NORTH AUGUSTA—Carmelite Father Cherian Thalakulam has one simple motto that has carried him through the many assignments he has had in 33 years of priesthood: “Bloom where you are planted.”
He was a history professor, college principal and editor of a Catholic newspaper in his native India. In the Diocese of Charleston, he served parishes in Florence, Marion and Dillon before becoming pastor of St. Edward Church in Murphy Village, where he serves a parish made up almost exclusively of Irish Travelers.
When he first received the assignment in 2002, Father Thalakulam said he was concerned that the community might be hesitant to accept him because he was an outsider and from a foreign country.
“Bishop [Robert J.] Baker told me not to worry. He said ‘The people need someone to love and take care of them, and you will know how to do that.’ Since then, I have been trying to do my best for the people, to be a true pastor and shepherd,” Father Thalakulam said.
Becoming a priest was a natural decision for him because he comes from Kerala, a region of southern India that is 90 percent Catholic. The history of the region says it was evangelized in 52 A.D. by St. Thomas.
Father Thalakulam was one of six children raised in a devout Catholic home, and his extended family includes two great-uncles, cousins and other relatives who were priests, plus three aunts who became nuns.
Father Thalakulam proudly shows visitors printed family histories that include pictures of all his relatives who pursued vocations.
He also shows a small picture of himself when he entered the seminary at age 15, which is standard practice in Kerala. He joined the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate because one of his uncles was a member of the order.
He eventually graduated from the Pontifical Seminary in Puna, India, and then completed a doctorate in history at a state university. He was ordained in 1976 and spent many years as an academic, teaching history and serving as a principal at private colleges. In 1986, he began a three-year stint as editor of a Catholic newspaper with a circulation of more than 100,000.
In 2001, Father Thalakulam’s superior in India granted him permission to come to the United States following a request from Bishop Baker. His first assignment was at St. Anthony in Florence.
The move from India to a parish in the largely rural Pee Dee area of South Carolina was a change, but one which he accepted because of his commitment to obey his Carmelite leaders. Father Thalakulam said he was quickly accepted by the people he served and easily adapted to parish life.
“Every priest finds more happiness in the parish,” he said.
Since arriving in Murphy Village, Father Thalakulam said he has made an effort to be available to people who need him, no matter what time of day or night.
In India, he spent a lot of time working with young people, and he has established an active youth group at St. Edward.
He is especially proud of creating a program to help people in the parish obtain their General Equivalency Diploma, because many in the past did not complete high school.
During the summer, Father Thalakulam likes to visit his parishioners in the places where they find summer work, including Ohio, New Jersey, Kentucky and Michigan. During the visits, he will celebrate Mass and hear confessions.
He also has taken members of the parish on pilgrimages to Lourdes, France, and Assisi and Florence in Italy. For many, he said, it was their first time on an airplane.
Father Thalakulam enjoys visiting with friends and parishioners during free time and reading books, especially history. He keeps fit by walking on a track at a local fitness club.
He also keeps in touch regularly with his family in India, and travels there every August to see his mother.
“She told me to always make sure I come back, and I listen to her!” he said.
Father Thalakulam prays the Liturgy of the Hours and does spiritual reading each day. According to the rules of his order, he also spends about an hour each day in prayerful meditation. As a Carmelite, he is very devoted to Mary, and said he also feels a special devotion for St. Therese of Lisieux and for St. Joseph.
Father Thalakulam treasures his role as pastor for the Irish Travelers of Murphy Village, and said anyone considering the priesthood should be willing to be available and ready to serve.
“Your biggest challenge is to bring Jesus to the people,” he said. “When I became a priest, I promised to always be there for God and for the people.”