Restrictions on travel from India leave local pastors stranded abroad
FORT WORTH — When Father Benjamin Hembrom, TOR, left for India after celebrating Easter Mass with his St. Thomas the Apostle parishioners April 4, he had no idea the month-long vacation would end with a travel ban preventing him from returning to North Texas.
A sudden spike in COVID-19 cases in his homeland prompted the White House to restrict most travel from India to the U.S. beginning May 4. The new restrictions affect thousands of visa holders like Fr. Hembrom and Father Wilson Lucka, TOR, who is also trying to return to his parish — Holy Trinity in Azle.
To date, coronavirus cases in India number 27,367,935 with 315,263 reported deaths. A high infection rate, coupled with a shortage of hospital beds and oxygen, is contributing to the mortality rate.
“My friend lost his beloved wife recently because of the virus,” Fr. Hembrom said. “It is very painful when someone you know well loses a loved one and children are left [without a mother.] It’s a tragedy for the family.”
The pastor, who is staying in the northern part of India in the state of Jharkhand, cannot visit relatives because of regional lockdowns that imposed curfews and limit travel.
“The COVID crisis in India is a serious matter. The lives of the people have been affected badly,” St. Thomas’ pastor explained. “The Church is trying to help people — especially those who have lost loved ones. At the same time, the Church is not able to do much because of the lockdown.”
Priests from his religious order are caring for COVID patients in a nearby hospital.
“Last rites [are administered] and the viaticum is taken there by our priests whenever it is needed,” he continued. “By the grace of God, they are able to help people in time. I strongly believe God is in control of everything and He will help us. Let us trust in Him and patiently wait.”
In Fr. Hembrom’s absence, other TORs serving in the Diocese of Fort Worth have stepped in to celebrate Mass at St. Thomas.
“Our parishioners are very thankful to the TORs that have come to help from Good Shepherd, St. Andrew, and St. Michael,” said Beverly Oberdorf, the business manager at St. Thomas. “They are very understanding and praying for Fr. Benjamin to come back.”
Father Sushil Tudu, TOR, credits luck and a kindhearted airport worker for allowing him back into the country. The pastor of St. Catherine of Siena in Carrollton traveled with Fr. Hembrom to northern India in April.
“When I booked my ticket, everything was fine but then things happened,” he explained. “People became too relaxed about social gatherings.”
Health officials believe a religious festival that drew thousands of Hindu pilgrims to the Ganges River was one of the superspreader events contributing to an increase in COVID cases. Political rallies also continued despite surging infection numbers.
“They have vaccines in India. They are just not getting enough [doses],” Fr. Tudu observed. “Many priests and religious have died in India — more than 150.”
When the pastor’s flight arrived in the U.S. May 14, he waited and prayed in immigration for two hours before being allowed to re-enter the country.
“At the airport, an official checked my bags and found out I was a Catholic priest. He was Catholic and forwarded my [visa] to his boss,” Fr. Tudu recalled. “I got lucky.”
The infection rate is slowing in India and the Franciscan friar is hoping the outbreak is controlled within a month.
“Parishioners were praying for me and sending messages,” he said. “I’m grateful and just happy to be back. Pray for India.”