Fr. Marshall D. Moran, S.J.

By Fr. John Locke, S.J.
(From NJS 50th Anniversary Book, 2001)

Fr. Marshall D. Moran, S.J.

Fr. Marshall D. Moran, S.J.

October 1, 1949. A train rumbles into the sleepy town of Raxaul on the border of the Indian state of Bihar and the Kingdom of Nepal, as the sun rises to the peaks of the Himalayas to the far north. A tall figure in a white cassock makes his way from the tiny rail station down the dusty lane to the border, where he meets a delegation that will accompany him on the two-day trek to the Valley of Kathmandu. Thus did Fr. Marshall Moran begin his first visit to Nepal.

He was the first Jesuit to enter the kingdom since December 1721, when Fr. Hippolito Desideri passed through the Kathmandu Valley on his return from Lhasa to the Indian plains. He was the first Catholic priest to enter Nepal since the death in 1810 in Kathmandu of Fr. Guiseppe, the last of the Capuchins of the old Lhasa mission.

Born in Chicago in 1906, Marshall Moran attended St. Ignatius Prep in Chicago and after high school joined the old Missouri Province at Florissant in 1924. The Missouri Province had recently accepted a new mission in Patna, India. In 1928, the Chicago Province was carved out of the Missouri Province, and the new mission in Patna fell to Chicago’s lot. After his first year of philosophy Marsh joined Frs. George Dertinger, Richard Welfe, John Morrison, Richard Mehren, and Charles Bonnot when they set sail for India, arriving in Bombay on November 11, 1929.

After completing his philosophical course at Shembaganur, Fr. Moran returned to Patna where he spent his regency as headmaster of the Bettiah Parish Middle School. In Bettiah he began a career as a Jesuit educator in India and Nepal that ended only when he went to the hospital on April 4, 1992.

In 1932-36 saw Fr. Moran at St. Mary’s in Kurseong for theology, where he had his first view of the Himalayas and his first acquaintance with Nepalis. After tertainship he returned to Patna where he was appointed as a sort of assistant to the superior of the mission, Fr. Loesch, in his work of building a new school in Patna.

The new school in Patna was a result of a nagging concern of Fr. Loesch. The early years of Patna were marked by care for the old Christian communities north of the Ganges and an incredibly successful missionary movement along the Santals followed by a concentration of effort on other marginalised low-caste groups, especially the Chamars. The nagging concern was that the mission so far had not reached out to the majority community in Bihar. At that time the key to advancement lay in the acquisition of a solid English education, and people from Bihar were sending their sons to the hill schools and Calcutta, for there were no such school in Bihar.

Fr. Moran and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in Patna

Fr. Moran and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in Patna

So it was decided to open a Cambridge school in Patna to provide this service to the people of Bihar. There were such Jesuit schools in North India, especially in Calcutta and Darjeeling, and one of the oldest ventures in Patna was the Christian Brothers’ St. Michael’s School. However the proposed school was truly a new venture. The earlier schools catered primarily to the sons of Catholics: expatriate servants of the British Raj and Anglo-Indians. This was to be a school for Indians and for Indians for all castes and creeds. The school opened in 1940 with Fr. Moran as principal.

Fr. Moran’s efforts in Patna reached far outside the compound walls of the school. He formed school advisory council of leading doctors, lawyers, business people, and educators who assisted in the selection of teachers and the formation of policy. In this way he built a solid base of support to offset the inevitable reactionary religious and social opposition to the school. He was known and respected by the group of younger Indians who were preparing to take their place in the new India of 1947.

Bishop Sullivan asked him to serve as spiritual Father to the young diocesan priests of Patna. He also served on the senate of Patna University and on its various committees for text books, examinations, and syllabus. When the Carmelite Sisters came to Patna to found a college for girls, it was Fr. Moran who enlisted the help of Dr. Rajendra Prasad in acquiring a suitable piece of property, and his many friends at the University used their influence to get the Patna Women’s College recognised as a degree granting college of women.

His work at Patna was a splendid beginning, but only a beginning, for Fr. Moran’s vision was wider. In 1949 the Vice Chancellor of Patna University called Fr. Moran and told him that in gratitude for all he had done in the University he was going to propose his name as Patna University’s representative to an international conference on university education. Marsh declined. “India is now independent and you should send an Indian, not a foreigner. If you want to send me some place, send me to Nepal to proctor the exams there.”

At that time, Tri Chandra College was the only college in Nepal and a constituent college of Patna University, for Nepal had no university. In the beginning students had to travel to Patna for their examinations; later the University would send someone to Nepal to conduct the exams. And so Fr. Moran found himself on the road to Kathmandu in the fall of 1949. While he was in Nepal he met Mohan Shamsher Rana, the last of the Rana prime ministers, and they discussed the possibility of the Jesuits opening a school in Nepal.

The following year saw the overthrow of the Rana government, and the proposal had to wait until the dust settled. The new government finally approved the plan. The Chicago Provincial, Joe Egan, and Fr. Moran made a trip to Nepal in the winter to discuss the details, and in June 1951, Fr. Moran returned to Kathmandu Fr. Frank Murphy and Fr. Ed Saxton to open the new school at Godavari, Fr. Frank Murphy was the superior and Fr. Moran the principal.

His years in the strongly Hindu environment of Patna had prepared Fr. Moran for Nepal. But Nepal was not India. Before 1951 there were no foreigners in Nepal and foreigners, especially if they were “professional Christians,” were suspect. Education itself was a dangerous novelty. In 1951 only 100 students in the whole of Nepal finished high school. Some of the elite in Nepal had sons in St. Xavier’s Patna, and they came along with Fr. Moran to form the nucleus of the new school.

Fr. Moran and Fr. Jim greeting the Queen and King at the 35th Anniversary of the Godavari school.

Fr. Moran and Fr. Jim greeting the Queen and King at the 35th Anniversary of the Godavari school.

Yet the people were suspicious, students were hard to come by, and classes were small. Many of the old timers who sent their sons to the school in the beginning still talk of the risks they ran of ridicule from their peers and family elders and political discrimination because they were sending their sons to a Christian school.

By 1954 some of the fears had abated, and Fr. Moran opened a second school in the city for the primary section. Now forty-five and more years later the number of students applying is an embarrassment, for there is room for only 5% of those who apply.

In Nepal as in India, Fr. Moran’s interests were not confined to the school. Few, even among the Jesuits of Nepal, know of the extent of Fr. Moran’s help to the Tibetan Refugees after 1959. The departure of the Dalai Lama from Tibet caused a flood of refugees into Nepal and India. To help these people was difficult, for the Government of Nepal at that time refused to admit that such refugees existed in Nepal. So Fr. Moran became the chairman of an unofficial committee of Americans, Swiss, Germans, Indians, British, and Swedish who wanted to help.

Catholics and Protestants worked together, and soon the International Red Cross and the Swiss began to send doctors, nurses, and supplies. Land was acquired south of our school in Jawalakhel to settle some of these people. Fr. Moran made several trips to outlying places such as Dolpo to extend his help.

Eventually he started a school for the children at Jawalakhel, and five more schools were started in Central and Western Nepal. A handicraft centre was started at Jawalakhel, and the people were trained in weaving Tibetan carpets. Within four years this had grown into a self-sustaining industry, and the Swiss were able to withdraw their financial support. From this beginning has grown what is today’s Nepal’s major source of export hard currency – the carpet industry.

Fr. Moran ("Mickey Mouse") in his Ham Radio Shack.

Fr. Moran ("Mickey Mouse") in his Ham Radio Shack.

Fr. Moran’s one hobby was his HAM Radio, a skill he learned in Chicago when he as a boy and picked up again after World War II in Patna. After coming to Nepal it was 1960 before he took up the hobby again, and over the next 30 years “Mickey Mouse” (his call sign) had become one of the most well-known HAM operators in the world. In 1986 the ARRL awarded him their “International Humanitarian Award” given to amateurs who, through Amateur Radio, are devoted to promoting the welfare of mankind.

For Marsh the radio was always more than a hobby. It was a way to give concrete education to the students in physics and geography. It was an apostolate, and he had many stories of the help he had rendered in time of earthquakes, shipwreck, and emergency illness. More than this, it was his way of reaching out in friendship to a bewildering variety of different faiths and nationalities from the King of Jordan to a large number of friends in the former Soviet Union. Mickey Mouse is now off the air, and his host of friends (over 90,000 of them) miss the word of cheer from Nepal and his puns.

Fr. Moran will probably be best remembered as an educator. He was a superb teacher and he liked to teach. He continued to teach ten classes a week in the school and two classes a week to the juniors at Kamal Niwas until the middle of March. He ran informal classes for the boys in basic computer skills, showed them films, and tended to their ills right to the end. Yet his real contribution came not from teaching and certainly not from administration. He was seldom in the office long enough to administer, and he had little patience in the details of school administration. His schools succeeded because he was fortunate to have superb administrators to run the schools: Fr. Niesen in Patna, Frs. Niesen and Watrin in Godavari, and Fr. Downing, and later, Frs. Niesen and Miller at Jawalakhel.

His contribution came first from his vision of education, a vision from the Radio Studiorum and its insistence on excellence, a solid general education and eloquencia perfecta. He saw the old Cambridge system and its syllabus as a fine modern adaptation of the principles of the Ratio, and he was able to convey his vision to the staff and his students.

His second and greatest contribution came from his charismatic qualities as a person. He had an uncanny ability to reach out to people as a friend – people of all kinds: international figures, local politicians, students, teachers, servants, and villagers around Godavari. He was constantly on the move and kept up a wide variety of contacts. Each of these people felt a close bond to him. Each felt that he or she had a special relationship with Fr. Moran. His personal contacts made the Nepal enterprise possible, breaking down suspicions and allaying fears.

After his death, a local business man, who had never attended the school nor sent his sons there and whose efforts to get his business associate’s son into the school twice met with refusal, called to convey his condolences. He said, “He told me so many wonderful things and gave me such good advice. I feel as though I had lost my own father.”

Coupled with this was an intuitive understanding of concrete situations. He knew, and he could seldom explain how, when was the time move and when was the time to hold back. When he first came to Nepal, he was offered several sites to choose from for the proposed school, including a fine piece of property in the centre of town with a huge building.

Fr. Moran with his Class 6 students at Godavari School, 1985.

Fr. Moran with his Class 6 students at Godavari School, 1985.

He chose Godavari, and many a Jesuit of later years has wondered, “Why Godavari, way out in the jungle?” He would explain that it was a fine site for a boarding school and had good water supply. True enough, the rain seemed endless. Yet the real reason was different. He had an intuition that it was important to be out of the way, unseen, with a very low profile to survive the early years of suspicion.

When the time was ripe, he informed the community one night that he had bought a second school in the centre of town. Now was the time to move, and move he did: on three days’ notice, in the middle of the monsoon, with the road to Godavari breached in two places, he moved the primary school in town. The little boys had to walk. An army of coolies carried all the furniture to town in two stages, spending the night in a village on the way.

In his early days in Nepal he functioned as a kind of intermediary and roving ambassador between his many friends in the Nepal government and the flood of foreigners who found their way to Nepal after 1951 – aid personnel, embassy personnel, mountain climbers, business people, and just plain tourists. They were bewildered by what they found, and they turned to the only man they felt understood how the system functioned. It was an old Jesuit joke that no airplane could land at the old Gauchar airport unless Fr. Moran was on hand. A bit overstated, but he did eventually meet most of these people, and his friendship made their stay in Nepal more fruitful for themselves and the people of Nepal.

Despite this flurry of activity and contacts, Marsh was at heart an introvert and a very private person. He was uneasy with compliments and seldom spoke of his accomplishments. Even his “Eleanor Roosevelt Syndrome” (”That reminds me of what I once told Eleanor Roosevelt.”) was not a device of one-upmanship or bragging, but a way to divert attention from a topic or question he felt uncomfortable with.

In the community he could be a stimulating conversationalist and great raconteur, bur he seldom revealed what he thought about an issue and even less what he felt about it. He had strong feelings about many issues, and occasionally they would erupt in brief and fleeting glimpses into the inner man. He drew his replenishment from solitude where he listened to classical music, prayed, and read. He read each of the volumes of Karl Rahner’s Theological Investigations as they came out, and left many articles annotated for the edification of future generations. He didn always agree with Rahner and the other modern theologians he read, but he read. He prayed, he evaluated.

He served as rector of the community from 1966-71, at a time when all of the works of Nepal were under one rector. As a superior he was ready to listen to all (if you could catch him). He would size up a situation and give you a quick, clear decision. He laid down policies that he wanted followed; beyond that each man was free to run his own department unhindered. If a crisis arose he would say, “This is what I would do. But you are the principal, do what you think best.” If you rejected his solution, followed your own lights, and came to grief, he would defend you as though it had all been his idea. And that was the last you would ever hear of it.

After 1971 he was no longer superior or principal but continued his contacts, continued a heavy load of reaching, and did fill in as acting superior on several occasions. He was readily available for consultation or advice which he continued to give in his usual clear and decisive manner, but he never interfered with the rector or principal. He often said, “My time is past. It is up to you now.”

He had strong misgivings – few realise how strong – about some of the directions taken by the Society, the Province, arid the Region over his last twenty years. He raised objections in community meetings arid shared some of his misgivings, but never used his standing as the respected elder to block, change or interfere. And he never became bitter. Like Gameliel, the wise man on the Sanhedrin, he felt that if this is of human origin it will collapse; if it is of God it will succeed despite the fulmination of an old man.

At the funeral Mass in Delhi, at the Mass in Kathmandu before the burial of his ashes, and in the volume of condolence messages we have received, rich tributes have been paid to him and to the work he accomplished in India and Nepal. Marsh would have felt uneasy with all of them.

Perhaps the most fitting tribute, and one he would have felt comfortable with, came from Ganesh Man Singh, the “Supreme Leader” of the Nepali Congress, whom Marsh had known since 1951. He visited Marsh in the hospital the night before he died and said simply: “We are happy you came to Nepal.”