Book Reviews

Moran of Kathmandu

Pioneer Priest, Educator and Ham Radio Voice of the Himalaya.

by
Donald A. Messerschmidt

2nd ed., 2012, 388 pp., 15 b & w illustrations, index, 23 X 15 cm., softbound.

ISBN-13: 978-974-524-140-4


Book review by Hassan N. Gardezi

Journal of Contemporary Asia
, Vol. 29 No. 2 (1999)

Messerschmidt’s Moran of Kathmandu is an interesting biography of a Jesuit missionary who spent 63 years of his life in India and Nepal until his death in 1992. In addition to a description of education in mission schools it gives glimpses of social and political conditions in the two countries over a long period from the viewpoint of an American priest actively involved in teaching and administering St. Xavier mission schools. It also offers an insider’s view of how such missionary institutions function in a Third World context.
    Fr. Marshall Moran landed in Bombay as a lay brother in November 1929 and began his long monastic and missionary career in South Asia with initial feelings of surprise and depression at the sight and sounds of overwhelming poverty mixed with some opulence. His first assignment was in the Bihar province where he taught in Jesuit mission schools in and around the city of Patna, the site of an imposing 18th century cathedral and a well established Catholic diocese. With fewer modern facilities and flourishing infections life in those days was much harder than today in the Gangetic planes even for Western missionaries “vowed to poverty.” But escape in cloistered seminaries and convents was always possible.
    Moran with his dedicated work and study habits rose quickly from teaching in village schools to elitist mission schools where sons of rich were educated. He was also ordained as a “fully professed” priest after a period of study at St. Mary’s College, a seminary located in the picturesque eastern Himalayas. Back in the City of Patna he was one of the pioneer priests who played a major role in starting the prestigious St Xavier High School for boys, equipped with “most modern” facilities, in 1940. Based on the Cambridge system of education, the school was opened by the British Governor of the Bihar province and enjoyed the patronage of Indian political elite. As he became the Principal and Superior of this school, his reputation as a prominent educationist was established in the province and he was appointed to the Board of Secondary Education and the Senate of the University of Patna.
    While in Patna, Moran also had the opportunities to meet with Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru whenever they came to town with their political campaigns. On one occasion Nehru used his Jeep to tour the riot torn areas of Bihar and Gandhi used his school playgrounds for his prayer meetings. Moran acknowledges the influence of Gandhi’s “innate spiritualism” and religious tolerance on his own “ecumenical thinking,” but he had misgivings about satyagraha as the former’s strategy of passive resistance of British raj. What Moran observed during the “Quit India” movement of the early 1940s convinced him that those “defiant and confrontational” acts lacked “true brotherhood and love.” In the midst of this political unrest thirty German and Italian missionaries being led to war-time internment camps got stranded in Patna because of the disruption of railway traffic by political demonstrators in August 1942. Moran had to play host to them for a week upon request from the police.
    Now Moran was a known figure in India but his ambition was to go to the kingdom of Nepal the snow peaked mountains of which the legends of earlier Jesuit missionaries lost in that country, had always fascinated him. Until 1951 Nepal had followed isolationist policies and there were few institutions of Western type education in that country. The only degree college in Kathmandu was affiliated with Patna University in Bihar, India. In 1949 Moran got his opportunity to go to Kathmandu to administer the Patna University examinations. Building on his contacts made during this visit with the Nepalese officials, he succeeded in his plans to establish an elementary mission school in a renovated vacant state palace in a suburb of the city called Godavari in 1951. With Moran’s shrewd and energetic manoeuvres within a few years this school was upgrades to a St. Xavier high school and two other elementary Jesuit mission schools were opened in Kathmandu one each for boys and girls. Thus, according to Moran’s biographer a foundation was laid for modern English medium education in Nepal for which only a few rich Nepalese were able to send their children to India.
    With more and more priests and nuns arriving to staff the Jesuit school in and around Kathmandu, Fr. Moran expanded his social activities and also picked up his hobby of operating a ham radio transmitter. Through his students and the alumni of mission schools, his contacts with the Nepal royalty and elite expanded considerably. He also became a well known personality among the rich and famous foreigners who were flocking into the mountain kingdom as it opened up to the world after 1950s. They included diplomats, writers, film stars, geologists and naturalists, mountaineer, astronauts and just tourists seeking exotic vacations. Within a short period a sizable community of Western expatriates emerged in Kathmandu and Fr. Moran became their residen1 priest, conducting mass in the local five star hotel, hearing confessions, counseling, providing tourist information, conducting rescue missions and at times establishing contacts with their loved ones back home with his ham radio. A few among the celebrities that he met in Kathmandu were the Mount Everest conqueror Sir Edmund Hillary astronaut Stuart Roosa of the Apollo-II fame, film star Jennifer Jones, and the novelista Agatha Christie and Han Suyin. The “inevitable, indestructible, knowledgeable” pries in Han Suyin’s novel about Nepal, the Mountain is Young is none other than the fictionalized character Fr. Moran.
    Apart from being an interesting story of an interesting personality, this book offers some significant insights into how missionaries and their institutions have operated following in the socio-political context of South Asia and what they have accomplished.

[Read a review of the first edition from Radio Society of Great Britain, January 1998] [Read a review of the first edition from The Kathmandu Post] [More Orchid Press Reviews]