‘It’s not that kind of America,’ new citizen tells folks back home
by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Father Reginald Saldanha’s Fourth of July was better than yours.
His fireworks weren’t brighter or bigger. His burger wasn’t juicier. His beer wasn’t colder. His lawn chair wasn’t more comfortable.
Nevertheless, his Fourth of July was better. That’s because, six days later, he became a citizen of the United States of America.
“Becoming a citizen is like going through the RCIA to become a Catholic,” said Father Saldanha, pastor of St. Philip Neri Parish in Osawatomie, Sacred Heart Parish in Mound City, and Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in La Cygne.
“Those [converts] appreciate their faith sometimes more than the cradle Catholics,” he continued. “Those born here take for granted so many good things, wonderful things we have in America — rights, liberties and freedom.
“But when you come from a different culture and country, you really appreciate what you have here.”
Father Saldanha — everybody calls him Father Regie — was born in Mangalore, a port city on the western side of south India, with a population of 650,000.
“Mangalore is called ‘The Rome of the East,’” he said.
Although Catholics are only 1.5 percent of the India’s total population, the vigorous Catholic population of Mangalore is relatively large and produces thousands of vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
Father Regie, 49, came from just such a devout family. Of his family’s eight siblings, two became priests and one became a nun.
“I’ve always wanted to become a priest from my childhood, mainly because my parish priest was very influential, always asking children what they wanted to become — if they wanted to become a priest,” he said. “Also, I went to the parish school, and the nuns always encouraged vocations to the priesthood and religious life.”
He began his seminary studies at age 16. He always thought he would serve the poor in India, but a bishop from Papua New Guinea (north of Australia) asked him to come to his diocese after he was ordained in 1997.
He worked in the Diocese of Wabag for six years, and then decided to minister to the Aborigine of Australia. However, some friends urged him to consider America. Archbishop James P. Keleher was the first to respond to his inquiry.
Father Regie had a good feeling about Kansas. While he was in the seminary, one of the seminary benefactors was a priest from Junction City.
“He used to send pictures and write about Kansas, so I really liked the area with its greenery and farming,” said Father Regie.
But when he first arrived in 2005, America seemed . . . odd.
In his native India and in New Guinea, there were always people going about. America, by contrast, looked like a scene from the “Left Behind” movie.
“When I came here, it was around 9 p.m.,” said Father Regie. “I could not see even one person. I wanted to see what Americans looked like. I saw vehicles driving around, buildings and trees — but where were the people?”
The weather was different, too. India has only two kinds of weather: Rain, rain, rain followed by hot, hot, hot.
“I never really cared for weather. But when I came here, everyone talks about the weather,” he said. “Everyone starts a conversation about the weather. I wondered, ‘Why do these people always talk about the weather? Don’t they have anything else to talk about?’”
It made sense when a friend clued him in about the volatility of Kansas weather — not to mention how much the farming communities rely on its cooperation for their crops.
Fall was interesting, too.
“In the fall and winter, there is the shedding of the trees,” said Father Regie. “I had never seen this. In tropical countries we always have foliage. It excited me how the trees shed, hibernate and come back to life in the spring. Spring is a most favorite time of year for me.”
He found other things to like, too: fast food, shopping, driving on beautiful roads, fishing and snow.
One thing that surprised him was the level of faith. In India, he was told that the churches in Europe and America were empty, with only a few elderly people and no youths.
The day after he arrived, he was scheduled to celebrate a school Mass at Holy Trinity in Lenexa.
“I thought there would be just a few kids, but when I went into the church, I was shocked to see almost 1,000 kids come to church for Mass.
So I try to tell people [in India], it’s not that kind of America where I am. In America, the churches are filled with people.”
As the years passed, it became clearer to him that he would likely remain here until his death. He had become attached. So he decided to be incardinated into the archdiocese and become an American.
“I never get homesick [for India],” he continued. “Even now when I do go [to India], after a couple of weeks, I want to come back.
“I feel American homesick.”
This year, he knew he was a real American, even before he took the oath. That’s because he had the best Fourth of July ever — even better than yours.
“I celebrated by sitting in the parking lot in my lawn chair, eating a hamburger and drinking a beer, and watching fireworks,” he said. “And I wore a Bass Pro T-shirt with an American flag.”
Yep. That’s American.