CHERAW—During Father John Paul Reddy Pentareddy’s three years in the Diocese of Charleston, he has seen the full spectrum of Catholic communities.
As parochial vicar at St. Francis by the Sea Church in Hilton Head, he served one of the diocese’s largest and fastest growing parishes with plenty of resources and an influx of active retirees and young families from other states.
Since late 2008, he has been administrator of St. Peter Church in Cheraw, a section of the state where Catholics are few and far between.
He serves about 60 households in the historic town, and travels weekly to celebrate Mass at St. Denis Mission in Bennettsville, with about 41 households, and St. Ernest Mission in Pageland, where about 20 families worship. These small towns in the largely rural counties are a far cry from his first assignment, but the size of the parish does not matter, he said. The mission is always the same.
“As a priest I should always give the love of Jesus to the people,” he said. “Being a priest is challenging, wherever you are, because you are the person who brings the church to many people. Priests become leaders in their community. People show love to me, respect me and support me simply because I’m a priest. I’m there to bring Christ to them.”
Father Pentareddy arrived in South Carolina in May 2007, as part of an agreement between this diocese and his home Diocese of Warangal in India. He came for a three-year assignment, and said the process is underway to extend his visa so he can continue to serve here.
He grew up as one of six children in the state of Andhra Pradesh. His home region has one of the largest Catholic populations in the nation, and he said his family traces their Catholic faith back for hundreds of years. His father, who was a farmer, died a few years ago, but the priest keeps in touch with his mother and siblings.
Father Pentareddy said he attended public school as a child, but was constantly surrounded by the strong witness of family members and the priests and nuns who served his community.
“Those priests and sisters inspired me to join the priesthood,” he said. “I had a strong desire to become something, and my family was very happy that I became a priest. They said it was a privilege to be a priest, to serve people.”
He attended a Jesuit high school for two years and then transferred to the seminary in Hyderabad, where he studied for 10 years and was ordained in 1994.
The priest then spent several years serving in missions around India.
When he returned to Warangal, he worked as a director of youth activities for more than six years, and helped women and young people learn skills that would lead to good jobs.
Father Pentareddy said he always had a desire to travel. One ambition was to spend at least a year in the United States. This was fulfilled when his bishop sent him to South Carolina. It was a big change from what he was used to in India.
“When I came to this country, I initially had some problems understanding the accents. The food was very different and the culture was very different from Indian culture,” he said. “It took some time, but I really feel the people both in Hilton Head and here in Cheraw are such good people, we were able to work out the difficulties.”
His life in Cheraw centers around the small wooden church on Market Street and his home in the quiet, neat rectory adjacent to it. Father Pentareddy celebrates Mass and the sacrament of reconciliation in the historic church, which was built in 1840. It was damaged during Sherman’s occupation of Cheraw in 1865, and saber marks can be seen on the columns outside and the wooden interior floor shows a burn mark.
He said the parish reflects the diversity of the area, from men and women who were born and raised in Cheraw to new immigrants from the Philippines and India, many of whom work as nurses and teachers at area schools.
Father Pentareddy and volunteers have organized religious education classes, and three people have become Catholics since he arrived. He also travels to two prisons in the region to minister to Catholic inmates,
During his rare free time, Father Pentareddy follows Indian news on the Internet, reads religious materials and likes to watch movies and news programs. He also likes to travel and has visited many U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Houston, New York and Boston.
He has a strong devotion to Mary and likes to quote the wisdom of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.
“Mother Teresa said not to worry, that if you do little things with love, you’ll be a saint,” he said. “As a priest you should have love for God and love for everybody you serve. It’s a hard life, it’s not easy. Because of secularism, in today’s society Catholic values are always challenged, but I’ve learned to follow Jesus’ example. It’s my responsibility to present the witness of the Gospel.”