Gifts from afar: International priests relish opportunity to serve in Michigan

Fr. Socorro Fernandes

Fr. Socorro Fernandes, at right, is installed as pastor of St. Valentine Parish in Redford in 2013, in addition to his service as pastor of Our Lady of Loretto Parish since 2010.

Most here to study, but all find love and support from local Church community

Metro Detroit — They may have come to the Archdiocese of Detroit at the request of their respective bishops, or maybe as an assignment of their religious order, or even for the opportunity to study in the United States.

But regardless of what brought them to the U.S., these international priests wholeheartedly embrace the call to serve the people they have been given.

Fr. Timothy Babcock, assistant director for international priests in the archdiocesan Office for Clergy and Consecrated Life, explained that priests come to the Archdiocese of Detroit from other countries for two main reasons.

“The larger number are those who are students at Sacred Heart Major Seminary or another educational institution,” Fr. Babcock said. “They are here about 90 percent to study. They do help out in parishes and typically live there, but they aren’t really here to do ministry as such.”

Fr. Babcock said the smaller category is that of priests who come to the Archdiocese of Detroit at the request of their local bishops or their particular religious orders. This is a small category because these priests are generally needed in their home dioceses, and they can only stay for a specific period of time.

“We only have about 20 international priests who are active in ministry here, and who are not students,” said Fr. Babcock. “We only accept the request of a priest to come here if we have a position available for him.”

He explained that the system of bringing over international priests is careful and scrutinizing.

“The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has requirements for international priests, and we follow them completely,” Fr. Babcock said. “All the priests that come here have received testimonials from their bishops and are in good standing — we are not taking someone who had a problem somewhere else.”

Additionally, all international priests, as with all priests of the Archdiocese of Detroit, are required to take the Protecting God’s Children course.

“We definitely value the presences of the priests and they bring tremendous background and diversity, but there are not many of them,” Fr. Babcock said.

Continuing the Pallottine tradition

14b-Fr-Fernandes-mug_150Fr. Socorro Fernandes, SAC, was ordained in May 1999 as a Pallottine priest in the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Province in Bangalore, India.

The Pallottines, also known as the Society of the Catholic Apostolate (Latin, “Societas Apostolatus Catholici”), focus largely on living the apostolic life and promoting its mission.

Ministering as an associate pastor, a vocations promoter and a pastor at different times in his home state of Goa, India, he never imagined he would be sent to serve in the United States.

“In 2006 I was asked if I would like to minister in the United States, and I said why not give it a try,” Fr. Fernandes said. In October 2006 he began his position at St. Andrew Parish in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., where he served for three years.

In 2010, he was appointed pastor of Our Lady of Loretto Parish in Redford, to succeed the previous pastor, Fr. Ralph Besterwitch, SAC, in keeping up the Indian Pallottine Community’s assistance at that parish.

“It was then that I came to this archdiocese,” Fr. Fernandes said. “It was our duty as Pallottines to send another Pallottine.”

Fr. Socorro Fernandes

Fr. Socorro Fernandes with the First Communion class of May 2013 at Our Lady of Loretto Parish.

Fr. Fernandes is one of a group of six Pallottine priests in the Archdiocese of Detroit belonging to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Province in India.

“Through our ministry we support our province back home,” he said, “and that is one of the things that makes me happy to give back to the society who gave me a lot in my priestly formation.”

In July 2013, Fr. Fernandes was appointed pastor of St. Valentine Parish in Redford, in addition to his continued service at Our Lady of Loretto.

With the help of his associate pastor at St. Valentine, Fr. Hendrico Rebello, Fr. Fernandes has been enjoying his experience in serving the archdiocese.

“I have not come across many challenges,” he said, explaining that coming from the southwestern part of India, which was ruled originally by the Portuguese, gave him a lot of the typical Western experience.

He admitted one difficulty in transition was the climate difference.

“Winter,” he said, “which we never experienced back home.”

Despite this, he sees it as a special privilege to meet new people and participate in American culture. And being able to have the nearby community of his fellow Indian Pallottines has been extremely valuable.

“When we have those parish potluck dinners, the parishioners expect something spicy,” he said with a chuckle. “We always make food from India.”

He explained he is a strong promoter of the priesthood and religious life among his people.

“I don’t miss an opportunity to mention to the little ones how wonderful it is to serve the Lord as priests and religious,” he said. “The Lord has a mission for each one of us, and right now my mission is to help people have that prayerful, meaningful experience … that will make them come back as often as they can.”

Bringing two communities together

14b-Fr-Okeke-mug_150Fr. Cornelius Okeke’s experience as an international priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit has already been different from average.

A native of Nigeria and ordained in 1993, Fr. Okeke came in 2012 to the newly created St. Andre Bessette Parish, Ecorse, which was formed from the merged parishes of Our Lady of Lourdes in River Rouge and St. Francis Xavier in Ecorse.

Appointed parish administrator in 2012, he took on the trying responsibilities of helping two parish communities come together, and was made pastor of the parish this year.

Fr. Okeke was not wholly unfamiliar with the United States, as he had visited several times while a seminarian.

“I didn’t have parish administrative experience, so it was challenging to learn on the job,” he said. “But the priests in the Downriver Vicariate were very helpful, very good brothers.”

Fr. Cornelius Okeke

Fr. Cornelius Okeke smiles with parishioner Elizabeth Moroz at the September 2013 St. Andre Bessette Festival.

But his earlier days teaching psychology and philosophy at Pope John Paul II Major Seminary in Nigeria helped him learn to work well with people, and prevented him from many potential barriers.

“Knowing the culture, loving the people and caring for the people, that’s no problem,” he said, explaining he has come to really believe that people have faith, believe in God, and that “the priest needs to recognize that and feed that faith they have.”

He is proud of his parish, and has grown very close to the people there: “They have come a long, long way.”

Fr. Okeke said his parishioners joke with him about minor cultural differences, such as his foreign accent.

“My accent is different, but they didn’t quite complain. They make fun of it and then we laugh,” he said. “It’s beautiful that we can laugh about that.”

He reflected on the challenges of bringing two parish communities into one, and said he never really met any true obstacles.

“Working here makes me really appreciate that the Church is one throughout the world,” he said. “Wherever the priest goes, the priest feels at home. I am very much at home here.”

One priest, many tasks

14b-Fr-Mukkoot-mug_150Fr. Saji Mukkoot is pastor of St. Joseph’s Syro-Malankara Catholic Church in Detroit, associate pastor of St. Mary Queen of Creation Parish in New Baltimore, the chaplain of the Detroit Police Department and a volunteer chaplain at the New Baltimore Police Department.

He’s also an international priest from India, ordained in 1992, and assigned to the Archdiocese of Detroit based on a mutual agreement between the bishop of the Syro-Malankara Exarchate in New York and Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron.

He came to the United States in 1996 to serve in New York, later ministering in Chicago, and finally arriving in the Archdiocese of Detroit in 2010. He has been at Queen of Creation for three years.

Fr. Mukkoot said adapting to the culture while in New York was a bit difficult, but he’s more comfortable now.

As an Eastern-rite priest in the archdiocese, Fr. Mukkoot serves the Eastern-rite Indian community in the Detroit area, as well as his Latin-rite parishioners at Queen of Creation.

He says there are significant differences between the two communities, which can sometimes be a challenge.

Fr. Saji Mukkoot

Fr. Saji Mukkoot gets ready to sing at St. Mary Queen of Creation Parish’s vacation Bible school this past summer.

“Westerners are more structured and Easterners are more casual; they expect the priest should know their needs without telling them, because of the personal relationship,” Fr. Mukkoot said. “A priest from this background tries to deal with parishioners in a more personal way, which they appreciate.”

Fr. Mukkoot said he would recommend a cultural adaptation course or formal orientation program for priests from other countries, as merely knowing the language is not always enough.

“It would be good to have training for those priests who come here for the first time to get acquainted with the culture,” he said.

Fr. Mukkoot said many of the challenges he’s encountered are those that all priests share, such as striving to preach the true Catholic faith to the people.

“Some of the issues that we proclaim from the pulpit, people may not like that,” he said. “They don’t always want to hear the Catholic teaching. But it is an opportunity at least to evangelize and respond in a Gospel way.”

He said he often shares stories about his past in India, which deeply touches his American parishioners.

“To serve that community is very rewarding,” Fr. Mukkoot said. “It is so good, and fulfilling. For important events, like a graduation, some of them invite me into their homes.”

He said it’s touching to realize that “even though I’m not related to the family, as a priest they consider me family.”