Father Moran and Nepal's Jesuits

Educator and ham radio enthusiast, 9N1MM was the country's first window into the modern world

Fr Marshall D Moran (1906-1992) in Nepal with his ham radio and 9N1MM call sign.

We stood uneasily on the grass beneath the spreading fig tree. Father Moran was trying to create a sense of religious formality, our excited guests were in danger of being rowdy, and I was missing the church font usually associated with christenings from my Protestant upbringing. But this was our tiny patch of Bansbari garden in 1987, and we had to make do.

I was carrying the precious bundle wrapped in his best, though not the trailing lace and embroidery of more traditional baptism ceremonies. The appointed god parents could not be with us so Alma, the dignified wife of Dudley Spain had offered to be surrogate godmother, and Lewis Macfarlane the American deputy was our stand-in godfather. The proceedings got underway with a blessing and some prayers as the audience settled in the spring sunshine, birdsong drifting through the lychee trees and insects busy in the flowerbeds.

Alma tried to wrestle Sangjay out of my arms, an undignified tussle ensued until I was reminded in an urgent hiss that church etiquette dictates that the godmother, not the mother, holds the child during the service. Father Moran carried on valiantly as I yielded my little treasure. Sangjay gazed typically phlegmatic throughout, the assembled friends politely pretending not to notice.

My mother professed to be shocked that our babies, Sangjay then his little brother Rinchen a couple of years later, had been baptized “by a Catholic priest, darling!”, though I don’t think she really minded. She approved that both sons had also been blessed and named by the Tibetan family Rinpoche in Swayambhunath, careful to protect our katas, offerings and babies from the monkeys, and covering all spiritual options. And like me, she greatly admired the gentle legacy of the Jesuits in Nepal, holding special respect for their leader, Father Moran.

The Society of Jesus fathers were an integral part of early expatriate life in Kathmandu, bringing gravitas to Christian community landmarks such as baptisms, confirmations, marriages and burials, as well as being great fun at the after-party. Many of them were American and most took Nepali nationality, instilling their special brand of universal spirituality and essence of educational excellence without ever forcing their faith. Father Moran set the tone with his ham radio call sign, 9N1MM Mickey Mouse.

No foreign funeral was complete without the reassuring presence of a presiding Jesuit, and Boris’s was no exception. At the age of 80 Boris died in 1985, inconveniently during Dasain so Jim Edwards and I had to mobilise a team of Buddhist Mountain Travel Sherpas to dig his grave in the British Cemetery - Hindus could not be tainted during the festival.

Arriving in India with only refugee papers, Boris had managed British citizenship with the help of his friend Lady Diana Duff-Cooper. He often visited the British Cemetery on daily walks from the Royal Hotel, and always intended to be buried there beside his mother and mother-in-law. He liked to say that he knew the name on every tombstone, making the acquaintance of his future neighbours. Buried on a bright afternoon 22 October 1985, the funeral service was dramatic with Russian wailing, sobbing and embracing the coffin, despite the best efforts of Father Eugene Watrin and Father Tom Downing who conducted the service.

The Jesuits’ commitment to their calling was manifest in their scholarly study, academic research and social work, resulting in books, centres and clinics where they were most needed. Their gowned silhouettes were a familiar sight around town, pursuing their devout vocations with practical ministrations. Father Moran is remembered riding his motorbike to Godavari, white robes billowing, and in his wake alarmed buffalos and excited dogs careering down the unmade road in a cloud of dust.

For Nepalis, the brothers’ profound influence on education impacted on generations of privileged pupils lucky enough to attend St Xavier’s and St Mary’s in Godavari and Jawalakhel - Nepal’s first internationally accredited schools opened in 1951 and 1955 respectively. At the initiative of the newly instated King Tribhuvan, the Jesuits literally brought modern thinking to Nepal, founding the first permanent Christian mission sanctioned in Kathmandu for nearly 200 years. This remarkable achievement was mainly due to the sheer force of personality and charisma of Father Marshall Moran.

The first European ever encountered by the Valley’s Newa inhabitants was a Portuguese Jesuit, Father John Cabral, on his way from Shigatse (Xigazê) in Tibet to Bengal in early 1628. These intrepid Westerners were Jesuit monks despatched from Rome to their Catholic mission in Tibet. They must have been a strange sight, austere travellers clothed in long capes and plain, black, ankle-length soutanes gathered at the waist with a rope.

The Jesuits’ legation in Lhasa was never robust and in 1702 Pope Clement XI reassigned the mission-field of Tibet to the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin - a branch of Roman Catholic Franciscans. The Capuchins would have been instantly recognisable with their dark-brown robes, pointed hoods drawn over their heads, and untrimmed bushy black beards.

The Malla kings allowed Capuchin friars from Lhasa to live in the Valley’s city states for over half a century, until they were politely sent packing by Prithivi Narayan Shah is 1769. With their centre in Bhaktapur, Raja Ranajit Malla wrote in Newari to the Pope saying that they were free to evangelise but, concerning his own conversion, he would “not be able to do it now”. The site of the Lalitpur Capuchin house and small cemetery, said to lie north of Patan, is forgotten and lost. Other than the occasional visit by a wandering Capuchin, there would be no Christian clergy living in Nepal until the restoration of the monarchy when Father Moran established the current Jesuit mission.

Born in Chicago in 1906, Marshall D. Moran joined the Society of Jesus in 1924. With five other Jesuits sailed as a novice from New York to Bombay in 1929, then by train to their destination, the Patna Mission in Bihar. In India he studied and taught in Shembaganur, Bettiah, Kurseong and Ranchi, set up schools and hospitals, and worked in Patna University which had links with Tri Chandra College in Kathmandu - a connection that would change his life.

Father Bill Robins tells the story: “The Patna University sent an invigilator each year to supervise the Tri Chandra college exams. Professors hated to go. Marshall volunteered to fill in, and so in October 1949 travelled to the border and on to Amlekhganj in Nepal. A bus got him to Bhimphedi and from there he walked to Kathmandu. During the month in Nepal, Marsh was able to build relationships with those in power, while offering to help Nepal through school education. He returned to Patna, hoping that he would be invited back.”

On the feast of All Saints a year later, Marshall Moran received the keenly awaited summons from the new education minister, Nrip Jang Rana. Returning to Kathmandu in early 1951, Father Moran accepted the offer of Godavari Darbar, the Prime Minister’s summer residence, as the school site, he recruited students and prepared the buildings. St. Xavier’s in Godavari began classes on 1 July 1951, and land was purchased in Jawalakhel in 1954. Thanks to a plentiful supply of American missionaries and visa restrictions within India, a succession of Jesuit teachers were available to run the schools.

There were a couple of non-negotiable conditions attached to the invitation as prescribed by King Tribhuvan, and to which Father Moran concurred. The Jesuits’ work was confined only to the Kathmandu Valley, and they were not permitted to proselytise. Within those limitations, which to this day the brotherhood are proud to have honoured to the letter, the Society of Jesus fathers have made their indelible mark on the history of Nepal.

Lisa Choegyal