By Dale Goodwin
May 15, 2020 — It didn’t take Manoj Thirupal long to become one of the fellas in the Della Strada Jesuit Community. In fact, Father Max Olivia already is calling him Saint Manoj.
When the pandemic hit, the Jesuits invited the Leadership Studies doctoral student from Chennai, India, to live in a guest room in exchange for technical assistance. Gonzaga was transitioning to distance delivery, and many of the men at Della Strada felt out of their league with Zoom, Blackboard, video creation and editing, and other technology. Father Ken Krall said Manoj saved him, and many of his brother priests in the house.
The Della Strada Jesuit Community opened in 2017 on the campus of Gonzaga University.
“My computer skills are very low, and now I have to teach online,” he says. “I teach four days a week. Manoj shows up at my room at 7:45 every morning, helps me navigate Zoom, makes sure my class is launched, then returns about 8:45 and helps me get the recorded version of my class emailed to those students who didn’t make the class.
“I’m making slow, but positive steps. One morning he didn’t come because he didn’t know I had class, but somehow we got it started,” Fr. Krall says, with a guarded sense of joy in his voice. “We’re making the best of it, but I couldn’t even make the worst of it without Manoj there to help.”
Father Tom Colgan serves a Native American parish on a reservation, and can no longer present Sunday services in person. “I’m teaching him how to set up a Zoom meeting, create video and engage with the Native American community via his YouTube channel,” Manoj says.
“It’s small acts of kindness that make these men happy, and I’m blessed and grateful to have this opportunity to assist the Jesuits,” he says.
Considering his beginnings, it’s a wonder he could find such gratitude in his heart.
He grew up at the bottom of the social ladder in India. The “untouchables,” as they were called, spent their days cleaning up human waste and other sewage from the streets and sewers of Chennai. His mother was steadfast in her determination to see that Manoj was properly educated and helpful to others.
Despite tremendous hardships and devasting family incidents, Manoj earned both business and social work degrees from Jesuit-run Loyola College in Chennai and dreamed of pursuing higher studies in the U.S. In 2014, the Janodayam Social Education Centre, a non-profit organization that helps uplift the Dalits or lowest class people in India, was chosen a finalist for the international humanitarian Opus Award, which Gonzaga hosted. Aaron Danowski, a student of then-Honors Program Director Father Tim Clancy, served on the Opus vetting team and became a friend with Manoj, who was serving Janodayam as a student wing secretary. Danowski, inspired by Manoj’s story and dreams, and with support from Gonzaga, his family and Fr. Clancy’s parish, helped Manoj to begin studies at Gonzaga in 2016.
Fr. Clancy was one of the first to meet Manoj in America. “I still remember Fr. Clancy teaching me how to use a knife and fork. I am learning a lot from him, specifically how to help and love others without conditions.”
Manoj earned his master’s degree in Organizational Leadership in 2019 and is pursuing his doctorate in Leadership Studies. To finance his studies, Manoj works as a graduate assistant for both the School of Leadership Studies and the Gonzaga Institute for Hate Studies, and serves as an assistant to Fr. Clancy, maintaining his program website, “Jesuit Seminar for the Study of Religion and Technology.”
“When he came to live here for a month or two, I recommended to him to make himself indispensable,” Fr. Clancy says. No doubt, mission accomplished.
Yet Manoj is convinced the blessing is his.
“Although all my education is in Jesuit schools, my current living with the Della Strada Jesuit community is unique given this global pandemic and its necessary transitions. I am engaging and learning a lot from Jesuits and reflecting on it every day,” Manoj says.
“I would not have reflected this much if I had not been here and lived with them. Unconditional love, helping mindset, kindness and wisdom – these higher insights are ‘Jesuit.’ I’m just trying to give back for all they have given me. For now, it’s my time and tech assistance; I will do more as I grow. I hope they can be proud in how Jesuit education is molding me as a man; always grateful and willing to help others and give back to the community, country and the world at large.”
Quite simply, Manoj is a high-achieving, multi-tasking, self-made social entrepreneur, who has started a non-profit in Chennai with a friend to provide housing and education for orphans from the Dalit class. He’s receiving support from Fr. Clancy’s parish, among others.
Says Jesuit Chaplain Father Dan Mai: “We thought we were doing him a service by inviting him in, but in fact, he is doing a great service for us.”