New parish priest is unique

GAFFNEY — Sacred Heart parish has a new pastor, an exotic man with more advanced degrees than a roomful of teachers. Father Louis Philip Manuel is an Indian; he is also a Jesuit priest. To the people of Sacred Heart, however, he is all that and more.

“We’re deeply honored to have Father Louis here,” said Judy Ehlich, a chiropractor and 41-year parishioner. “He’s so kind and compassionate, and he has a lot of wisdom.”

Father Manuel should have a lot of wisdom. In addition to the philosophy and theological licentiate degrees he earned in his 14-year Jesuit formation period that began in 1958, he has an undergraduate degree in math and a masters in sociology, all from universities in India.

He won a scholarship to another Jesuit institution, Marymount College in Los Angeles, where he earned a master’s in school administration and another in guidance and counseling. Not surprisingly, his work took him into the field of education.

“I was an educator; that was my line of apostolate from 1974 until 2002,” Father Manuel said.

He taught math for seven years and was an assistant principal in various Catholic schools in the south of India near his home province of Madurai. Then he became principal of the Loyola Public School in Guntur.

Since India uses the British tradition in education, the so-called public school was actually a “posh” institution. It was also merely five percent Catholic. India is a predominantly Hindu country.

The priest-educator then went to St. Patrick’s High School, founded by Irish Christian Brothers in Secunderabad, a secondary school with a student population of 3,600. After six years as the principal of that enormous institution, he took over the diocese’s Amali High School in Vijayawada.

In 1993, Father Manuel became rector (chancellor) of Loyola Academy, what the Indians call a university college. During that time, he was also the superior of his Jesuit community.

When his six-year term as superior ended, he was sent to Loyola Junior College, where he finished his education career, so far.

“I had not been exercising my priestly ministry so much, sometimes not even saying Mass for the public except during vacation times. I wanted time to reflect, and I thought pastoral work would be ideal,” Father Manuel said.

So the Jesuit came back to the United States on sabbatical, conferred with college educators here, attended conferences and seminars and put on retreats. He soon accepted an offer from Bishop Robert J. Baker in South Carolina and took the position of pastoral associate at Prince of Peace parish in Taylors. It was the perfect move.

“I was so happy with that,” he said. “There were a lot of opportunities for pastoring. I took to it like a fish to water.”

He taught Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults and Scripture classes, visited the sick, counseled parishioners, heard confessions and made many friends. As an associate to pastor Father Steve Brovey, he had no administrative responsibilities, and ministering to people restored him. He was appointed administrator at Sacred Heart and at St. Augustine in Union, 30 miles away. He began his new duties Jan. 4.

The people of both churches have welcomed him, he said.

“They treat me very well and have gone out of their way to make me feel at home,” he said.

Church organist Matt Compton called the Jesuit a “reverent man and a great priest.”

Parishioner Gay Woodle said, “We really feel blessed to have him here.”

Father Manuel feels comfortable in his pastoral role, but one aspect of his new life is taking some time to get used to, he said. Since he was the tenth of 12 children and then became an order priest living in community, this venture in Gaffney marks the first time in his 63 years that Father Manuel has lived alone. He hardly has time to miss company, though.

Father Manuel celebrates three weekend Masses at Sacred Heart — one of them in Spanish — and weekday Masses daily except Friday, his day off.

He travels to St. Augustine for a Mass on Sunday evening and another on Thursday. And he takes parish activities and his pastoral ministry seriously. One of his role models is Mother Teresa, whom he met three times while saying Mass at a convent of her order in Secunderabad.

“Mother Teresa was a tough guy. That’s why she accomplished so much,” he said.

Father Manuel doesn’t know how long he will remain as a parish priest. He said that is up to the bishop and to his Jesuit superiors. He does know one thing for sure: “I like this work.”