The patience of a saint: two pastors of local parishes stranded in India since April
FORT WORTH — After celebrating Mass at St. Thomas the Apostle Church September 18, Father Jerry Ward offered words of encouragement to the assembled congregation.
“Let’s pray that Father Ben returns to you soon and safely,” the retired priest told participants attending the Saturday liturgy.
Fr. Ward is one of a half-dozen priests — including Bishop Michael Olson — who have filled in for the pastor during his absence from the northwest Fort Worth parish. Father Benjamin Hembrom, TOR, left for India in April to visit family during a month-long vacation but is unable to return to the U.S. because of COVID–19 travel restrictions.
Also affected by the travel ban is Father Prakash Dias, pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus in Breckenridge and Jesus of Nazareth in Albany. The Pallotine priest flew to India at the end of April and remains in his homeland.
Daily cases of COVID infections in India spiked in late spring, forcing the country to lock down schools, businesses, and public gatherings. Particularly hard hit were Catholic clergy and religious. More than 500 priests and sisters lost their lives to the virus since April 2021 but the rate of COVID infections in India is slowly improving, according to Fr. Hembrom.
“Education institutions have reopened now, and the government eased the COVID restrictions in most of the states,” he told the North Texas Catholic. “People are leaving their homes and returning to jobs.”
A member of the St. Thomas the Apostle Province, the Franciscan friar is spending his time in India working with the order’s seminarians.
“We have four seminarians, and my duty is to assist them in their spiritual activities,” Fr. Hembrom explained. “On Sundays I help in the parish administering the sacraments.”
With their pastor still overseas, St. Thomas the Apostle parishioners are served by the Franciscans at Good Shepherd Church and diocesan priests. Administratively, Father Hoa Nguyen, dean of the West Central Deanery, is working with parish staff to ensure the parish continues to operate smoothly.
“People keep asking when Fr. Benjamin will come back and we honestly don’t know,” said Beverly Oberdorf, the parish’s business manager. “The ban is still in place, and he can only come back when the United States allows him to arrive directly from India.”
Rural parishioners in Breckenridge and Albany are also missing their pastor who keeps in contact with administrative assistant Ana Diaz via emails, texts, and an occasional phone call.
“Parishioners are concerned that Father is not here. They want him back but obviously, circumstances aren’t allowing that,” she pointed out. “He stays in contact with them through email.”
Diocesan priests cover the schedule of weekend Masses at the north central Texas parishes. They are assisted by Deacon Rudy Calsoncin, a Breckenridge native who was ordained in the Diocese of Lubbock nine years ago. He returned to the area to care for his ailing father and received permission to help with liturgies at both parishes.
“I’m bilingual so the Hispanic community is my focus, but I do participate in other Masses as well,” said the retired mortician. “I’ve been officiating at funerals in Father Dias’ absence. We explain there is no celebration of the Eucharist, but I’ve been able to fill in the gaps in that department.”
The sacraments of Anointing of the Sick and Reconciliation are still very much needed in the community.
“Not having a pastor here has impacted the parish for sure,” Dcn. Calsoncin suggested. “It’s not been easy, but everyone is stepping up. The Church isn’t going away, and everyone is continuing with their responsibilities. Catechism classes are already underway.”
Not having a pastor made parishioners appreciate the breadth of ordained ministry.
“On one hand, the Church lives on and carries on and functions,” he pointed out. “On the other hand, we do need a priest. It’s a bit of a tough journey.”
Fr. Hembrom has a message for parishioners awaiting the return of their pastors from India: Patience is a virtue.
“In God’s time everything will be all right. We need to be patient,” he assured from his friary in north India. “God has His own way to handle the situation. Therefore, we need to submit ourselves to Him.”
The trauma he witnessed in India because of the pandemic brought him closer to God, the pastor said.
“Let us not lose heart during this time of suffering and pain and have faith in God’s mercy and care,” Fr. Hembrom said. “Our suffering is nothing in comparison to His.”