By DEIRDRE C. MAYS
GARDEN CITY Father Mathew Alapatt is leaving one home to go to another.
The parochial vicar at St. Michael’s Church will return to his native India after becoming a much-loved member of the Grand Strand parish.
Friends and faithful have sent him hundreds of letters and cards warmly expressing how much they will miss the Missionary of St. Francis de Sales.
Children have colored their papers with happy pictures of “Father Matt” and crafted signs with felt and glitter. The adults have shown their love with parties and the Knights of Columbus made him an honorary member. It is no wonder he has loved his work.
“The people are wonderful,” he said. “I never thought people would be so affectionate and show so much love. Here, I have found people to be so forthcoming.”
Since 1997, Father Alapatt has said Mass, heard confessions, ministered to the sick and forged lifelong relationships. He has also brought back his share of stray sheep to the fold.
“But I tell them, ‘don’t come for me, come for the Lord,'” he said.
Msgr. Thomas Duffy, pastor of St. Michael’s, said his absence will be felt.
“The people are really going to miss him, he fit right in with all of the people of the parish,” he said.
Father Alapatt will return to work in missions in India. His provincial bishop, the Most Rev. Mani Panthalani, terminated his assignment in the United States because the priest was in poor health.
However, by the time his bishop found out he was ill, Father Alapatt, 64, had experienced a miraculous recovery.
Last December, the priest had a circulation problem in his leg that turned into an ulcer. He also was suffering from a reoccurrence of a persistent colitis. His parishioners began praying that his leg would heal, which it did. The added bonus was that the colitis cleared up too. He is now in good health.
“Two miracles have happened in my life,” said Father Alapatt.
Not only had he experienced colitis, but a successful fight against prostate cancer. He attributes his good health to the intercession of Our Lady of Health.
“My life has really been an enigma,” he said. “The Lord has been so good to me.”
“He has been so good to other people,” interjected his friend, Louis Picciola, a parishioner.
“Father is on call 24 hours a day,” Picciola went on. “If you’re sick, he will come to you, or just to people who want to talk to him. He means it when he says, ‘if you have a problem call me.'”
Father Alapatt is the spiritual director of the St. Michael’s charismatic prayer group. Picciola is a member.
“He has changed my life in a year-and-a-half,” Picciola said. “He brought me closer to the Lord. I am a daily communicant, and I wasn’t before. I just can’t get enough of the Lord, now.”
It is the hospital ministry where Father Alapatt has found his true gift. He recalled an incident where a man had been away from the Church for nearly 60 years.
Father Alapatt was called to the hospital yet told by the man’s wife he would be angry because he didn’t like priests. He went to him and asked, “Do you know why I am here?” The patient answered, “Yes, I am ready.”
“Somehow, God did that,” Father Alapatt said, “all because of the sacrament of confession. That is my means of healing. It is my special ministry. I feel I am doing better mission work seeing hundreds of people and helping to bring them back to the church.”
Msgr. Duffy said that the priest was devoted to going to the hospital.
“He was devoted to being of any kind of service to the people and always available to them,” the monsignor said. “He is going to be greatly missed.
“He realizes what it means to be a priest to people who are sick and is able to reach out to them,” he continued. “They realize that he is, for them, truly a priest, hearing their confessions, bringing them the sacraments.”
Originally, Father Alapatt was a principal of a high school and in school administration for 25 years in India. He was so highly esteemed in that role that he received the country’s presidential gold medal for being the best teacher in 1990-91.
His life in America began after retiring from school work and moving to Kalamazoo, Mich., in 1993, where he ministered to people in a 500-bed hospital.
He was only supposed to stay in the United States one year, on sabbatical, but the bishop of that diocese requested he stay longer.
Father Alapatt came to Charleston in 1997 to be near other priests of his order in the South. Some of his former students are priests assigned in Atlanta. In his province of Kerala, Father Alapatt said that they have the highest number of vocations topping out at 40,000 priests and religious.
The Missionary of St. Francis de Sales was ordained at age 27. Vocations are near to his heart, and he encourages religious life to those who will listen. Picciola said he is encouraging in every respect.
“He always thanks the altar boys by name,” he said. “He acknowledges everyone who has taken part in Mass.”
With a sack full of heartfelt best wishes, Picciola is not the only person who is going to miss his friend.
“He is going to be sorely missed,” Picciola said. “He is just a wonderful man, and a wonderful priest.”
Photo: Father Mathew Alapatt, MSFS, anoints a new participant in The Life in the Spirit seminar during Mass at St. Michael’s Church.