Father Mathew Kavipurayidam, kind and faithful pastor, dies at 70

by Joan Kurkowski-Gillen

North Texas Catholic

June 21, 2020

Father Mathew Kavipurayidam, TOR

FORT WORTH — In the last few years of his life, Father Mathew Kavipurayidam, TOR, experienced some remarkable events. He attended the canonization of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, concelebrated Mass with Pope Francis twice, traveled to Panama for World Youth Day, and helped members of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish realize a dream: the construction of a much-needed, larger church.

“He was a good and faithful man,” Bruce Mallory said, remembering how the soft-spoken Franciscan friar shouldered the responsibilities of the growing Fort Worth parish as well as Holy Trinity Parish in Azle at a difficult time. “He accepted the leadership role gladly and made the best of it.”

Both faith communities are grieving the sudden death of their former pastor who died June 18 at his home. He was 70.

Bishop Michael Olson will celebrate a Mass of Christian burial Friday, June 26 at 10:30 a.m. in St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church, 5953 Bowman Roberts Road. Interment will follow at Mount Olivet Cemetery, 2301 N. Sylvania Avenue. Visitation is set for Thursday, June 25 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the church with a prayer vigil led by TOR friars starting at 6 p.m.

A native of Ponkunnam, India, Fr. Mathew came to the Diocese of Fort Worth in 2004 and served as pastor at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Carrollton for 10 years before reassignment to St. Thomas Parish. In December 2016, St. Thomas Parish moved from its original location on Azle Avenue in north Fort Worth to a 20,285-square-foot mission-style church on Bowman Roberts Rd. During the dedication Mass, concelebrated with Bishop Olson, Fr. Mathew thanked God, the diocese, and former pastors for “making this dream of our people come true.”

The son of Mr. and Mrs. Mathai Kavipurayidam, Fr. Mathew was raised along with five sisters and four brothers in south India. He joined the Third Order Regular Franciscans in 1965 and made his solemn profession of vows in May 1971. After earning both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in theology from the Pontifical Athaneum in Pune, India, Fr. Mathew was ordained to the priesthood on October 18, 1975 by Bishop Sebastian Vallopilly of Tellicherry, Kerala.

After serving his order in several education and formation roles, he left India in 2004 to become a missionary in the U.S. Last fall, with his health declining, Fr. Mathew resigned as the pastor of St. Thomas but continued helping at the parish as parochial vicar.

Father Sushil Tudu, TOR, former associate pastor at St. Thomas, described his fellow Franciscan and friend as a very prayerful person who helped him, as a young priest, adapt to American customs and culture after arriving in North Texas.

“I learned so many things from him,” acknowledged Fr. Sushil, now the pastor of St. Catherine of Siena. The pair first met in 1988 when Fr. Mathew was headmaster of St. Francis High School in north India and he was a student. “Working with my headmaster at St. Thomas was a privilege,” he said, referring to the coincidence that brought principal and pupil together again. “He was a good companion. We prayed together every day.”

The love parishioners had for their pastor was obvious to the younger priest.

“He was friendly with everybody and liked going out to dinner with people,” he added. “Families would always invite him into their home.”

Fr. Mathew’s gentle demeanor and sage advice helped Sylvia Byrd cope with the death of her husband.

“When Jim died, I wasn’t just devastated. I was angry,” she recalled. “I didn’t want to be a bitter widow, so Father and I would talk a lot.”

The longtime St. Thomas parishioner felt she could share not only the sadness of her loss but also the rage and resentment that comes with grief.

“And the way he would pray with me, counsel me, and guide me was powerful,” Byrd said. “You could tell he was a holy man. I treasure the advice he gave me and the dinners we had with him.”

Sacristan at St. Thomas for the past 10 years, Mary Ann Krivanek witnessed firsthand Fr. Mathew’s dedication to his Catholic faith, the priesthood, and his parish. He was frequently seen joining parishioners at Adoration and was looking forward to concelebrating morning Mass with Father Benjamin Hembrom, TOR, on June 19, the Feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.

A vivid memory for Krivanek is the broad smile that would come over the pastor’s face as he lifted up a newly baptized baby for the congregation to see.

“He loved his parishioners and he loved children,” she observed.

Visits to see family in India were always preceded by a trip to Sam’s Club where he purchased large bags of candy for his nieces and nephews.

“He would buy $30 worth of chocolate,” remembered Krivanek, who drove him to the store. “It became a ritual. Visits to family included gifts of chocolate candy.”

In failing health, the missionary priest hoped to return to his homeland once international flights, which were stopped during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, resumed.

Fr. Mathew liked to share stories with young people about his childhood in India, his vocation to the priesthood, and how he met Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and he found an eager audience of listeners at World Youth Day 2019. The pastor was part of a 17-member contingent from St. Thomas that spent a two-week spiritual pilgrimage in Panama with nine teens and several chaperones. A highlight of the journey for the elderly priest was concelebrating Mass with Pope Francis and 400 other priests.

“He really became a father figure for all of us during that trip,” explained Joyce Helgeson, who helped supervise the group along with husband, Dennis.

During moments of quiet conversation and storytelling, the young people learned about the Indian culture and their pastor’s life as a Franciscan.

“They really formed a bond with him,” the chaperone said. “Every one of those kids came away from that trip with a better understanding of their pastor, the priesthood, and our Catholic faith.”

After hearing the news of Fr. Mathew’s death, one World Youth Day participant shared her thoughts with Helgeson and other friends.

“[I will always remember] hearing your story about how you came to the United States and knowing your purpose,” Jessica Rodriguez wrote. “You are and always will be an inspiration to me, Fr. Mathew. St. Thomas will not be the same without you. My heart is hurting but I’m at peace knowing you are in the Lord’s arms.”

Fr. Mathew is survived by three sisters, two brothers, and many nieces and nephews.

FORT WORTH — In the last few years of his life, Father Mathew Kavipurayidam, TOR, experienced some remarkable events. 

Published (until 12/5/2041)