Skip to content

From the archives

The Trust Spiral

Restoring faith in the media

Dear Prudence

A life of exuberance and eccentricity

Who’s Afraid of Alice Munro?

A long-awaited biography gives the facts, but not the mystery, behind this writer’s genius

Our Man in Bhutan

How a Canadian Jesuit founded a secular education system in a remote mountain nation

David M. Malone

Of Bhutan’s history, its recent emergence from seclusion, its international relations and its economic, social and political model, I knew next to nothing at the time of my appointment as non-resident ambassador of Canada to the government in Thimphu, its tiny, scenic capital. Of the country’s connections with Canada, I knew even less. Imagine my surprise when, on my first visit, in October 2006, I found Canada tripping off many tongues, nearly always in relation to one Father William J. Mackey, S.J., a national icon in this small, reserved and proud mountain kingdom. Who was Bill Mackey and how did he rise to such prominence in so distant a place? ((A highly-regarded biography of Father Mackey, The Jesuit and the Dragon, written by Howard M. Solverson, was published by Mulitmedia Robert Davies in paperback in 1997. ))

Some months after that first visit to Bhutan, I landed at Bagdogra, in India’s vast Gangetic plain just south of the Himalayan foothills. Here, a narrow finger of territory reaches up from the main body of India toward the former Buddhist kingdom of Sikkim (today a state of the Indian Union), skirts Nepal to the west, Bhutan to the east, hangs over Bangladesh to the south and nearly touches Tibet, which shares a long border with Sikkim. This part of India, known as Darjeeling District, is today a meeting place for nationalities, creeds and cultures, and it is widely speculated to be action central for smuggling of all kinds.

Waiting for me at the airport, spry and engaging, was Father Bill Bourke, S.J., one of the remaining Canadian Jesuits from a sizeable contingent that headed to northeast India in 1947 to pick up the torch of high school education in the Darjeeling hills from a diminishing band of Belgian Jesuits. Bill, now 81, came to India in 1952. I was visiting, in large part, in order to understand the role played by Bill Mackey and the other Canadian Jesuits (33 at their peak) in the region, and what led Mackey, at the invitation of the government of Bhutan, to introduce secular secondary education to that country in 1964.

In 1946, a call had gone out from the Jesuits of India for their brothers in other provinces of the order to step into the breach left by declining numbers both of local and Belgian Jesuits, who had long been a defining feature of Darjeeling and its sister towns Kurseong, Kalimpong and Gangtok (in Sikkim). English-speaking Canadian Jesuits believed they had sufficient numbers to request Rome to assign a mission territory to them. A distant, little-known enterprise in a particularly remote corner of India must have seemed a surprising prospect to some of them. And yet, by 1956, 25 of them had answered the call and were thick on the ground. Bill Mackey was among the first, in January 1947. India was on the verge of what Nehru was famously to describe as its “tryst with destiny.” At the time, it was not clear on what side of the new boundary with Pakistan Darjeeling would fall. In fact, only a thin band of territory, which today is bordered by Bhutan in the north and Bangladesh in the south, was preserved by India to link its main landmass to the states of the Indian northeast clustered around Assam. Bhutan was still mostly closed to the outside world.

Bhutan was not new to the Jesuits, “for, in the seventeenth century, Jesuits were already deep into that mysterious country.” ((Fr. W. Bourke. “Short History of the Darjeeling Region of the Society of Jesus,” 1956–1985, Occasional Essay, 1993. )) In 1626, a couple of them, travelling from Cochin in India’s distant south, in search of a new route to the flourishing Jesuit mission in Tibet, wound up in Paro, Bhutan (where today’s modern travellers alight from in the country’s sole jet-handling airport). As with all such Jesuit endeavours, their adventures were meticulously recorded for posterity and were certainly known to Bill Mackey.

What did modern missionary work consist of for Jesuits? Father Van Walleghem, one of Bill Mackey’s near-contemporaries, who arrived in India 55 years ago, comments:

By this time in the history of The Society of Jesus the purpose of missionary work had changed considerably. Jesuits were not sent out to convert as such but to serve people in such fields as education and with parish work … If there was any proclamation of the Gospel to be done to people of other religions, it was to be done by the quality of the lives we lived and by the educational service we gave, rather than by preaching to them. Later as we grew in numbers, social work was included as this was a crying need in our area. ((Correspondence, October 4, 2007. ))

When I arrived at Bagdogra, Father Bourke took me to meet the Jesuit provincial for Darjeeling, Father Peter Pappu, and two Canadian Jesuits, Father Joseph Brennan, 82, and Father Anthony Milledge, 83, both still active in community work. Bill Bourke serves as one of the unsung, unpaid heroes of Canada’s consular efforts abroad as warden of the Canadian community in India’s northeast, ever prepared for action to help Canadians should a natural or human-made disaster overtake the region. It was here that Bill Mackey would have engaged first with the Darjeeling region that was to define the rest of his life, after a ten-day overland trip from Bombay.

Following alongside the narrow-gauge rail tracks of the famous “toy train” up to Darjeeling, I stopped off halfway at Kurseong. The drive had been magical, through steep hills dotted by hauntingly beautiful tea plantations and villages suspended above the clouds. Here Father Joseph Murray Abraham, 82 years old and having spent nearly 60 of those years in India, received me while banging away at his laptop, busy composing his latest effort to prod Canadian supporters to finance the construction of more houses for the poor in the region. He believes that nothing changes the perspective of a poor family more than homeownership (although a good education helps too!). This is his central message for his family and funders—many of whom have visited Kurseong. The Jesuit school at Kurseong, one of the first to be invested by the newly arrived Canadians in 1947, is still a leading local institution.

For ten years, young Bill Mackey lived in Kurseong, enjoying the impressive titles of district superior, dean of Darjeeling, parish priest of St. Paul’s and headmaster of St. Alphonsus School. Of course, money was short, the boys of St. Alphonsus hungry, urban and rural development projects pressing, and his subordinates unruly (and sometimes poor managers of church funds). During his years in Kurseong, he became a figure of some controversy, caught up in the tussles between local communities, notably the ethnic Nepali hill people (whom Mackey was inclined to support) and Bengalis. Mackey tackled head on the challenge of running institutions within impoverished and querulous communities, although he did not, at first, understand their languages, political culture and sociological stratifications very well.

Perhaps the most important acquaintances Mackey was to make in Kurseong were the Bhutanese boarders at St. Alphonsus. Given the complete absence of non-monastic institutions of secondary education in Bhutan, its elite families had developed a tradition of sending their boys to (generally Christian) schools in the Darjeeling hills, and sometimes further afield into India. Mackey admired the derring-do and athletic prowess of these boys and grew very comfortable sharing digs with them in his large Kurseong residence.

Eventually, church authorities reassigned him as headmaster of St. Robert’s School, a Jesuit institution (but not the star one) in Darjeeling, up the hill. Having myself made my way up the hill to Darjeeling, I was greeted by Father Van Walleghem, 80, who stepped down only last year as rector of the famed St. Joseph’s School, the prize jewel of the Jesuit crown in the Darjeeling district, founded in 1888 by Belgian Jesuits, at North Point (a tip of the ridge on which Darjeeling is constructed). He was simultaneously shy and grave in demeanour, but I knew his former students thought of him differently, referring to him with great respect and fondness as having sought to instil in them an ethos of total commitment to academic excellence and to personal integrity.

Jesuit endeavour in the region centred on North Point, which had emerged as the best school (by far) available to the elites of Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan and northern West Bengal itself. By 1950, the rector of the school was a Canadian, and by 1953, young Canadians were being ordained in the area.

The buildings of North Point, organized around a stupendous quad, are movingly grand. ((For some history of North Point, some glorious photos of the school and its setting against the high Himalayas, notably Mount Kanchenchunga (third highest mountain in the world), and a sense of enthusiasm of the schools alumni, see )) In wandering around the school, with its dormitories, lockers, smells of socks and tracksuits well used and too infrequently laundered, I was reminded of my own boarding school in France, run by the more worldly, less rigorous Oratorian order, of which I have fond memories. There too, academic achievement and sports were everything. And there too, boys fell in—often with relief—with a highly ordered existence. The boys I met at North Point—more than 100 of them—to discuss the United Nations, were articulate, alert and witty, much as I had expected. A Jesuit education can still be a mighty asset. ((Many of the best secondary schools in India, in such cities as Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi, are run by Jesuits. Parents of other faiths display no qualms in consigning their children to the Jesuits. The network in India of those educated by the Jesuits is an impressive one. Interestingly, many in the Jesuit order are now moving away from elite education to that of the underprivileged, which will introduce wrenching change in their modus operandi. ))

The current rector of North Point is Father Kinley, to date the sole Bhutanese Jesuit. (That there is only one speaks to the complete lack of interest on Mackey’s part in proselytizing in Bhutan. Indeed, a number of Indian parents of boys sent to North Point have told me that they trusted the Jesuits to respect and encourage the existing faith of their pupils, focusing their attention on academic achievement and the building of character. Indeed, Father Van Walleghem refused point blank to baptize Kinley, who had to find another Catholic order to do so.) During my visit, we explored the graveyard where Bill Mackey is interred among his Canadian (and Belgian) brothers. The tombstones are severe, but the sense of common purpose of these determined servants of their order is overwhelming.

Bill Mackey migrated to Bhutan by chance, because of his unwitting involvement in ethnic and language-related agitation in Darjeeling, which resulted in his expulsion from the area by Indian authorities in 1963. Bill Bourke recalls:

Father Mackey—in his impetuous style—was seen nearby on the streets when there was agitation for the recognition on the Nepali language in 1962. A foreigner, a rather high profile one at that, in something perceived in Calcutta as “dangerous” for Bengal was enough to have him removed. You must remember that in October of that year, the Chinese aggression took place, immediately after which the area was declared restricted. ((Correspondence, October 20, 2007. The reference is to the Indo-Chinese war of 1962. ))

Mackey was heartbroken to leave. But consequently he was only too willing to pick up on a suggestion by the prime minister of Bhutan that the Jesuits assume the challenge of introducing secondary education to that country. By 1964, he was doing so in remote Tashigang, in eastern Bhutan. Father Van Walleghem recalls:

That first winter, with an interpreter, he went from homestead to homestead—for there were no villages as such—to inform them about the schooling that would begin in March. He [Bill Mackey] travelled over many mountain passes in the snow, and was hardly successful for the [Bhutanese] people did not understand what schooling was all about: they needed their sons to herd cattle and yaks. He started out on the margins of an existing school near Tashigang, in a cow-shed with seven boys … Bhutanese are great travellers and as they would pass by this school, they became intrigued by what was going on. These people spread the word that schooling was a great thing, so the next year in Kanglung he had something like 70 youngsters in the school without having to go out to seek them. Each year the school grew in strength.” ((Correspondence, October 4, 2007. A primary school already existed in Tashigang. ))

The venture was a potentially sensitive one in a country on the cusp of change and very nervous about it. Jigme Dorji, the prime minister who was Bill Mackey’s friend, was assassinated in April 1964, at a time when complaints were rife that he was pushing development too fast in what had for so long been a forbidden country to outsiders.

Nevertheless, by 1968, Bhutan’s king, a strong supporter, was able to open Sherubtse (“Peak of Learning”) Public School. Its modern buildings were endowed with astonishing facilities for so isolated a locale and still constitute a very handsome campus, which has grown further. Its achievement crowned a remarkable collective effort of vision by the king, determination by the government, and the sweat, blood and tears of Bill Mackey and the two Jesuits who joined him there. Soon, sisters of the order of St. Joseph of Cluny came to oversee the integration of girls into the country’s premier educational institution. The school, largely powered by Indian teachers, was a huge success.

By 1978, Father Mackey’s pioneering role was at an end. He left Sherubtse when it became a full college, Bhutan’s first, which soon initiated degree classes (in affiliation with distant Delhi University). By then, other Jesuit institutions had spread across the country. But, as Bhutanese capacities (scholarly, administrative and otherwise) increased, the need for active Jesuit involvement in the educational system declined, ending in 1988, when the umbrella agreement between the Jesuit order and the kingdom expired and the administration of all remaining Jesuit institutions was turned over to the government. Henceforth, all head teachers were to be Bhutanese, a policy that also displaced a number of Indians. By 1989, Bill Mackey was the sole Jesuit remaining in Bhutan, surely a fitting turn of the wheel.

Reading between the lines of several accounts of Bill Mackey’s life, one concludes that he was a driven man, convinced of the rightness of his views and methods. Although admired, and popular among many for his devotion to gymnastics, he cannot have been easy to work alongside. His rugged sense of humour helped and his no-nonsense style was well suited to the challenges of the terrain and the inexperience of his charges. One obituary noted: “He talked a great deal … [and] could be impulsive … Self-effacement was not a virtue he practiced, if indeed he construed it as a virtue at all. There were some for whom his strong personality was hard to live with.” ((John Perry in the (Jesuit) Upper Canada Province Newsletter, Winter 1996. )) Perhaps for these reasons, he was well matched to the role of largely solitary pioneer of modern western-style education in Bhutan, clearly a man in the right place, at the right time, with the right mission, who might otherwise have lived an unremarkable life.

Mackey gradually warmed to Hinduism and, particularly, to Buddhism as complements to his own Christian faith. John Stackhouse in 1999 reported Mackey’s fellow Jesuit, Robert Gaudet, as commenting: “[He] was drawn by the immediacy of Buddhism, its plethora of temples, which he compared to Quebec chapels, and the eminently visible and audible prayer flags flapping in the wind to send good thoughts in all directions.” ((John Stackhouse, “Strict and Stern Priest Was Bethune of Bhutan,” Globe and Mail, May 17, 1999. See also Stackhouse, “Thanks to Canadian Jesuit, Education Is King” of the same date. Stackhouse pointed to the oddity that Mackey was never honoured by the Canadian government—efforts to secure for him the Order of Canada came to naught. )) He took the Bhutanese, with their customs (combining both personal reserve and politeness with an uninhibited approach to romance—the latter posing challenges when Sherubtse went co-ed), spiritual beliefs and cultural traditions as he found them and came to feel thoroughly at home among them. Indeed, late in life he could barely felt have comfortable anywhere else.

Over time, the Bhutanese took him to their hearts, accepting that his own human flaws—including an authoritarian streak—were dwarfed by his unsentimental commitment to education and to bettering the lot of the country’s youth. The key years of Bill Mackey’s contribution to education in Bhutan were brief, from 1964 to 1978, when he moved on from Sherubtse. By 1983, he retired from teaching altogether. But the scale of his achievement, in hewing from nothing, in a very remote region of a very isolated country, the first iteration of secular higher learning, became increasingly celebrated. ((The first foray into film of celebrated Canadian director Deepa Mehta was in managing sound for the Father Bill Mackey: Beloved Son of Bhutan, directed by Paul Saltzman in 1976. )) As he grew older, and his Jesuit superiors wanted him to slow down—indeed, to stand down from his teaching and school administration activities—his Bhutanese friends came to the rescue, bestowing on him new positions within the educational hierarchy of the country and showering him with honours, ultimately in 1985 with Bhutanese citizenship; his Bhutanese passport was lastingly to flummox Indian border guards whenever he entered or exited the country.

He died in 1995, aged 80, possibly as a result of a blood infection contracted while he was on the road in Bhutan in connection with his government duties. As he lingered between life and death, the king visited and the revered queen mother stood vigil. He was truly among friends and must have passed from this life more serene in that knowledge than most of us can hope to.

His mortal remains provoked some tension. The Jesuits, some of whom had travelled to be with him during his final hours, felt required, under their order’s rule, to reclaim his body for burial among his Jesuit brethren in Darjeeling. The Bhutanese did not want to let him go, wishing to honour his own wish to remain among them in death as in life. “In the end, a compromise was reached. Bill had selected a site on the campus of Sherubtse College in Kanglung, where a chorten, or Buddhist prayer monument, would be erected in which his remains would be placed. After completion of this work, his body would be returned there from Darjeeling.” ((John Perry in the (Jesuit) Upper Canada Province Newsletter, Winter 1996. )) But, in fact, Bill Mackey’s remains linger in Darjeeling (also much loved by him earlier in his career), while his spirit floats free in Bhutan, perhaps anchored there by the Sherubtse chorten.

At the time of his death, the question arose of the future and legacy of his work. Time has, in fact, greatly expanded his achievement and rewarded his efforts. Education has spread throughout Bhutan and is the cornerstone of the government’s social policy. Secondary schools and colleges (of which Sherubtse remains the premier institution, in spite of its geographic remoteness) are now supplemented by the Royal University of Bhutan offering a number of degrees. Canadian universities, with modest funding from the Canadian International Development Agency, notably the University of New Brunswick and St. Francis Xavier University, have contributed to curriculum development. Canada today is indelibly associated in the minds of Bhutanese with education. And for those old enough to have known him (or who hail from eastern Bhutan), Bill Mackey’s name is held in particular respect, from the royal family through to rural communities. ((Rather typically, on October 17, 2007 (the twelfth anniversary of his death), the Bhutan Broadcasting Service ran an extended memorial item on Mackey stressing his centrality to Bhutan’s development. ))

On my recent visit to Bhutan, a protocol officer was attached to me and, because we travelled together quite a lot, I learned something of his life, which had been revolutionized by the educational innovations Bill Mackey had launched. Even though his mother, a woman of very modest means, had been left by her husband with several children to bring up, education—including secondary education—was by then a central aspiration throughout the country and, importantly, it was provided in English. Eventually, he graduated with a BA in English and commerce from Sherubtse College, by now affiliated with RUB. Not unusually, he was the first member of his family to benefit from higher education. He is now considering options for postgraduate studies at top universities in the United States or Canada. His story is one of many such.

Whenever I am in Bhutan, I am acutely aware that often the human dimension of relationships between countries trumps others. The Bhutanese, outwardly reserved and formal, make no mistake about what actually matters in the ebb and flow of contact with the outer world. And for Canada and Canadians in Bhutan, Father Mackey is the ace of trumps.

While Canada continues to support education in the country, particularly during the current period of transition to a more modern parliamentary democracy and a constitutional as opposed to absolute monarchy, it is the efforts and achievements of Bill Mackey and those like him that mark out Canada for the Bhutanese. Indeed, Canada’s small cooperation office in Thimphu is headed by Nancy Strickland, herself a former teacher in Tashigang, a resident of Bhutan, on and off, for the past 21 years and a friend of Bill Mackey’s. She is widely and fondly known. She is the real Canadian ambassador in Bhutan, I only the formal one. This reality is both humbling and exhilarating.

Bill Mackey’s story is just one of those, if the best known one, of the doughty Canadian Jesuits of Darjeeling District, who mostly have decided to end their days there among those they have influenced so lastingly and meaningfully. (Four somewhat younger ones are also still working in the area, one in Tibet.)

When the news cycle is slow or inspiration fails, the Canadian media too often defaults to the celebration of Canadian “heroes,” an increasingly debased currency, alas. When I think of my compatriots of the Darjeeling District completing lives of deprivation but also of tremendous achievement, still active and involved, so far from—and so sparingly celebrated in—their home country, I am consoled by the thought that in looking around them, they can witness daily the progress in Indian lives that they have done so much to encourage and support. Perhaps not heroes in the media sense, but Great Canadians certainly. And very honoured I am to be their envoy in India.

David M. Malone is a former Canadian high commissioner to India and a former rector of the United Nations University, headquartered in Tokyo.