Local Religious life

‘First-born’ son’s vocation has roots in father’s conversion

Father Anthony Chendumalli celebrates Mass at Annunciation Parish in Frankfort on Jan. 17. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — If you want to learn about evangelization, you might go to Rome and visit the “super dicastery,” the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization.

It might be better, however, if you went to a small village in India.

Gandhinagar is a village of about 250 families located south of the larger town of Ramakuppam in the state of Andhra Pradesh in southeast India. The place  was the home of a remarkably successful evangelist, although he probably wouldn’t have described himself as such.

Father Anthony Chendumalli knows the village and the evangelist well, because that’s his village and the evangelist was his late father, Doraswamy Chendumalli.

Father Chendumalli is pastor of Annunciation Parish in Frankfort, St. Columbkille in Blaine and St. Monica-St. Elizabeth in Blue Rapids.

It took a miracle for Father Chendumalli to become a Catholic priest. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

The state of Andhra Pradesh is more than 90% Hindu and just slightly more than 1% Christian. Doraswamy, his wife Yellamma and two sons were Hindu as well. No Christians lived in Gandhinagar.

“My father fell sick,” said Father Chendumalli. “And he tried his best to go to a hospital and get rid of his sickness, but the doctors said they couldn’t do anything. He had a brain tumor.

“Being a poor farmer, he could not afford major surgery. He went to different hospitals, but nothing worked well. Finally, he was exhausted, and thinking his life was almost done, he went home.”

The Chendumallis missed their bus and decided to walk, although it was a considerable distance. During the long walk, they grew tired and decided to rest at Holy Family Parish in Ramakuppam, which was on their route.

“They were sitting on the premises of the church, in the shade of a tree,” said Father Chendumalli. “The priest came and asked them why they were there. My parents said they were going home and were tired, and wanted to rest at the church.”

Doraswamy also told the priest about his illness and unsuccessful efforts to find treatment.

“The priest said, ‘Why don’t you try a last chance, to pray to Jesus and read the Bible every day?’” said Father Chendumalli. “The priest gave him a Bible. [Father] took it and went home. Being a Hindu, he didn’t know how to read the Bible, but he believed and started reading it every day, morning and evening, whenever he could get some time.”

A month later, Doraswamy returned to the hospital. The doctors examined him and found, to their amazement, that he was healed.

“He [had gone] to the Hindu temple and prayed but nothing worked,” said Father Chendumalli. “Finally, he went to church and read the Bible, so God healed his sickness.”

“That touched him,” Father Chendumalli continued. “[My father] came to know that [Jesus] is the true God. He believed and went to the priest. He said, ‘I’m all right now. I believe Jesus is the true God, so we want to become Catholics.’”

Father Chendumalli’s father was miraculously healed from a brain tumor after reading the Bible. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

And they did — Doraswamy, his wife and his two sons. She took a new name — Elizabeth. But that wasn’t all.

At the time of the family’s conversion, Elizabeth was pregnant with a boy — Father Chendumalli.

“Although I have two older brothers, my father considered me the first-born in faith. He read in the Old Testament that every first-born child should be offered to God,” he said.

Doraswamy worked hard to form his family in the Catholic faith. Every child had to read the Bible every day and learn their prayers. They became members of Holy Family Parish in Ramakuppam.

“If you didn’t say your prayers, no food that day,” said Father Chendumalli, “so my father was very strict learning prayers and reading the Bible every day.”

He had plans for his first-born in the faith. Father Chendumalli was sent to Catholic boarding schools, and later a minor seminary.

 At first, the young Indian didn’t like it.

“After one year I didn’t want to go,” said Father Chendumalli. “My father said, ‘This is all a devil thing you are speaking. Don’t speak like that. Go and continue. You’ll get all the temptations, but pray every day.’”

Things did get better. The pastor and rector, Father Mathew Francis, became a mentor and a friend. After his father died, Father Francis even found financial support so that Father Chendumalli could continue his studies.

Father Chendumalli often thinks about the Scripture passage from Isaiah Chapter 43, Verse 1: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; and you are mine.” 

Jeremiah Chapter 1, Verse 5 is another favorite passage: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you.”

Father Chendumalli was born right after his family’s conversion from Hinduism to Catholicism. His father considers him the first-born in the faith and offered him to God by sending him to Catholic schools. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

“Before then, I didn’t understand these words for me,” said Father Chendumalli. “In seminary Bible study, I understood that this was God’s plan. He sent me to [the] seminary and even [to Kansas].”

Father Chendumalli was ordained a priest on April 21, 2016, at St. Mary Cathedral in Kadapa, the Diocese of Cuddapah.

It hasn’t been easy for the Chendumalli family. Some members of the extended family opposed their conversion and are estranged. There is official and unofficial anti-Christian discrimination.

Nevertheless, Doraswamy and Elizabeth eventually had 10 children. Half of them are priests or religious, or in formation. Counting siblings, in-laws, nephews and nieces, the extended Chendumalli family numbers 30 faithful Catholics.

Some of their neighbors even became Catholic because of Doraswamy’s devotion. Now, in a village where there once were no Catholics, there are 13 Catholic families.

“We are proud to be Catholics,” said Father Chendumalli.

About the author

Joe Bollig

Joe Bollig

Joe has been with The Leaven since 1993. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s degree in journalism. Before entering print journalism he worked in commercial radio. He has worked for the St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press and Sun Publications in Overland Park. During his journalistic career he has covered beats including police, fire, business, features, general assignment and religion. While at The Leaven he has been a writer, photographer and videographer. He has won or shared several Catholic Press Association awards, as well as Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara awards for mission coverage. He graduated with a certification in catechesis from a two-year distance learning program offered by the Maryvale Institute for Catechesis, Theology, Philosophy and Religious Education at Old Oscott, Great Barr, in Birmingham, England.

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