The Founding of St Xavier's

Features Issue 51 Jul, 2010

He chartered a DC-3 loaded with school supplies, landing on the grassy Gauchar field (now Tribhuvan International Airport). Less than four months later, on 1st July 1951, Godavari School was formally opened.

Fifty-five years ago, on 15th  February 1951, King Tribhuvan made his trium  phal return to Kathmandu to re-establish his rightful place in the palace. The Rana government of Prime Minister Mohan Shamsher had fallen the previous November. During the intervening months, the King, in exile in India, negotiated his return and made progressive plans for the kingdom.

Late that same February afternoon, at Patna, India, Fr Marshall Moran, S.J. received a telegram from Kathmandu. It formally invited him to Nepal to open the first modern school for boys, at Godavari. The message followed two years of planning. It read: ‘Come at once.

“So,” said Moran, ‘I came.’ He had been waiting for this day for many years.

Marshall Moran, an American Jesuit educator, had been 20 years in India. His first school was in Bettiah, a little town in northern Bihar. There he first glimpsed the snow-capped Himalayas, met his first Nepali villagers, and vowed to visit the isolated kingdom one day. Several priests of the Capuchin Order had lived in Nepal from 1715 to 1769. The last Jesuit priest to visit Kathmandu was Ippolito Desideri, during the winter of 1721-22.

By the late 1940s, Moran had moved to Patna. There he became principal of St Xavier’s High School. He also served on the Patna University Senate and was an advisor to the administration. One day in 1949, the university vice chancellor asked Moran if he would like to go to Nepal to proctor exams at Kathmandu’s Trichandra College. His reply was a firm ‘yes!’

In those days, Patna University was responsible for the Trichandra College curriculum, matriculation and degree examinations. Each year the university sent someone north to supervise the annual college exams. In the past only Indian professors had gone, most of whom considered the ‘primitive’ conditions of Kathmandu a hardship, and never wanted to return. Moran, however, was eager to go.

He set out from Patna on 1st October 1949, accompanied by an 11-year old Nepalese schoolboy, Pradhyumna Rana. Pradhyumna, the son of a Nepal Army officer, was one of the privileged few Nepali boys allowed to attend school in Patna. He was coming home to Kathmandu to celebrate the Dashain holidays with his family. They entered Nepal at Birganj, rode the old narrow gauge railway to Amlekhganj, and then, a rickety bus on to the base of the mountains at Bhimphedi. After that they walked.

Pradhyumna Rana later described it:
At the (Bhimphedi) guesthouse that first night, the officials checked our travel papers. Father (Moran) had a visa but since I had decided to come rather suddenly, I had no proper permission. I had to call ahead to the prime minister’s palace in Kathmandu. I was a Rana, so they allowed me, but the telephone line was terrible and I had to shout to be heard. But of course, I was given permission to come.

The next morning we started walking up the mountain trail. As a privileged Rana boy, I was expected to ride in the tamdan liter chair that was always provided. The tamdan was slung on a pole, carried by two men on their shoulders. Father was politely offered a horse and sahis (care taker of horses) but we both preferred to walk…

They crossed the Mahabharat Hills in two days, spending the night in the government guesthouse at Chisopani Gadhi. On the second day, they passed through the fertile valley of Chitlang, then over the 2,255 m. Chandragiri Pass and down into the Kathmandu Valley.

That second day was ‘bright and beautiful’, a good day for trekking, Moran recalled:

I remember walking through vast fields of ripening rice, now turning to gold. And it is no exaggeration to say I appreciated the clear, clean, cool mountain air, refreshingly so after the hot dusty plains of India. Big yellow-green pomelos, like American grapefruit, were ripening on the trees. And birds were singing as they passed through the mountains on their fall migration… The people along the way were very jolly, in a holiday mood. It was festival time and the people were celebrating Dashain…

By three o’clock in the afternoon we were on the last uphill stretch, ascending Chandragiri. From the top… we got our first glimpse of the Kathmandu Valley. It was a beautiful view, fifteen miles across to the eastern side… Rising above the rather medieval-looking red brick buildings and red-tiled pagoda roofs of the city’s many temples, I recognized two prominent white landmarks, the minaret called Bhimsen’s Tower and the ‘Bell House’, or ghanta ghar, the clock tower of Trichandra College.

At Thankot, (official entrance to the Valley) a motorcar was waiting to carry them into the city. Pradhyumna went home to his father’s house in Naxal, and Moran was given a small room in government guesthouse No. 2, in Tripureshwar. (The historic guesthouse, across from what is now the national stadium, was razed in 2005 for new construction.)

The schedule of events began with an audience with the prime minister. Moran’s chaperone was Mrigendra S.J.B. Rana, Director-General of Education. They arrived at Singha Durbar in time to witness the regular 5 pm public durbar, when the prime minister gave his civil servants a final Namaste of the day from the palace balcony.

During their audience, the prime minister asked many questions about Moran’s background, his home, the trek to Kathmandu, and if his quarters were comfortable. When he heard that Moran was in No. 2 guesthouse, an aide was ordered to shift him immediately to the more luxurious No. 1 guesthouse, a bungalow reserved for the highest-ranking visitors. ‘There,’ Moran said, ‘I was given a special cook who took orders, and a bearer, and a cleaning boy. Now I had three rooms all to myself, a sitting room right in the front, a bedroom and a small dining room. But the washroom was primitive…, I thought, with rather antiquated sanitation.’

For one month, every day except Saturday, Moran proctored the students’ exams. He was driven to the college each morning in a horse-drawn carriage. He preferred its quiet flamboyance over the noise and dust of driving through the unpaved lanes in an automobile. He described it like this:

As the carriage was a very regal affair, I would be recognized as an important person. I rode with the top down. It was pulled by a team of excellent thoroughbreds and two attendants sat behind me in a sort of rumble seat. They added to the pomp and dignity of it all. My hosts went to all this fuss as soon as they realized that I was not just another Indian professor from Patna, but someone whom they assumed must be a proper Englishman. I liked this merry open conveyance because I could look into the shops and into the peoples’ eyes along the street side. I was a bit of a spectacle and the people wondered, you know, ‘Who is this pale-faced visitor?’…

The examinations were held in the college library. While the boys wrote their answers to questions in the arts, economic, literature, chemistry and biology, Moran perused the library shelves for books to read. His interests were Nepalese history and religion.

Despite the presence of the college, and the Durbar High School a few blocks away, schooling under the Ranas was stifled by fear and suspicion. Only a few people talked with him, and conversations were brief. ‘The professors at the college were very careful not to appear too interested in me or in any scholarly topics I might bring up,’ he said. ‘People were so cautious in those days lest they appear too friendly, too intimate, too curious. They feared even the slightest appearance of being eager to learn, of falling under some unsanctioned foreign influence.’

Picnics were arranged each Saturday so Moran could see the countryside. His hosts were one or another of the college professors. By the third week he had seen Kakani, Nagarkot and Sundarijal.

Several times during his stay, Moran raised the subject of opening a proper Western style school in Kathmandu. His hosts were interested, but cautious about raising it with the prime minister. Moran examined each picnic site for its potential for building a school. The steep hillsides, however, were unsuitable for sports and other outdoor school activities. What he sought was a flat place where playing fields could be developed. Only on the last Saturday did he find a proper site.

At his farewell meeting with the prime minister, Moran raised the issue: “You should consider this, Your Excellency – make an education plan for Nepal”

“Yes, yes,” the prime minister responded. “We’ll have to think about this…”

And there it rested for the time

The next day Moran went on picnic to Godavari, one of the prime minister’s small summer estates a short drive south of the city. Godavari means ‘chrysanthemum’, and Moran found it to be a place of flowers, forest and wildlife. And, it was flat. Out of all the places he visited, it was the best site for a school:

There was enough flat area for playing fields, good spring water and a very fine forest for Boy Scouts… to hike and camp and do bird watching and study nature. It also had several good buildings that could easily be converted into classrooms and living quarters. And not the least, Godavari was far enough away from the city and the politics and all the distractions of urban life, which do not in any way help study and discipline. And the priests there would not always be the object of curiosity and suspicion. Out of sight, out of mind, I thought.

On Sunday Moran left for India. A few days later, from Patna, he wrote to Mrigendra Rana, expressing his sorrow at leaving Nepal but hoping to return if formal arrangements for starting a school could be made. The Director-General wrote back advising patience. He was gently pursuing the idea with the prime minister, he said.

For 12 months nothing happened. Then, on 1st November 1950, Mrigendra Rana visited Patna and personally informed Moran that the government was ready to open a Jesuit school at Godavari. Within a few days, however, political events in Kathmandu overtook all else. Then King Tribhuvan went into exile in India, and the Rana government fell.

Meanwhile, Moran raised the idea of a school in Nepal with his Jesuit superiors. He even scheduled an overnight visit to Kathmandu with one of them. They flew up to Kathmandu in a private plane in January 1951. After visiting Godavari a deal was struck; formal planning could begin.

Back in Patna, Moran patiently followed the political events unfolding in Kathmandu in the newspapers and by radio. Though anxious to move, he decided to wait until the King’s new government was sworn in and the situation was calm. On 14th February, the day before King Tribhuvan’s return to Nepal, Moran sent a telegram to the newly appointed Education Minister, Nrip Jang Rana. The minister was a staunch supporter of the king and a social liberal. In his message, Moran reminded Rana that the Jesuits had already received permission to open a school, and hoped that the progressive new government would agree.

The ‘come at once’ telegram of 15th February sealed it, and a few weeks later Moran flew again to Kathmandu. This time he chartered a DC-3 loaded with school supplies, landing on the grassy Gaucher field (now Tribhuvan International Airport). Less than four months later, on 1st July 1951, Godavari School was formally opened. One of the first students enrolled was Pradhyumna Rana.

Rural Godavari had been a place of ostentatious leisure amidst extensive gardens, horse and elephant stables and riding paths, an estate of courtly splendor, where the elite were waited on by a crowd of servants. To work as a school, however, it needed extensive renovations. Moran drew up plans and hired craftsmen to prepare offices, classrooms, library, dormitories, kitchen, dining hall, and quarters for the priests and teachers.

“I couldn’t have hoped for a better site for a school,” he said:

It was a great paradise for birds and animals. A little wild and isolated perhaps, but all the better for teaching undisturbed. The rhododendrons were in bloom when I got there and the orchids and other flowering trees and plants were beautiful. The local water was excellent, coming from a nearby spring that was sacred to devout Hindus. It flowed steadily I was assured by local people, even during the dry season. The school site was at five thousand feet elevation, five hundred feet higher than the city, so there were no morning mists nor, later, the dirty smog that would cover the city.

Godavari was the first school for modern education in Nepal. Soon, more priests arrived to teach. Godavari and St Xavier ‘old boys’ remember them well. Ed Saxton and Frank Murphy came in 1951, followed by Thomas Downing and Bertrand Saubolle in 1952. By the end of the decade they included Edward Niesen, John Blanchard, Eugene Watrin, James Dressman, Ludwig Stiller, Charles Law, John Locke, Casper Miller, and Thomas Gafney. In the 1960s came Larry Brooks, Leo Cachet, Marty Coyne and Jim Donnelly. Some still reside in Kathmandu. They, along with local teachers and other staff members and a maintenance crew made it go.

Marshall Moran lived a long and eventful life, including 41 in Nepal. He died at age 85 on 14th April 1992, and is buried in a garden at Godavari School – in that ‘great paradise for birds…,’ as he called it. ‘A little wild and isolated perhaps, but all the better for teaching undisturbed…’

Don Messerschmidt is an anthropologist and writer who lives in Kathmandu. All quotations are from his book: Moran of Kathmandu: Priest, Educator and Ham Radio ‘Voice of the Himalayas’ (1997, Orchid Press, Bangkok). It is available from Mandala and other bookstores in Kathmandu.