By Mack Spencer, Enterprise-Journal
MCCOMB – St. Alphonsus Catholic Church is having a celebration as American as apple pie on Sunday.
There are no guarantees that dessert will be available in Liguori Hall, but those summer staples of hamburgers and hot dogs will be plentiful.
As American as the food fare will be, so, too, is the honoree. St. Al’s pastor, Father Suresh Thirumalareddy, is the star of that show, and a naturalized citizen of the United States after a ceremony in New Orleans in June.
Growing up in India, Father Suresh didn’t think much about visiting the United States, and had never harbored a desire to seek American citizenship, though many Indians view this country positively and want to visit, if not immigrate.
“In India, people look at the United States as being a powerful nation – the greatest, most powerful nation on earth,” Father Suresh said. “That’s what we are taught. When people think about leaving, the first option is always to go to America.”
Eventually, he felt a call to take the opportunity afforded through a loan program between his home Guntur Diocese in southern India and the Jackson Diocese to become what could be called an exchange priest here, where there is a shortage of priests to fill the pulpits – but just for a while.
“My dad’s intention was that I would come here and serve as long as I wanted, and then I would come back to my home church,” he said. “I abided by that when he was alive.”
His father died at home after the start of the second wave of COVID-19 in India, following a 15-day stay in a hospital’s intensive care unit with the virus and complications, including two heart attacks.
Father Suresh became close to his predecessor, Father Brian Kaskie, in 2014, when he moved to Pike County after a year in Meridian with an appointment at St. Teresa Catholic Church in Chatawa, which served the nuns of St. Mary of the Pines.
The death of Kaskie, a friend and mentor, as well as his father, coupled with the ongoing priest shortage, led Father Suresh to seriously consider seeking American citizenship.
“I wanted to settle here and join the community,” he said. “My family said, ‘you have given your life to the Lord, you decide what you want.’
“So I started a new life. I said yes to America, and that I would follow the rules of America and be part of the culture and support America where I can.”
Father Suresh applied for and received both his voter identification and an American passport after his naturalization, and he voted in an American election for the first time in this year’s primary. India does not allow dual citizenship, so he sent his original passport to the Indian consulate in Atlanta for cancelation.
India will send him a renunciation certificate, after which he will be able to travel back home on his American passport, but unable to work or buy land in the country.
He has settled into American society despite difficulties when he first came to this country.
“The first year here, I struggled,” he said. “I missed the food, my family and my culture. I lost 28 pounds. I craved Indian food. Now, when I get the chance, I cook Indian food.
“I came to Chatawa in 2014, and I started eating American food with Father Brian. I like American food now. Popeye’s spicy chicken is good, and I like burgers, lobster and crab claws we used to get at the Caboose.”
While quite familiar with English – some authorities consider India to be the largest English-speaking country in the world, due to its colonial history in the British Raj – Father Suresh was sent to two months of classes in Meridian to lessen his accent.
While food and Southern drawls took some getting used to, other aspects of Mississippi were more familiar.
Mississippi’s summer heat, especially with this year’s string of days in the triple digits, reminded Father Suresh of home, though even the temperatures of 102 and 103 paled somewhat beside the 115 to 120 often experienced in India.
He tries to use the four weeks of vacation afforded him each year to visit friends and family in India during the cooler months, as he has acclimated to Mississippi’s temperature range.
He’s also used to a mix of religions, as southern India has large Catholic and Protestant populations as well as Hindu and Muslim, and they live fairly congenially and harmoniously; whereas northern India is largely Hindu, and the border regions with Pakistan are prone to clashes between Hindus and Muslims.
“It’s peaceful in the south” of India, he said. “There is no threat to Christians, especially in the south. There are friendly relations with Hindus and Muslims. When we had church events, many Hindus would come to celebrate with us. (Hindu) nationalists are not prevalent.”
Despite the difficulties and the differences, Father Suresh is glad to have taken the opportunity to come to Mississippi.
“God blessed me to come here,” he said. “I am happy to work here and serve this church. My life is meant to serve people, and in doing that, I have found another family.”
(Reprinted with permission of the Enterprise-Journal, Emmerich Newspapers, Inc.)