A life like a banquet of joy

'A brilliant mind, an enthusiasm for life, the courage to bring about change, the gift of friendship, a joyful love of the gospel ... Ken drew people to himself.' Fr Phil Crotty SJ reflects on the life of Fr Ken McNamara SJ

In the gospel Jesus asks Peter, ‘Do you love me?’ He is appealing for a generous, loving response from his beloved disciple. ‘Yes Lord, you know that I love you.’ In the first reading the prophet Isaiah gives a glimpse of the banquet of joy that awaits us when we come home to our Father. Both these images are windows into Ken McNamara’s life; a generous, loving heart and life like a banquet of joy.’ Ken lived such a life.

Ken always grasped life with open arms. He and his great friend Maurie Dullard came to India in 1956, where they started their missionary life at St Xavier’s Hazaribag, a boarding school with roughly 400 boarders, mostly from Calcutta. There was a kind of serendipity about the fact that Ken was both a missionary and an engineer. Very soon he was drawn into designing and constructing building projects; class rooms, dormitories etc. Later it would be dams, wells and eventually his crowning achievement, the buildings of the school complex at Mahuadanr, with words from his favourite bible passage painted over the entrance; ‘You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.’

In 1957 Ken was sent to study theology at St Mary’s College Kurseong, a town high in the foothills of the Himalayas. He was ordained there in 1960 in the presence of his mother and his sisters Pat and Clare. Returning to Hazaribag, ostensibly to renew his career at St. Xavier’s, there was one thing that bothered Ken. He hadn’t been given a chance to study Hindi. He pushed hard and finally was given that opportunity. Ken plunged into that world choosing to study at Allahabad University in the heartland of Hindi intellectual life. He had successfully completed the first year of the BA course when, due to the sudden death of Fr Phil McInerney, Ken was asked to drop the BA and to become the headmaster of St Joseph’s, a high school in the remote, very remote, Mahuadanr valley. Ken left Allahabad and plunged into the world of a struggling village high school. He built that struggling high school into not just a wonderful school, but into a hub for two other high schools, St. Teresa’s girls, and the government residential school, plus 20 or 30 village primary schools. The Bihar State Education Minister was so taken up by what he heard about Ken’s model for the schools of Mahuadanr, that he himself braved the journey to that isolated corner of his state to see for himself. That was an unheard of event and the minister went away delighted with what he had discovered. To Ken’s embarrassment the Minister continued to praise the Mahuadanr school model throughout the rest of his term in parliament, and compare it favourably with the sad state of many of his own government high schools. He then went on to introduce that school model into other areas of the state. It was an extraordinary achievement.

As the school grew Ken knew he would have to build classrooms and find the money to do so. He broached this with Fr. Ted O’Connor, the Regional Superior, who suggested that Ken approach a funding agency. Ken went to Delhi to talk with Misereor, the famous German NGO. They were so moved by Ken’s enthusiastic proposal that they invited Ken to Aachen in Germany to present his project to the top brass of Misereor, where it was accepted with equal enthusiasm.

Ken became a personal friend of the proposed architects, a husband and wife team from Dehli named Powar and Powar. When they arrived in Mahuadanr for the first time they were astonished at what they were asked to design for such a remote corner of India. Ken’s response was, ‘If beautiful class rooms are good for the children of Delhi, why aren’t they good for these village children? The Powars went on to design a campus full of beautiful buildings. Ken went on to train the workers himself, all taken from the local villages; the carpenters, the masons, the electricians, the plumbers, even the coolies, men and women. All this while he was still headmaster. Fr Peter Jones wrote these words from Mahuadanr after the Jesuits there had received the news of Ken’s death. “The thing that amazes me is how Ken inspired the whole community of this valley to rise and be a people. That rise has continued to take place and in some sense is spreading right through the whole of the State. I don’t think I am reading too much into a situation when I see this as the making of the church in India and in doing this helping to make India.”

After 15 years in Mahuadanr Ken was transferred to Bokaro Steel City, a city where he was as much at home in the world of that massive Russian built steel plant as he had been in the villages of Mahuadanr. St. Xavier’s Bokaro Steel City is a school of more than 2000 students. It has a reputation for excellence to match any other school in India. Ken’s leadership was crucial to the growth of the school. But for me, the crowning moment of Ken’s time in Bokaro Steel City was when in 1984 Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh body guards and anti-Sikh riots broke out across India. Thousands of Sikhs were slaughtered. In Bokaro Steel City more than 50 Sikhs were murdered in one night of rioting. The Indian Army took control of the City and set up a camp for the Sikhs. The Sikhs refused to leave their homes and move to the camp saying they wouldn’t feel safe there. The army then asked them where they would feel safe. They replied, the only place we are prepared to go is to St Xavier’s School under the care of Fr. McNamara. A few days later I joined Ken and saw him in action as he cared for 600 Sikh men, women and children. It was a very moving scene.

What was Ken’s secret? A brilliant mind, an enthusiasm for life, the courage to bring about change, the gift of friendship, a joyful love of the gospel … Ken drew people to himself. How else does one describe holiness?

Let me finish with something that happened years after Ken left Mahuadanr and was long settled in Bokaro Steel City. I was having my second stint as PP of Mahuadanr when one day I was approached by an agent of a conglomerate named Sahara which had decided to start a football tournament throughout the villages of India. There was much excitement in the villages of Mahuadanr. The company’s proposal was to name their football tournament after the most famous person of the district. They wanted to call it the McNamara Football Tournament, though the agent did have some difficulty pronouncing the word McNamara. I said you should first ask Fr McNamara whether he accepts the honour. I was then deputed to contact Ken and get his permission. I did contact him, and Ken’s reply was; ‘No. Tell them to wait till I die.’

Whatever with football tournaments, God now has Ken’s name on His lips, and He holds him gently in the palm of his hand.