Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
December 21, 2009
Parishioners' faith excites missionary priest
Born into a devout Catholic family, Fr. Joseph Vadassery once trekked through mountains for weeks to reach his many congregations
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
Father Joseph Vadassery, the pastor at Devon's St. Maria Goretti Parish, is a missionary priest with a taste for adventure.
In the late 1990s, he was part of a team of priests serving a parish with more than 60 missions in a mountainous region of India. Unlike his predecessors, French missionaries who brought the faith to the area on horseback, Vadassery had to walk for days and weeks to reach his congregation - always under the threat of malaria.
Vadassery also served in the slums of an Indian city where anemic mothers and underfed children abound. He fed them and taught them basic life skills.
The 41-year-old priest came to Edmonton in 2005 and has been pastor in Devon for more than three years. Prior to that, he served at St. Joseph's Basilica.
Vadassery was born in 1968 in Kerala, a state in southwestern India. He was the oldest of four children. "I was born into a good Catholic family and brought up going to church and participating in Catholic activities."
He became an altar boy at an early age, and by Grade 4 or 5 he was already dreaming of becoming a priest. Serving at Mass gave him a feeling for the sacred as well as respect for the Church and the Eucharist.
Vadassery joined the seminary in 1986 after he graduated from high school. His diocese in Kerala had plenty of priests, so he went far away to the Diocese of Berhampur, located on the eastern coastline of the Indian state of Orissa. "I wanted to be a missionary priest," he recalls. "I wanted to serve people in faraway places."
He was ordained in Berhampur in 1997, following 10 years of studies. He served in three different parishes after ordination.
His first parish had 66 missions, most of them small towns and villages located in the mountains. "We went from place to place walking," he recalled. "We would do 15 to 20 villages by motorcycle, then we would walk."
The experience was exciting for Vadassery "because these people only get Mass once every three months; otherwise they get lay-led services."
Priests visit these missions primarily for major holidays and use the opportunity to celebrate all the sacraments, including Baptism and marriage.
In eight to 10 days Vadassery would cover 17 to 20 villages. When his tour was complete, another priest would start the cycle all over again.
"That was a different experience, really exciting because you can see the faith of the people," Vadassery said. "All the inconveniences are forgotten when you see the enthusiasm of the people."
In a tropical climate like that of Berhampur, malaria is common. Vadassery contracted the mosquito-borne infectious disease several times, "but I got better after taking my medication."
After four years, Vadassery was transferred to a 400-family parish in the slums of Kasinagar. Poverty is rampant in the city, so the church has to provide social as well as spiritual services. So Vadassery used to run a soup kitchen and a night school for school dropouts in the church.
The school catered to young children, some as young as seven, who worked during the day and could not attend regular school.
"The purpose was not to make degree-holders of them but to teach them basic math and reading and writing skills," he explained.
In 2005 Vadassery came to Edmonton under a program initiated by former Edmonton Archbishop Thomas Collins. "I thought of having a different experience," he says about his decision to come to Canada.
After assisting at St. Joseph's Basilica for a year, Vadassery became pastor of St. Maria Goretti Parish in Devon in August 2006. He also oversees the parishes of Calmar and Thorsby.
His experience in Canada so far has been "wonderful." The level of lay involvement in all three parishes stuns him.
"They are involved in all aspects of the parish life and are totally dedicated," he pointed out. "That's difficult to find back home, where people think church is the priest's business."
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