by Joe Bollig
EASTON — On Nov. 17, Father Mathew Francis raised his right hand and swore an oath pledging his loyalty to the United States of America at the U.S. district courthouse in Kansas City, Kansas.
Did it give him a weird feeling to become an American citizen?
“No,” said Father Francis. “That is my proud feeling.”
Father Francis, 55, has been pastor since 2011 of the combined parish of St. Lawrence in Easton and St. Joseph of the Valley in rural Leavenworth County.
The bucolic landscape of northeast Kansas is a long way from his native India.
Father Francis was born in Kaniyambadi Town in the Vellore District of the Tamil Nadu State in India.
His parents were agricultural workers and they had (including Father Francis) six boys and one girl.
His parents were Catholic and he grew up in a Catholic village. It was a village custom that, when boys reached a certain age, they would be given the responsibility to ring the church bell at 5 a.m. before morning prayers were blasted out over the village public address speakers.
Between the sixth and eighth grades, therefore, Father Francis and three other boys studied all day at Sacred Heart Parish, went home for supper and then returned to the church, where they would spend the night in a room set aside for the bell ringers.
His pastor recognized in the young Francis a lot of potential, so he tapped him to go to a Catholic boarding school, which later led the young man into the seminary. He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Cuddapah on April 25, 1991.
Father Francis had always known about the United States, of course. While he was growing up, in fact, his village received wheat and powdered milk from American Catholics through Catholic Relief Services.
But as for actually going there, he had not a thought or desire . . . until a friend and fellow priest from his seminary days, who landed in a place called Kansas, started urging him to consider it during holiday visits home.
“Come to the United States,” said Father Arul Carasala.
“Well, just for three months,” replied Father Francis.
“It doesn’t work that way,” said Father Carasala. “If you come, you come for three years.”
Father Carasala described Kansas in glowing terms.
“I told him, ‘I am not interested in coming,’” said Father Francis.
“But he said, ‘Come, you will have good company. You will meet good people in Kansas. You will not have any struggle.’
“Everything positive he was telling me — nothing negative toward the archdiocese.”
That meant, said Father Francis, that Father Carasala neglected to ever mention the word “tornado.”
And so it was that Father Francis, who was staying at Holy Spirit Parish in Overland Park for a brief time after his arrival, found himself alone in the rectory with tornado sirens wailing and television alerts flashing.
Father Francis didn’t know what to do, so he sat there watching, with only anxiety for company.
But not all his weather encounters were so traumatic.
Coming from a tropical area, he was pleasantly surprised by snow.
“I took pictures and sent them to my relatives and friends,” he said. “It was so nice, falling like that. It was a really good experience, the first time.”
Another good experience? Barbecue restaurants.
“I never had beef in India,” he said.
There are a few other things he has noticed in his years here: Americans tend to be on time; there is a difference between the “British” English he learned and “American” English; and American culture is more egalitarian with respect to the “dignity of labor.”
Father Francis arrived in Kansas on Aug. 13, 2008. Normally, his bishop would allow his priests to spend five years overseas. Father Francis was allowed to stay longer because he was doing so much good for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas — and for the Diocese of Cuddapah.
Since 2008, he has traveled to nearly 20 states to make mission appeals for his diocese in India. And his parishioners, he said, have also been very generous in their support of Catholic orphanages in India.
“Even though they are a small parish, they are helping so much,” said Father Francis.
Two orphan boys, for example, who were helped through Father Francis and Kansas donations, went into the seminary and were ordained priests.
“One is coming here next month to serve in the archdiocese for five years,” said Father Francis.
Father Francis’ new citizenship — and a young priest coming to the archdiocese — is cause for celebration.
Which of course he did — with barbecue.