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American Experience,1976-81

American Experience(1976-81)

Frs. Jose Alencherry,  Ettoly and Matthew Muthuplackal were at the Kennedy airport to receive me. I went with Fr.Ettolil and spent a couple of days with him at his parish. The New Year was spent with him.  I saw the New Year parish dance and felt out of place in such a celebration as it was too early for me to get into the spirit of the celebration. Everything was to new to me. It was my first introduction to an American way of life.
Fr. Jose Alencherry also took me to his place at Ossining and later they dropped me at the Kennedy  airport .There was a two hour flight to Indianapolis and from there a forty five minutes ride to Terre haute by a small commuter plane. I have never ridden a commuter plane with around  25 passengers or around that number. I was telling myself what a fool I was after traveling so far and then  to end everything by traveling by this small aircraft! I thought it would break down and fall at any moment as it was going up and down and moving sideways in its flight!
As I reached the airport and got out with my suitcase, I felt disappointed at   seeing no friendly face. Then, I heard someone from the side calling, “George.” It was the  pastor of the parish with whom I was going to stay at St.Anne’s Church. That was the opening of a new chapter in my American experience.

St.Anne’s Church,Terre Haute—1976-77
The stay at St. Anne’s was new in every respect. Fr. Don Raih took me to the University for registration and helped me in many ways in the first few weeks .He was under the impression that I was familiar with everything that was American . Slowly I began to make friends with people at the parish as well as at the University.
For the weekday masses, we  used a portable altar .We had to set it up before the people arrived. Time flew fast and within a year I finished my Master’s degree from the Indiana State University. I did my master’s thesis on Walker Percy’s novels.
 It was by accident that I came across the works of Walker Percy. When we went to a neighboring parish for dinner, Fr.Raih took some of the used magazines from the Pastor. In one of the magazines, I saw a review of Lancelot, one of the novels of Walker Percy.The review caught my attention and I began to read  his other novels as well as  his collections of essays. It was that review in the magazine “Saturday Post” that opened my eyes to a new kind  of fiction and finally to the selection of the fiction of Walker Percy for my Ph.D. dissertation.
After finishing up my work in Terre Haute, Indiana, I decided to join the Catholic University of America for my Ph.D. It was a big move.
While at Terre Haute, I worked at the Campus Ministry of Indiana State University. I had to say two masses every Sunday in the afternoon at the Campus Ministry chapel. Fr.Christian Moore was the Chaplain. Fr.Moore was a Franciscan priest and one of the great and generous priests I have come across in my life. I was very sad to hear  later that he left priesthood and got married.
 I had a very happy time with the students at the Campus Ministry. They would come to the rectory where I was staying  to give me rides to the University and back.
Dr. Misenheimer was the Chairman of the Dept. of English. There were more than 60 professors in the Dept. of English. Even though it was a public and a secular University, the faculty and the students always addressed me as Fr.George. Some of the Professors  were members of the parish. I still remember the beautiful words of the  reference letter that was written by Dr.Frushell for my application to the Campus Ministry at C.U.
I could not remain at Terre Haute for my graduation as I had agreed to serve a parish in Bronx during the summer vacation.
But what was great was that I could finish MA within a year at ISU and leave  next year for my Ph.D. Along with regular courses, I took private courses and then opted for the thesis which reduced my length of stay at ISU.
Since I decided to join the Catholic University for my Ph.D,,I had to find a place for stay.There were no churches available in Washington D.C.The Archdiocese expressed its inability to find a place for me. But the Campus Ministry at CU offered to accept me as one of the Ministers in their Department. The Director of the Campus Ministry came to Terre Haute to interview me. He offered me the job before he went back.
So I packed everything and left by bus for New York. Mary Drummy, a retired teacher and a regular participant at the daily mass who became a good friend of mine offered me the ride to the Bus station. I was given a very warm send off on the Sunday before my departure.
There were so many people who were helpful to me while I was in Indiana.The sisters also made me feel very comfortable. Sr. Jody gave me her typewriter  to type my thesis.The sisters had also given me rides several times. It was with them that I went to Chicago for the first time in my life. It was a very happy and delightful ride. As we were approaching Chicago, we used to say aloud: “Chicago,Chicago.”
With Fr.Raih and the sisters, I went to Cincinnatti for roller coaster rides etc.
There was a family that used to come for daily masses without any break and they used to invite me to their house whenever I was free.
The University people were also very supportive of me. I had an assistantship and hence I had a room at the Department .I was teaching Grammar and Composition to freshman students.
 I left India on Dec.26th  after my classes and  a few weeks  after I was in  the States, teaching at Indiana State University in the middle of Jan.
I had a very interesting time with students. They were very good to me. Since I appeared very young, they used to ask me often how old I was. One student who was a little elderly invited me to her farm after the exam. She used to come to my office at the Department  to request me to comment on the poems written by her young daughter who was at school.
Another time, when I was in the, one of the students in my class came behind me and put her hands on my eyes, blinding me for a second. When I looked around , I saw that it was one of my students who had come to me  earlier for advice.
Another time, when I was watching the University home coming parade from the side walks, I heard one of my students who was the black queen in the float calling aloud , “Fr. George, Fr. George.”
In one of the courses that I took, I had a classmate Babara Murphy who was an expert in Irish music and she could play the harp very well. We used to go for rides once in a while. She would later play the harp at my farewell party at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, Washington
It was in Terre haute that I met Senator Birch Bayh, one of the senators from Indiana. I would never forget that he introduced a special bill in the Congress to legalize my residence at the insistence of some of the people from Terre Haute, when my visa change was not approved by the Immigration.
Another interesting moment was when I was invited by a family to go with them for bringing a Christmas tree for the church. We went and cut down one of the biggest trees. But, unfortunately, we could not drag it to the van. We left it there and then cut down another tree and brought it to the church to be erected there.
I had also a very delightful time when I went with the same family for water skating. Bill put the skates on my feet and then started the boat. Right away,I went down into the  lake. Of course, I was safe, I had the safety belt around me.
I had thus very interesting experiences within that one year that I lived in Terre Haute.
I was also on the local NBC channel for a half hour interview on Indian Religions.  I was invited for the interview  by the Sr. Provincial of the Sisters of Notre Dame who was in charge of the program.
During the Spring break, I went to Florida by bus via Chicago. It was a solo journey and now when I look back I wonder how I got the courage to make such a trip. During that trip , I went to Peoria to meet one of my benefactors and then spent a day in Chicago and visited the Sears Tower.
I did enjoy my stay at St. Anne’s Chruch ,Teree Haute,Indiana. There were days when I said 5 masses on Sundays ,three at St.Anne’s and  two at the Campus Ministry chapel at the University. I used to say masses for charismatic prayer groups and prayer meetings.It was the time when Catholic Charismatic prayer meetings were slowly emerging and spreading everywhere.I had written a research paper on Prayer groups in one of the courses on American culture that I took for M.A.
I was also fortunate to take two courses in counseling at the University .

After submitting my thesis, I left ,before the Convocation, for NY to work for the summer months at St.Michael’s  church,Coop city,Bronx,NY. I went by bus  to NY from Terre Haute and Fr.Matthew Muthuplakal was waiting for me at the airport to receive me.  I was late to arrive at NY  and hence he had to come  twice to the Port Authority to receive me.
He was a great mentor to me. The contact I had  with him as an altar boy while he was Associate Priest at our parish church, Thathampally ,continued all through my life with him. I had visited him while a semainrian when he was working in a parish near Kanjirapplally.I had gone with him to climb some of the small hills in Peermade.I kept in touch with him after my ordination and later while I was teaching at S.B.College.He was the one who sent a sponsoring letter for my trip to the U.S.I could ask him for any kind of help.He was a great priest. He spent the major part of his life working in the missions.He  worked as missionary in British Guiana before settling down in N.Y.
I stayed with him at his apartment while working as a summer substitute at the church. Fr.Gorman and Fr.Taglienti were the Pastors. They were very cordial to me. It was while working here that Fr. Gorman helped me to change my visa into a permanent residence.He  requested the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of New York  for papers for the change and the VG was gracious to issue me an appointment letter.
It was from NY that I got my permanent visa.  God was good to me! The VG did not even ask any questions. He just sent a letter appointing me at St. Michael’s in NY.

The six months that I spent in Bronx were very happy ones. I enjoyed the pastoral work there and the pastors were also generous in supporting me. The church in Coop City  at that  time was a temporary one, at the basement of a shopping center. All the parishioners were living in the tall skyscrapers in the Coop city. We had also a sub- station where we used to say mass on weekdays. I took the bus to say mass there. Sometimes, I walked over there to say the mass. Fr.Gorman was very encouraging and helpful .I would never forget the great help he gave me in changing me visa to a permanent resident one. Sad to say, he also left the priesthood.
We were living in the 20th storey of one of the buildings in the Co-Op City,Bronx.I stayed with Fr.Mathew Muthuplackal. During the months he went home to India, I was alone there.
It was while there that I became friends with Joe Caputi who was living in an apartment directly opposite to us .I went to visit him when he lay sick in the hospital.I had promised to him that I would water his plants when he would be in the hospital. I took the subway one day when  he was recuperating after the surgery  in the hospital. At the hospital room, I met her daughter Mrs.Anne Fuselli whose family became my life long friends. Mrs.Fusellin then came back and stayed with her father for a few days. I met the whole family when they came to the apartment to visit Joe.Mrs.Fuselli and her family became a family  for me in the U.S. from that time onwards.It was they who took care of me while I broke my arm ,slipping on the ice, at the Catholic University.Their daugher Donna came with me when I returned to India in order to go to Calcutta to work with Mother Teresa for a month. Her work with Mother Teresa changed her life.After her graduation from the Catholic University and after a short stint as a teacher, she got married to John Kurtz and became parents to 19 adopted children.
When my summer work was over , I left for the  Catholic University, Washington D.C. by bus.
I have to mention specially the two priests, the Co-Pastors of the parish ,Frs.Gorman and Taglienti for the warm hospitality they extended to me during my stay there.
The parioshiners were  very affectionate. One of the Ushers would invite me to his apartment every Saturday night after the mass for dinner. I really enjoyedmy stay in NY and it  was a lovely time of relaxing too for me after my intense work for M.A. at Indiana State University.
Washington D.C.(1979-81)
As I was appointed a Campus Minister at the University, the Campus Ministry arranged for my stay in one of the dorms of the University.
I took the Greyhound Bus from New York to go to D.C. Mrs. Fuselli gave me the ride to the Port Authority. When I got down in Washington, I took a cab to go to the Office of the Campus Ministry .The office was closed as I was late in reaching there. But a note was left there and the Security helped me to make a call to one of the priests. They were at a party and they came to pick me up. After the party, they took me to the dorm. My room was in   the basement of the Brady Hall of the University.
I got three big rooms for my stay but I was alone there. The students were in upper floors. It took me a few days to get adjusted to the new surroundings. We had some orientation gatherings. One day, all of us working in the Campus Ministry, went to a Camp,Camp Maria, in Maryland  and we stayed there for a couple of days. All of us went to a restaurant to taste the Mayland crabcakes—which was my first.

I spent a year working as the Campus Minister for the students while continuing my classes at the University. The chairperson who admitted me to the Ph.D. program,Dr.Catherine Dunn retired and Dr .Sendry took over as the new Chairperson .I was given a fellowship which involved teaching two courses of Freshman English. I was back again in teaching while continuing as a student as well as the
Campus Minister.
They were very busy and exciting days. I used to organize prayer meetings for the students of the dorms, Brady and Shields(Girls) on every Thursday night which was attended by a regular group of students. They would share their experiences during the week, read the Scripture, give their remarks and play guitar. One of the students wrote an appreciation of the Prayer meeting in the student newspaper.
We used to have masses on Sunday nights at 9p.m.There was active participation on the part of the students  at the Eucharistic celebrations and they took leadership in organizing the choir etc. The visiting parents also would come for the mass .It was the choir that I organized for the mass who kept the all night vigil on the Catholic University Campus the day before the visit of the Holy Father John Paul ll  to the Campus.
After a year, I moved to St. Matthew’s Cathedral for a full time pastoral ministry there as an associate priest. I remember how the students shed tears at the last mass I said in the Brady hall as we were all leaving for different places after the year. The mass made them a very loving community and created great bonds of affection. I realized then how powerful was the effect produced by their participation in Eucharist.
After a year at the Campus Ministry, I moved to St.Matthew’s Cathedral and the three years I spent there were some of the most beautiful years in my life.
I had a full time job as an Associate pastor, having masses to say regularly and daily , and hearing confessions .I used to take the subway(Metro) to go to the University. I had classes to take as well as classes to teach.
I was able to meet a lot of dignitaries while I was at the Cathedral .I could meet  Mother Teresa when she came to the Cathedral along with Archbishop Hickey. I concelebrated a mass for the labor leader, George Meany at the Cathedral, at which President Carter,Vice President Mondale and lots of Senators and Cabinet Secretaries were present.
The most important visit during those years was that of John Paul ll. It was the happiest moment of my stay there. I did distribute communion along with the priests of the house at the mass celebrated by the Holy Father at the Cathedral. Later, after lunch, the Holy Father came down the stairs and met all of us, nine priests of the house, at the foot of the stairs. Even though it was late for the Holy Father to leave for the White House he found time to meet all of us. He looked at me and said, “India?”, I said “Yes, Holy Father” and kissed his ring. There was Fr. Leddy, an Irish priest standing near me and he looked at him and said  “Irish?” He replied “Yes.”Most surprising was how he looked at the young girl who was the receptionist, attending the tel. calls, and asked her whether she was Irish. She too replied  “Yes”.It was then that all the priests knew that she was Irish.
The night before the visit of the Holy Father,  the street before St. Mathew’s Cathedral was packed with people and at the time when he was having lunch, they were  chanting, “ John Paul ll, we love you.”After the lunch, he came out and asked a mike to be placed in the balcony. Then addressing the people on the street, he said, “John Paul ll, he loves you.” There was a thunderous ovation from the street.
From there he left for the White House. Later, I attended the mass on the Mall ,the spacious open grounds in Washington D.C. and distributed communion at the mass. Many of my friends later told me that they had seen me  on TV distributing communion on the Mall.
Years later,when the Holy Father was shot at in the Vatican, the mass that I concelebrated with Bishop Marino was also telecast .All the TV channels were present there at the Cathedral to telecast the mass and the homily.
Cardinal Baum used to come to the rectory for lunch and would spend some time with us. He used to ask me about my progress in writing the dissertation as he was familiar with the  writings of Walker Percy on whom I was doing my research.
I had a picture taken with him while he came for breakfast after the midnight mass on Christmas Day. I also did take pictures of  the other priests, standing with  him.
 I was busy as well a s very much involved in everything, while working at St.Matthew’s.
My stay there helped me to pursue my studies at the University as well as offered me opportunities of meeting  some famous people.
I have to mention specially the courtesy and the affableness of the Pastor, Msgr. Quinn. He was very good to me in the sense that he allowed me to work there. Even after I left St. Matthew’s, he would send me regularly Christmas cards every year until his death in 20010.
I have also to  mention specially the love and affection of Msgr.Gerhardt  who was the Tribunal at the chancery. He always found time to make us happy  through his friendship and guidance.
It was while I was at the University that I broke my arm slipping on the ice on the University Campus. As I was carefully walking to the Library, one of the students , a Japanese girl, greeted me and as I looked up  to respond to her , I slipped and broke my arm. I was taken to the Providence hospital, and there stayed for a night. My arm was put in a sling. I stayed for a couple of days at the rectory and then Mercy and Joseph came to pick me to take their house. Anne  and Nat Fuselly came there  and picked me up and I stayed with them a couple of weeks. Then, St. Matthew’s called me and I came back and although I could not say mass, I began to hear confessions. I also went to the University for my classes. I began my teaching with my right arm in the sling.
When I look back, it is a total surprise for me to find how I survived these ordeals. God was with me. That is all I can say.
My classes at the University went very smoothly. When I had finished taking all the required courses, I applied for Comprehensives. I had to read intensely to prepare for the Comps. It was a four day, four hour long, grueling exam. I passed all of them with good grades. Then, I was declared capable of writing the dissertation. I was given six months to prepare the synopsis. The first was one was rejected and then I had to resubmit it with changes, incorporating responses to their queries. When that was approved , I was permitted to prepare for the dissertation .It was during this time that I broke my arm and hence I lost some valuable time in the preparation of my thesis. Since the Library of Congress was nearby, I could go there regularly  to get relevant materials.
I would write and then have them typed. I bought a new electric typewriter for this purpose. It was easy typing on it. Every day I would write 20 or 25 pages. After necessary corrections , the fair copies were given to the members of the dissertation committee. The three of them went through it and gave their suggestions and corrections. I did incorporate their suggestions and made necessary changes and then submitted the fair copy for the approval of the University .I had a friend who typed the whole dissertation for me. He used to assist at the mass and he was also a secretary to Henry Kissinger at George Town University.
In the end, the University announced a date for the defense of my thesis and on that date , I had to appear before a committee appointed by the University and defend my thesis , responding to their questions. When it was all over, the Chairman of the committee , after a private meeting among themselves , informed me that I had  passed  and offered me congratulations. I was declared a Ph .D. Scholar. That was a moment of pure joy and excitement. The next day, the Pastor announced at the mass I said that I did get my Ph.D. from the University and offered the congratulations of the parish.


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