BY KATHY SCHMUGGE
MURPHY VILLAGE — The people of St. Edward Church consider their parish priest, Carmelite Father Cherian Thalakulam, to be an answer to a prayer. During his three years at the parish, Father Thalakulam has won the hearts and the trust of the people while encouraging them to do more for themselves and their church.
Tina Sherlock, one of a large settlement of Irish Travelers who permanently reside in Murphy Village, is a member of St. Edward.
“I could not name all the things Father Thalakulam has done for us,” she said. “Everyone loves him, and it doesn’t matter what your background is, he knows the good in you. He finds ways of touching the lives of everyone.”
Father Thalakulam worked as a university professor in India, and soon after his arrival at St. Edward he made arrangements for General Equivalency Diploma (GED) classes for people who hadn’t finished high school. Father Thalakulam was also anxious to get young people involved, so they could take a more active role in the church. Youths now help clean the church and are a part of the many feast day celebrations the church has during the year.
The Legion of Mary Presidia, Our Lady of Presentation and Our Lady of Epiphany organizations have been particularly supportive of the priest’s initiatives. They help him minister to the spiritual needs of the parish by visiting the sick, and make up the majority of the church’s catechists. They also organized the consecration of more than 300 homes to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Father Thalakulam’s most recent endeavor was initiating a Lenten pilgrimage to France and Italy Feb. 14-24. The participants toured Lourdes, Avignon, and Nice in France, and then went to Florence, Assisi and Rome in Italy. Many of Father Thalakulam parishioners had never traveled far from home and the airplane flight almost discouraged a few from going, but Father Thalakulam reassured them with the words of Christ, “Do not be afraid, I am with you.”
“I was afraid at first to fly, but Father Thalakulam calmed my fears,” Mary Sherlock said. “It was a humbling trip for me. I learned to count my blessings. At Lourdes, I went to bathe at the spring, and it felt as though I was bathing in the Holy Spirit.”
Sherlock has been a member of St. Edward Church all of her 46 years.
Tina Sherlock had to work through some last-minute obstacles to go on the pilgrimage.
“I saw the movie about Lourdes and read the book, but going there brought everything to reality for me,” she said. “The trip changed my life, and I owe it to Father Thalakulam for encouraging me to go.”
The tour company made arrangements so the priest could celebrate Mass every day for the group.
It was Father Thalakulam’s second trip to Europe. The first time he traveled alone and did not have a tour guide or people with whom to share the experience.
Although Father Thalakulam has been in the United States for less than four years, he has adjusted to a foreign culture, language and climate quite well. He seems to adapt to any environment, armed with a welcoming smile and an attentive ear.
“I have not experienced difficulty working at St. Edward Church,” he said. “The family values here are similar to the ones in my country.”
He is from a part of India that has a rich Christian tradition dating back to A.D. 52. It is believed that the apostle St. Thomas evangelized that area, and in that nurturing environment of faith there are no shortages of priests. In his family alone, vocations abound. He has three uncles and three cousins who have chosen the consecrated life. Father Thalakulam’s two great-uncles, in particular, were very influential in his decision to enter the priesthood.
“They would come and visit often, and I remember thinking at a very young age that I wanted to be a priest like them,” he said. He was ordained on Dec. 26, 1976.
After studying at the Pontifical Seminary in India, he went on to the secular university to get a doctorate in history. After working as the principal of two private colleges and as the editor of a daily Catholic newspaper with a circulation of 100,000, the priest spent several years as a history professor at the secular university. Teaching at the university helped Father Thalakulam polish his English, since his course work was taught in that language.
His assignment in South Carolina is the first one that has required him to leave his country. He initially spent some time in Charleston and then became parochial vicar at St. Anthony Church in Florence. It was not long after that he was given his current position as administrator at St. Edward Church.
“I am happy to be here,” Father Thalakulam said. “My parishioners take good care of me.”