A (very) quiet achiever

The Maytime Fair has special significance for a Melbourne business owner.
As a boy, he lived with Australia's Hazaribag Jesuits after his father died.

 JOURNEYING WITH YOUTH 

Jonathan Daniel says the Australian Jesuits in India were “always there for me during those very important years in my life. Would I say that they were surrogate life guides for me, given that my father had passed away? Yes, absolutely.” Photo: David McMahon

By David McMahon, Communications Manager, Society of Jesus in Australia 

At the Maytime Fair in Melbourne about 20 years ago, a Jesuit walked up to a man wearing a shirt with a business logo. The lay person recognised the Jesuit immediately: Fr Thomas Patrick (Tommy) Lees SJ, who spent three decades as a missionary in eastern India. 

Fr Lees died in February 2014, but the memory of that fairground meeting at Xavier College, Kew is still crystal-clear for Jonathan Daniel.  

“Tommy Lees wasn’t sure who I was,” says Jonathan quietly. “But he was intrigued. He was looking at the logo on my shirt.” 

The Jesuit noticed the business name: Daniel’s Appliance Service. “I knew a man with that surname, many years ago, in India,” he said. 

Jonathan smiled warmly at him, responding: “That was my father, and I know exactly who you are, Fr Tommy.” 

I’ve known Jonathan for almost 30 years and have had close ties with his in-laws for most of my life, but I was surprised to find out recently that he and I have a common childhood connection to Hazaribag, an area also variously known as “Hazaribagh”, or land of a thousand tigers. My own family used to spend a few days each winter in the forest sanctuary there, which is now a well-known tiger reserve. But Jonathan’s connection to the region goes far deeper. So why did it take us so long to discover the commonality? Without a doubt, it’s the fact that he is the last person on earth whom you’d label an extrovert – he’s a quiet man in every sense, a very private human who hardly ever speaks in the first person. 

So the big question was: would he actually speak to me about his lifelong connection with the Jesuits? I was shocked – but nowhere near as surprised as his wife Vera – when he agreed to tell me his story. 

Jonathan Daniel and his wife Vera are avid motorcycle explorers, having clocked up thousands of kilometres in Australia and overseas. The picture on the left was taken on 22 October 2019 on the treeless Nullarbor Plain during a cross-country trip on a Honda ST1300 from Melbourne to Perth. The photo on the right was taken on 11 August 2023 beside the Indus River in the Zanskar region in Ladakh, northern India. Their bike of choice on that trip was a Royal Enfield Bullet 500cc. (Photos reproduced courtesy the Daniel family.)

In 1961, ten years after the first Australian Jesuits were despatched to the impoverished tribal area of Hazaribag, Jonathan’s father moved to nearby Ranchi, then part of Bihar state before it became the Uttarkhand state capital in 2000.  

Jonathan recalls, “He was a self-taught civil engineer who had served with the British Army in India and, during his time in uniform, had witnessed the official Japanese surrender to Allied forces in Singapore in 1945. After he left the army, he became a partner in a company called Builders Corporation and they built the first coal washery in Bihar. He did a lot of work in the area, which was basically the coal belt in India. He also worked on the design and construction of the first bridge across the Damodar River. 

This framed photo from Jonathan’s childhood shows his family with Fr Michael (Mick) Brady, an Australian Jesuit. Jonathan is in the foreground. His sister Wendy is alongside their mother, while his younger brother Michael is in their father’s arms.

“Not surprisingly, he came into contact with the Jesuits, the vast majority of whom were Australians at that stage. My own first experience with the Jesuits in that region was in Bhurkunda, a town with a Jesuit parish. I remember meeting Fr James (Jim) Thwaites and Fr Michael (Mick) Brady, who was the parish priest. The late Fr Kevin Cronin (1929 – 2007) was there too. He was principal of St Xavier’s from June 1970 until June 1976.” 

The story of how the Australians came to eastern India in 1951, six years after the end of World War II, has been recorded for posterity in many forums, but a 2022 Jesuit Mission Australia report noted: “The newcomers were following in the distinguished footsteps of the Belgian Jesuits who, since the late 19th century, had run a flourishing mission at Ranchi. No longer able to manage it alone, they’d reached out for assistance and the Australian Province had responded. Six Jesuits duly set off for Ranchi in 1951, and others soon followed.  

“After a period of transition, the Belgians offered the Australians the northern part of their mission, where they had been least engaged; and thus the seeds of the Hazaribag Jesuit Province were sown. Adopting the local mode of travel, trusty bicycles, the Jesuits would cycle for days up and down the region’s forested hills, calling on villagers and attending to the practicalities of running a mission. Their most important task, initially, was to learn Hindi; thus equipped, they set about evaluating the needs in the region and determining their priorities.” 

As Jonathan recalls, the Jesuits’ presence among the villagers was further bolstered by an Australian lady, Shirley Mann. “She actually used to make prostheses for local villagers. She had a little workshop where she used to custom-build them for people in need. They would never have been able to afford them in the first place and wouldn’t have had access to that kind of expertise in any case. 

“My older brother went to St Xavier’s in Hazaribag, the school that the Australian Jesuits started. When I was about three or four years old, I just did about a month at Mount Carmel boarding school, which is the sister school to St Xavier’s.  

“My parents split up and my mother moved to Calcutta (now Kolkata) with my two older siblings but my younger brother and I stayed on in Bihar with my Dad, who continued with his civil engineering work. He had a contract with the Ursuline nuns, who were constructing a huge hospital, the Auxiliary Nurse and Midwives Training Centre at Lohardaga, in Ranchi district. While he was doing that, I was in school at Lohardaga.  

“When he was finishing up the hospital contract, he suffered a heart attack but he had already taken on a contract to install all the flooring at a new Jesuit complex being built in Mahuadanr, a place that played a major part of the Australian chapter in India – the area is now fairly well known for a wolf sanctuary that was gazetted in 1976. The Mahuadanr project included a science block as well as a trades block in the Jesuit school there, so my Dad got to know the priests very well. 

“While he was working on the Jesuit contract at Mahuadanr he had a second heart attack and passed away. I was probably in Year Seven or Year Eight at the time but I didn’t know that my Dad had asked the Jesuits to keep an eye on me if anything happened to him. I had no inkling at all about that conversation. 

“I was about 14 or 15 at the time and my younger brother Michael would have been about 11. He and I were both in the Lutheran school at Lohardaga, where we’d been living with our father. After my Dad passed, my Mum came to Lohardaga with the intention of taking both of us back to Calcutta with her. But two of the Jesuits, Ken McNamara and Phil Crotty, came to our place one evening. Ken and Phil asked what our plans were. 

This photo, one of several historic framed black-and-white images on a wall at the Jesuit Mission Australia offices in Sydney, shows three of the Jesuits who left the shores of Australia for India on 28 December 1957. Tommy Lees (middle) and Bob Slattery (extreme right) are both mentioned in this story. 

“Obviously I was too young to give them a definitive answer. But when they were leaving, they said ‘Let us know what you want to do – whether you’re going to carry on with your schooling here or if you’re going back to Calcutta with your mother.’ Eventually, it was decided that my mother and Michael would return to Calcutta and that I would stay on and continue with the flooring contract that my father had taken on before his death. I had been quite involved in his work, so I knew the processes and I knew what was required. So I gave up school and carried on with the flooring work. Of course, I was getting paid for it by the Jesuits. 

“I wasn’t doing it all by myself – we had labourers on the site, but it became too much for me to handle after a while. Ken McNamara soon realised this and took it over instead. It would have been a hard conversation for him to have with me, but it was absolutely the right thing in that situation. I ended up staying with the Jesuits, on the parish premises, for almost 10 years.  

“They gave me my own room and I used to eat all my meals with them in the parish house, so I was always in the company of Jesuits. Ken McNamara was the principal of the school and he was also the engineer on the site. He was an electrical engineer, one of the many Jesuits who were skilled in so many fields. Phil Crotty was the parish priest and Bob Slattery was also there at the same time. Bob Billings was a young scholastic back then. Chris Laming was in India too, but he eventually left the order. 

Jonathan (right) with Bishop Gabriel Kujur in Melbourne in 2000. The Jesuit was a Brother during Jonathan’s Hazaribag years.

“From their point of view, I suppose it was an entirely novel situation – a young non-Jesuit boy living long-term in a Jesuit community. I wasn’t very religious but at no stage did they ever tell me I had to go to Mass every day, although I would certainly go every Sunday. 

“The Jesuits were always there for me during those very important years in my life. Would I say that they were surrogate life guides for me, given that my father had passed away? Yes, absolutely. Having decided to give away my studies, I was really interested in going down the path of working with my hands – non-classroom skills, if you want to call it that.  

“Because of that innate interest, I became very close to Br Lawrence Saldanha, a Jesuit from Goa in western India. He was an engineer and used to run the workshop in Mahuadanr. He also did a lot of irrigation work for the villagers in the area and I got involved in that as well when I wasn’t spending time with him in the workshop. I used to tinker around with anything mechanical or motorised and diesel engines in particular always caught my fancy.  

“He was very instrumental in teaching me everything about engines, their components, their functions, how they worked. The other benefit of being in the workshop with him was a big thing for a teenager – I got to ride the motorcycles and drive the trucks and cars as well. That was a real thrill for me, especially because I didn’t even have a licence! While I didn’t have the training nor the education to go into automotive engineering, it was certainly a major field of interest for me.  

“I had a few adventures on motorcycles. There was one occasion when I had to collect a little Vicky motorcycle at Daltonganj and ride it back to Mahuadanr. I think the Vicky’s top speed, absolutely flat out, was probably under 50kmh and as luck would have it, I saw a herd of elephants that decided they had right of way over me. That was fun, because the roads around there are unsealed, with reddish gravel. But I got away from them, probably because I was going downhill!” 

With a self-deprecating chuckle, he also recounts another escapade. Fr Paul Horan was due to meet a nun who was arriving from Australia. However, he missed his bus to Ranchi and Jonathan was entrusted to take the Jesuit with him on a more powerful Yezdi 250cc motorcycle to try and catch up with the bus.

Hazaribagh veteran Fr Paul Horan SJ taught for four decades in India after arriving there in 1965. He remembers riding pillion behind Jonathan on a Yezdi 250cc motorcycle when the bike slid on gravel as they negotiated a wide bend in India. “We weren’t seriously injured, but we definitely needed first aid,” he said. Photo: David McMahon

It’s an incident that Fr Paul remembers clearly. “At that stage, I think Jonathan was still continuing his Dad’s work. The bus had gone, so we decided to chase it. But we hit a patch of loose gravel on a sweeping bend and we both came off the bike. We weren’t seriously injured but we definitely needed first aid. Jonathan was scraped across his left side and I was scraped across the face. We came back to Mahuadanr and when I eventually caught up with the nun I had a patch over my eye!” 

Jonathan would also use motorcycles to go into the villages to repair any water pumps that had broken down. “I was probably about 16 and the Jesuits had done some amazing irrigation work out in the villages, which was a very important aspect. I’d grab a set of tools, jump on a motorbike and go and repair the pumps. I knew how to strip a pump, work out what the problem was and how to fix it. 

“Around this time, there was another pivotal moment in my life when another Jesuit had a very meaningful and far-reaching conversation with me. This was Fr Tom Keogh, who had replaced Ken McNamara as principal. He told me, ‘If you want to get ahead, you need to go back to school. He told me to complete Year 11 (at that time the Indian secondary education system ended in Year 11, after which a student progressed to tertiary level) and then I could decide what to do after that.  

“Looking back on that phase, I was just having a good time and I guess I didn’t see the need for a specific direction. But providing that perspective, that moment of clarity, was what Tom Keogh did for me, even though it must have been a tough conversation for him to initiate. 

Two of the precious books sent to Jonathan by Melbourne-based Theresa Cronin, the sister of the late Hazaribag Jesuit Fr Kevin Cronin SJ. One has the inscription, “Make good with this book” by the late Br Lawrence Saldanha SJ.

“I took his advice, finished Year 11 and then did a three-year refrigeration course in Patna, even though I had no idea at all where it would take me. During my course, Br Lawrence asked Fr Kevin Cronin’s sister Theresa, who lived in Richmond in Melbourne, if she could possibly send out a book to help me with the subject. She sent not one but two books to him, and he passed them on to me. I still have the books, and others that Theresa sent. I’d never give them away. One of the books is inscribed by Br Lawrence and it says simply, ‘Make good with this book’.  

“I look back on that phase of my life and realise how much it shaped me. First, when the Jesuits took me in, they were keeping their word to my father. Second, when Fr Ken realised the flooring work would be too much for me. Third, when Tom Keogh told me to go back to school. And fourth, Br Lawrence gets me these books and inscribes one of them with the simple message, ‘Make good with this book’. None of us could ever have imagined how far-reaching those moments would be, or how prophetic those handwritten words by Br Lawrence would be.  

“I never forgot what Theresa Cronin did for me. After I migrated to Australia in 1993, I looked her up in the Melbourne White Pages (the phone directory) and contacted her. Later, when I set up my business, I was talking to one of our clients and the conversation turned to India. It turned out that the client was Kevin Cronin’s nephew!” 

On another occasion after he had settled in Melbourne, Jonathan and his wife visited Fr Ken McNamara in the inner-city area when he was recuperating from a knee operation. The next year, 2006, in an unexpected coincidence, they found out through a client of theirs, Liz McGinnis, that Fr Ken, who just happened to be her uncle, had returned to Melbourne and was now fully mobile. They invited him to dinner at their home, where he not only met their children but played the piano in their living room (pictured here). “He loved classical music, and he was very good on the piano,” recalls Jonathan. “At the time, our youngest daughter was thinking about giving up music, and he advised her not to do that. It was very special to have him here that evening and for our kids to meet one of the Jesuits who shaped my life.” 

In retrospect, does Jonathan look on those Hazaribag Jesuits as his second family? 

His answer is thoughtful and sincere. “Second family? They were the only family I had. My Mum and the rest of my family were in Calcutta. The Jesuits literally treated me like one of their own, even though I wasn’t a Jesuit. They didn’t look on me as being any different from them.” 

Which makes perfect sense when you consider that he named his son after one of them. 

Starting his career as a journalist at the ABP Group, Fairfax and News Ltd, the author was a Walkley Award finalist who was shortlisted for two National News Awards. He then lived in Singapore to work in digital strategy before moving into business technology with SAP, the German global software company. He has written a non-fiction book and two novels.