“Our journey to Jhapa aims not at fulfilling
a tourist’s desire for comfort and thrilling
experiences. It’s a visit to see
what the Jesuits are doing there.”
Please accept this invitation to journey to a part of Nepal that few people in the outside world know about: Jhapa District in South East Nepal. Don’t expect a stereotyped Shangri-la. Jhapa’s beauty is of a subtler kind: green jungles and fertile plains.
The indigenous people of Jhapa exhibit another beauty of their own. They possess the quiet dignity of plains people, in contrast to the happy-go-lucky spirit of those who live in the crisp air of the hills and the cold of the mountains. Jhapa District shares the climate of the adjoining Gangetic Plain of North India with its intense summer heat, somewhat reduced in the months of monsoon rains and followed by a foggy bone-chilling winter.
Our journey to Jhapa aims not at fulfilling a tourist’s desire for comfort and thrilling experiences. It’s a visit to see what the Jesuits are doing there. So we board a night bus in Kathmandu for a 16 hour trip to the village of Deonia. On arrival in the morning we climb down from the bus on wobbly legs and stumble along a mud road marked St. Xavier’s Deonia. A girl in a simple school uniform of blue and white catches up to us. When we tell her, “We’re going to our school,” she answers, with obvious pride, “It’s my school too.”
The Bishop of Kathmandu, Mgr. Simick, visiting the school of Maheshpur, in the East of the Country.
Fr. George spots us as we come through the gate. Though still young, he has spent many years at St Xavier’s Deonia as teacher, as Principal and now Superior of the school and the Jesuit community. He welcomes us enthusiastically and brings us to meet the energetic principal, Fr. Mathew Das. He is walking to the outdoor assembly of over 700 girls and boys from Class One to Class Ten and invites us to take part. The Nepalese lay teachers line up the children, joined by Fr. Juel, Fr. Lawrence, three Daughters of the Cross, and two Carmelite Missionary sisters. All these Jesuits and their sister collaborators from India have made Nepal their home. Fr. Mathew Das introduces us to the children and asks us to say a few words of encouragement. The School Captain calls all to attention for prayer and the national anthem and thus the school day of classes and many activities is launched for God’s greater glory.
During the first break in classes, we find Fr. Lawrence outside his classroom and reminisce about the origins of this Mission. It began with an intervention at a Nepal Jesuit meeting in 1996 when Fr.Victor Beck issued a challenge to us, “We must go to the Catholics of East Nepal!”
Who were those Catholics? They comprised several ethnic communities with their own distinctive languages and cultures. The Oraon, Kharia and Munda aboriginals migrated generations ago to South-East Nepal from North India to work in Nepal’s tea plantations. Even earlier the Santhal aboriginals walked a shorter distance across the unmarked Indian border to clear jungle areas in Nepal for subsistence farming. Only the Santhal had acquired Nepali citizenship. Many among both groups had been baptized while living in India.
In the early 1950’s pioneer Jesuits Fr. Marshall Moran and Fr. Ed Niesen in Kathmandu had heard reports of tribal Catholics living somewhere in the wilds of South-East Nepal but, without roads or bridges over the many large rivers in the area, it was not possible to minister to them. At one point a Canadian Jesuit, Fr. Tony Milledge, sent an Indian catechist from his mission in Darjeeling District in India to search for these Catholics. After many days of dangerous travel on foot through the jungles, the intrepid man did find a community of Oraon Catholics in a tea plantation near a small settlement called Damak. He also discovered that the people had built a church where their lay leader, Simon, faithfully conducted weekly prayer services.
But, back to that Region meeting. Fr. Victor’s prophetic challenge produced an enthusiastic response. For years the younger Jesuits had been raising a cry: let’s move out of the Kathmandu Valley! Now here was a place to go and the means were now available too: a road. King Mahendra’s dream (which many called impossible) of an East-West highway through the Terai had just materialized in the eastern sector. Fr. Leo Cachat, the Region Superior at the time, missioned Fr Victor himself to “go east, young man” and so began the Jhapa Mission.
The Jhapa mission aimed at faith-formation and the sacraments for the Catholics there, present and future. This included providing opportunities for education and Fr. Victor began to search for land for a school in Deonia that could be a service for all the people in the area. This school would build good will among the predominately Hindu population and facilitate work for missionary effort. Scholastic James P.A. served as founding principal. Another pioneer, Fr Norbert, founded a second school in the area, seven kilometers from Deonia in Maheshpur village. This school would provide education for the children of Catholics working in a large tea plantation on meager daily wages and living in sub-standard living conditions.
At Deonia Fr Victor first put up a small building to store materials for the school construction. It also served as a humble place to live for him and Br. Ireneus. In Maheshpur, founding principal Fr. Norbert built a one-room school in 1999 on land bordering the tea plantation. He lived at one end of the room and the children attended class at the other, sitting on the floor with their slates.
The next Region Superior, Fr. Mathew, often traveled to the Jhapa District headquarters to deal with the red tape of registering the schools. It was he who chose the name Moran Memorial School for the school in Maheshpur, to honour the memory of Fr. Marshal D. Moran, founder of St Xavier’s School, Kathmandu, in 1951.
The School of Maheshpur; on the left, Bro. Irenius Guria and, to the right, Fr. Sanjay Ekka, with children. In this region of Nepal, the earthquake of April 2015 did not cause much damage.
Now let’s go and see what is happening today at “Moran”, as the school is called locally. Br. Clarence arranges a jeep for us to travel the seven bumpy kilometers from Deonia to Maheshpur. We first meet Br. Ireneus, now administrator and treasurer of the school. Most of his Jesuit life has been spent here in Jhapa. But Moran Memorial School is no longer a one-room school house for little ones but an impressive 3-storey building. Another veteran of Moran, Br. Tej Kalyan, guides around the school grounds adjoining the tea plantation where most of the children live. He points out a bamboo grove at the far end of the school property and tells us it is the site for a large parish church to be built in the near future. He has been one of the first Jhapa Jesuits to offer Mass there after his priestly ordination last year.
It is especially here at Moran, the centre of the Jhapa parish of St. Ignatius, that we sense the ongoing fulfillment of Fr Victor’s vision of Jesuit ministry to the Catholics. The parishioners with their catechists gather for worship and faith formation here and in 15 mission chapels scattered over a vast area. The Pastor, Fr. Paul. K.C. and the other Jesuit priests and brothers of Jhapa Mission minister to them at all seasons, in the heat, the rains, the foggy cold.
Let’s journey now to Sadakbari village to meet recently ordained resident priest Fr. Tomson. We travel with nurse Sr. Jaya in the Nepal Jesuit mobile clinic for her weekly health camp and also visit the temporary convent of three Sisters of St. Anne. These sisters teach in St. Xavier’s School, Sadakbari, now temporarily housed in five bamboo huts. The huts serve as classrooms for the little children in nursery, lower kindergarten, upper kindergarten, Class One, and an office for the principal Br. Clarence and his staff. A few feet away local workers busily build permanent structures for the children as they progress year by year to high school graduation. Fr. Tomson adds supervision of this construction work to his pastoral work in Sadakbari and nearby Simulbari village. There Carmelite Missionary Sisters from Mumbai will soon begin a primary school which can send students to the future high school section in Sadakbari. This area has the greatest concentration of Santhal Catholics and thus the development work going on there.
Now let’s return to Maheshpur. A young Catholic is waiting there to take us for a visit to the tea garden homes. The families we visit welcome us warmly and inspire us with their faith as we pray with them. Two of the families have sons now preparing for the priesthood at the initial stage in Kathmandu. We rejoice that the dream of local vocations is becoming a reality.
Fr. Cap Miller, the author of the article, speaks to the students of the St. Xavier’s School of Deonia; on the right the principal of the school, Fr. Mathew Das.
It’s the end of a busy day now and time for supper, good conversation and sleep at the Jesuit residence. The sun shines as we wake up to a new day and a meeting with Fr Sanjay, a veteran of the Mission as Pastor, teacher, and now Principal of Moran. His face shines as he tells us about the changes he has experienced. In his early days the parents seemed indifferent to the opportunity for their children’s education. The children too lacked motivation to attend classes regularly. Now, after 7 graduating classes, parents show great interest in their children’s progress and the boys and girls study seriously. He adds proudly that girls are a majority at Moran. We sense that seriousness as we walk around the school and see students spend a study period sitting on the grass in small groups or individually focused on their textbooks and paying no attention to us as we move among them. Impressed by this last image, we return to Deonia to catch the night bus to Kathmandu.
Jhapa Mission may never attract international tourists during its beastly hot summers, torrential monsoon months, and bone-chilling winter season. But for you and me, our journey to Jhapa has been worth it, don’t you think? Worth it in terms of our joy at witnessing what is being done for God’s greater glory and of admiration for the parents, catechists, sisters, brothers, priests – so many of them over the years since 1977 – the workers, past and present, in this vineyard. The harvest is indeed showing signs of greatness. Thanks for coming to experience it.
This article was republished with the permission of the Editor of Jesuits, Yearbook of the Society of Jesus.