In the late 1800s and the first half the 20th century, faith communities in Forest Park would make regular contributions to help fund missionaries from America in Africa and Asia. Now, it seems, the missionary road has become a two way street.
Fr. George Velloorattil, the pastor of St. Bernardine Catholic Church here in Forest Park, was born in India. Until recently, he shared the St. Bernardine Rectory with Fr. Abraham Kaduthodiyl, S.D.B. who was also born in India and Fr. Patrick Wangai who was raised in Kenya. Fr. Patrick’s seminary classmate, Fr. George Omwando, became the pastor of St. Catherine-St. Lucy Catholic Church in Oak Park on July 1.
Why are all these “missionaries” coming to Forest Park? St. Bernardine’s president Donna Gawlas explained, “Unfortunately since there are not enough priests coming into vocation in the United States, we are becoming more of a mission church, whereby priests from other countries are assigned here.” For example, in 2009 the Archdiocese of Chicago ordained nine men as priests, all of whom were born outside the United States.
The other foreign-born clergyman in Forest Park, the Rev. Pongsak Limthongviratn, was born in Thailand. Taking over as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church from the Rev. Audree Catalano in 2010, Pastor Pongsak recently signed an agreement with West Suburban PADS that his church, now called St. Paul Thai Lutheran Church, will serve as a site for the PADS summer transitional program, every evening Aug. 20-31. St. Paul Thai Church has served many meals of Pad Thai and fried rice in the past at the PADS emergency shelter, hosted by St. John Lutheran Church on Friday nights from mid-September to mid-May.
These clergy are doing the work of missionaries right here in Forest Park, i.e. teaching, preaching and doing relief work. That work, which is difficult in itself, is made even more challenging by these foreign born pastors having to overcome cultural barriers.
Fr. Velloorattil, who served as a missionary to tribal people in northern India before coming to the U.S., acknowledged that bridging cultures can be difficult. “It’s hard, it’s hard,” he admitted. “You grow up with a certain mindset, a certain culture, certain values and you don’t find them here, so it’s hard.”
Two of the examples St. Bernardine’s pastor gave have to do with morality and authority. “We have a very strict sense of morality in India,” he explained. “That is not the case here. Here it is more lax. Authority and respect is another aspect. In India we respect people of age and experience. People here don’t show you that kind of respect even when they come to the church.”
“In America, family values are reduced,” added Fr. Abraham. “In India we are all from traditional families with traditional values. People are pretty much liberated here and have so much freedom. I think what is happening here is that there is too much freedom. If people are able to take freedom with responsibility that is fine, but people here go to extremes.”
All of the foreign-born clergy had many positive things to say about America. “Democracy and freedom, that’s a real value,” said Fr. Abraham. “Things are easily available and not so expensive. We don’t see as many poor people here as in India. People here are more educated and hygienic. There is also better health care here and people live longer. Where I serve as a chaplain at Villa Scalibrini in Northlake, most of the residents are over 85 and some live to be 100. That is rare in India.”
“It is our turn to send out missionaries to the whole world. St. Thomas brought the Christian faith to India 2,000 years ago. We have a lot of good faith traditions,” said Father Abraham, adding, “and we have a lot of vocations.”