website

Brownsville Herald, June 14, 15, 1907; February 24, 1908; March 6, 1909; June 1, 1909; September 17, 1909; October 19, 1909; November 15, 1953; January 27, 1963; March 12, 1964; July 6, 1975; March 28, 2001. Chicago Tribune, July 21, 1916. “50th Anniversary of Mother of Perpetual Help Nursing Home, 1934–1984” brochure, Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate Archives, San Antonio, Texas. New York Times, July 21, 1916. Valley Morning Times (Harlingen, Texas), March 14, 1964.

  • Health and Medicine
  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Advocates
  • Social Workers
  • Hospital, School, and Association Administrators
  • Nurses and Nurse Administrators
  • Religion
  • Catholic
  • Women
  • Activists
  • Patrons, Collectors, and Philanthropists

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Cecilia Gutierrez Venable, “Kelly, Nora,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 25, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.

For more information go to:

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

May 16, 2019

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: