Life in Revolution: Jack Corcoran ’53

By Maria Di Mento ’03 / January / February 2004
June 8th, 2007

Jack Corcoran was a U.S. Navy salvage diver on a ship in Santiago Harbor, Cuba, when he saw the 1956 explosion that marked the beginning of Fidel Castro’s overthrow of the Batista regime. It was Corcoran’s first glimpse of revolution, something he now lives with every day. A Catholic priest who recently celebrated his fortieth anniversary with the Maryknoll Society, Corcoran has spent most of his vocation outside the United States. For the past thirteen years, he has lived and worked in Nepal, which since 1995 has been in the throes of a bloody Maoist revolution.

Corcoran lives in Surkhet, a small town about 500 kilometers (a sixteen-hour bus ride) west of Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital city. He worked with mentally ill women in a Kathmandu prison, and he established a live-in rehabilitation center and outreach centers in remote towns. He also helped start an animal-husbandry school for mentally handicapped young people. Now, in Surkhet, he coordinates the care of seventy-five mentally ill patients. Every two months a doctor comes to see them and prescribe and distribute medications. In between, Corcoran visits the patients in their homes. “It’s a primitive program because there’s no professional counseling involved,” he says, “and there are no psychiatric doctors or nurses.” Nepal has no money to help the mentally ill, but “there’s no red tape,” either, Corcoran says, “and no one interferes with you, so you can help the patients as much as you can. There are no rules.”

With twenty-six languages, widely divergent ethnic groups, and a pervasive caste system, Nepal’s politics are complicated. Although Corcoran estimates that 10,000 people have been killed in the revolution, he insists he’s safe: “As far as I know, there’s never been a foreigner abducted or harmed in the last eight years. It’s not on the Maoists’ agenda.” He adds that Surkhet is heavily fortified with government police. With revolution come certain restrictions, however: a curfew is in place from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m., and checkpoints on the roads make travel slow. It can take six hours to go 100 kilometers, he says, because of the long lines of people waiting to have their bags searched.

Born and raised in Newport and Middletown, Rhode Island, Corcoran says the missionary life seemed exciting to him as a child, after meeting one of his father’s friends who was a priest and Maryknoller. But Corcoran didn’t consider the vocation himself until the navy. After his service ended, he joined Maryknoll, went through seminary, became a priest, and was assigned to missions in Korea, the United States, and finally Nepal.

Missionary work is changing, he says. Gone are the days of setting up churches where none exist. Now in non-western countries the Catholic Church is strong and growing. But missioners are aging. Corcoran says the numbers of U.S. and European priests and nuns are shrinking, as is lifelong commitment to the work. As a result, he says, “lay people will do most of the Catholic mission work in the future, I think. Exchange between churches will be the new mode, I hope.”

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January / February 2004