by Steve Buckner
Special to The Leaven
LAWRENCE — Faith, life, work and plans were humming along for Father John Kolencherry in early 2005 when fate — with a violent twist — intervened.
Father John, OFM Cap., now associate pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Lawrence, was living in remote northern Malawi in Africa with two Franciscan Brothers at the time. At 10 p.m. on Feb. 18, 2005, six thieves broke into their friary in the village of Mzuzu. The thieves cut one Franciscan’s head and entered Father John’s room shouting, “Where is the money?”
Knowing better than to resist, Father John sat still on his bed. The thieves beat his legs with an iron bar and then three of the bandits stuck their guns to the priest’s head. Father John handed over the keys to his pickup truck. The thieves grabbed everything of value in the house and fled in his truck.
After the authorities were called, an injured seminarian (now a priest) was transported to a hospital and the police investigated the crime until 3 a.m. Father John was left alone at the friary and went to the room they used as a chapel.
“I was sitting in the friary chapel,” he said. “I was not sleeping, I was not praying [and] I was not crying. I was looking at the tabernacle, and I heard a voice: ‘Without my knowledge, nothing had happened to you.’”
Hearing that voice, that message, compelled Father John to stay at the same friary and build the mission over the next seven years.
“I would say my faith journey started that day,” he said. “The voice that I heard was so strong to me.”
Beginning from zero
Father John was first assigned to Malawi from his native India about five years before the home invasion. He spent his first four years as an associate pastor in the nation’s capital city of Lilongwe, where he learned the national language of Chichewa.
When he was assigned to Mzuzu to start the mission under the patronage of St. Padre Pio, he found nothing but bush area.
“Nothing was there,” Father John said. “We uprooted the bush trees, one by one.”
With the bishop’s blessing, Father John acquired 60 acres of land from the local chief. He was happy to sell the land at a low price because the chief knew the mission meant development.
Father John said he had no plan, money or schedule when he came to Mzuzu to start the mission. He would pray in the chapel and ask the Lord, “What is your plan?”
“And then, when I would knock on the doors,” Father John said, “people would open their doors for me.”
For the next seven years, Father John “became an instrument” in the building of a 1,000-seat church, a multipurpose center, a mill to extract oil from sunflowers and a mace mill in which hard corn was ground to a powdered form.
Other affiliated developments that Father John oversaw were a public road, electrical and telephone service, the boring of wells, a secondary boarding school for boys and girls, a carpentry training center, a hospital clinic and staff houses.
“The Lord did everything,” he said of the construction, all of which was completed within seven years.
Journey to America
In 2012, the Malawi Capuchins elected Father John as Superior Mission Delegate and he moved back to Lilongwe. In 2014, he received orders to come to the United States — first to Washington, D.C., and then to Denver. He also has studied Spanish stateside.
While in Denver, Father John served as a full-time confessor for 18 months at a shopping mall where the Franciscans had a confessional center. His mission was to strengthen the community of Capuchins in the Mid-America Province.
In November 2022, Father Kolencherry was assigned to St. John the Evangelist Parish in Lawrence. Now in his 38th year as a Capuchin and 27th year as a priest, Father John said, “I want to be a blessing to everyone.
“Everyone who approaches me, I want to give them Jesus, however I can. I love to preach him and share him, and all glory goes to him.”