October 30, 2020

2020 Vocations Awareness Supplement

From missionary call to death threats, Father Kalapurackal embraces priesthood

Father Francis Joseph Kalapurackal celebrates Mass in person and via livestream at St. Thomas More Church in Mooresville. (Submitted photo)

Father Francis Joseph Kalapurackal celebrates Mass in person and via livestream at St. Thomas More Church in Mooresville. (Submitted photo)

By Natalie Hoefer

When thinking about his native country of India, there are certain aspects Father Francis Joseph Kalapurackal misses.

Death threats are not among them.

Nor is having his church targeted by gunfire, nor working to buy back parishioners’ farmland usurped by tribal lords, nor avoiding extortion by insurgents.

Such challenges are nonexistent here, where Father Kalapurackal serves as pastor of St. Thomas More Parish in Mooresville and St. Ann Parish in Indianapolis.

“God has blessed me abundantly,” he acknowledges.

But he applies that statement to the entirety of his priesthood—from choosing to stay in seminary, to walking as much as 14 hours between small churches of a large parish, to taking a nursing school project from concept to extraordinary success, to encouraging vocations in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

“I could always feel God walking me through all those journeys,” he says.

Those journeys began in India at age 15, when he met with the head of an archdiocese 2,000 miles away from his home.

‘That week lasted 12-and-a-half years’

That meeting took place in Kerala State at the southwestern tip of India. Father Kalapurackal grew up in a village there, baptized and raised Catholic at St. Ann Parish. It was in that church where, at the age of 12, he participated in his cousin’s ordination.

“My inspiration to become a priest started with [that] ordination,” he says.

Having an archbishop-led ordination in his home parish “allowed more [people] to attend and more young people to participate. It allowed young men to see how beautiful [the ceremony] is and the grace of the sacrament celebrated right before their eyes.”

From that point, Father Kalapurackal “liked the idea” of becoming a priest. “But I didn’t feel I was worthy, how holy that position is.”

His mother encouraged him, though.

Three years later, when he saw a notice for interviews with an archbishop for a spot at St. Thomas Seminary 2,000 miles away in Manipur State, he went. The meeting went well, and he was immediately accepted.

Father Kalapurackal began his priestly trek quite literally, traveling five days by train from the southwestern to the northeastern tip of India.

From the start, the young teen was miserable.

“It was a different culture,” he recalls of Manipur State—and the seminary. “I didn’t like the food. I never lived away from home. The seminary schedule was hard. I was so homesick I wanted to leave.”

But a mentor suggested he try the seminary for just one week.

“That week lasted for 12-and-a-half years,” says Father Kalapurackal. He was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Imphal, Manipur, in 1997.

‘I had to walk sometimes 12-14 hours’

He spent his first two years as a priest at St. Thomas Seminary serving as dean of students.

In 1999, Father Kalapurackal was assigned as pastor of St. Mary Parish in Kholian in Manipur, not far from the Myanmar border. The faith community was large—and not just in terms of its 2,000-family membership.

“It had 28 small village churches and one large church,” he describes. “I had to walk to the villages—sometimes 12-14 hours. There was no electricity, no paved roads. It was a very poor parish in a poor setting.”

In the village of Gelngai, a tribal lord had taken ownership of all the land and banished the village’s chief and 32 families. They were reduced to living in a single hut on one acre of land.

“My heart broke the first time I went to Gelngai,” says Father Kalapurackal. “I got funding and bought back the land. I brought the families back to the village and brought a stream in to help with agriculture.”

He says his archbishop “had a plan for me that I should have a missionary experience there,” he says. “It was a great missionary experience.”

‘Wherever I knocked, the Lord opened more doors’

Father Kalapurackal’s archbishop also had a specific purpose for the priest’s next assignment in 2001 as director of the archdiocese’s 150-bed Catholic medical center in Imphal, the capital of Manipur.

“He wanted me to grow it into a better organization,” he says. “It wasn’t in good shape [and] had a lot of financial issues.”

When he left in 2011, much had changed.

“When I started, we had 48 staff [members],” he says. “I had the joy of seeing the institution grow into a full-fledged hospital. When I left, we had over 200 staff with a multi-facility hospital and a college of nursing school being built.”

The nursing school was a project dear to Father Kalapurackal’s heart.

“The situation was one nurse for 10,000 people” when he started, he says. “I felt there was a huge need to train more nurses.

“I’m told that today it’s a flourishing institution, probably the best in the state, … with 150 total studying there every year.”

He gives God credit for the school’s success.

“When I started the college, we had no land, no money,” he recalls. “But wherever I knocked on a door, the Lord opened more doors. People were so generous. I praise God for [the school] and for the opportunity for nurses to be trained to help the sick and suffering.”

‘They would just shoot and kill you’

But all was not smooth progress during those years at the hospital. Father Kalapurackal calls those years “unstable” as insurgents sought Manipur State’s independence from India.

“There were attacks on the Church, especially for clergy and people from outside the state”—two categories that applied to him, the priest says.

At one point an insurgent group built a camp near his church in Imphal. There were times he couldn’t celebrate Mass and had to lock the church due to gunfire and bombings.

One of his most frightening encounters with insurgents occurred one year on Aug. 15, the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary—and India’s Independence Day, a day the secessionist insurgents refused to acknowledge.

“They thought I was celebrating Independence Day,” Father Kalapurackal recalls. “I told them I was celebrating Mass for the Assumption. They started firing on the church. It really shook me up.”

So did another of the insurgents’ actions—extortion, demanding payment of “taxes” to the group.

“Anyone who held responsibility in any position had to abide by them or they would just shoot and kill you,” he says.

His role as hospital director placed the priest in a vulnerable position. By 2011 there were death threats on his life, and his archbishop ordered him to return to his family’s village for safety.

“That’s how I left the archdiocese [of Imphal] and was looking for an opportunity to serve in different countries, including the U.S.,” says Father Kalapurackal.

His friend and former fellow priest of the Imphal Archdiocese, Father Varghese Maliakkal, had emigrated to the U.S. a few years prior and had served in central and southern Indiana since 2006. Father Maliakkal recommended him to then-Auxiliary Bishop Christopher J. Coyne.

“I arrived here in the archdiocese on Aug. 23, 2013,” Father Kalapurackal precisely remembers.

He served at Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish in Greenwood until 2015 and has led St. Thomas More ever since. He was incardinated into the archdiocese in 2019, when he also became pastor at St. Ann.

‘I love every part of my priesthood’

Reflecting on his journey as a priest, Father Kalapurackal goes back to that meeting with the archbishop of Imphal that led to his acceptance into the seminary.

“Twelve-and-a-half years is a long journey,” he admits. “But I didn’t find happiness in anything else. … I never felt I’m worthy, but through God’s mercy and love I am found worthy through Jesus, who calls me to share in his priesthood.”

To those discerning a call to the priesthood or religious life, Father Kalapurackal advises patience.

“It’s not always easy,” he says. “But God will make it clear just like a sculptor brings out a beautiful statue from stone. God will do that for us. We only have to allow ourselves to be chiseled by him.”

He also has advice for members of a Church desperately in need of more priests: “Pray for vocations.”

“Unless every family and every parish is praying for more laborers, we won’t have more vocations,” he cautions. “It needs to start in the family—families praying the rosary to Blessed Mother Mary, and families having a special love and devotion to the sacraments.”

Father Kalapurackal practices what he preaches. Almost every Mass in his parishes, he says, includes a petition for an increase in religious and priestly vocations. Those who pray in St. Thomas More’s perpetual adoration chapel are asked to pray for the same intention.

To both support the archdiocese’s seminarians and possible future vocations, St. Thomas More parish hosts an annual dinner for the archdiocese’s seminarians, inviting “as many young people and parishioners as possible to come.”

Father Kalapurackal’s love for his vocation is strong.

“Every aspect of the priesthood is important—offering the sacraments, teaching, administering. I love every part of my priesthood.”

Whether serving among tribes in India or the people of central and southern Indiana, he sees his call—and the call of all priests—as the same: to be a missionary for Christ.

“Priesthood is missionary by its very nature,” he says. “No matter where you are, you’re a missionary—I strongly believe that.”

(For more information about a vocation to the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, visit www.HearGodsCall.com.)


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