Solace in Service
The epic journey that’s taken one man from the forests of India to the shore of a tiny pond in Union Parish. Father Joseph Puthupally
article by Michael DeVault
photography by Brad Arender
When Joseph Puthupally recalls the days of his youth, he almost always smiles, his eyes fixed on that far off spot between memory and imagination. His stories are the typical youthful remembrances, stories of his family– particularly of his mother, and he intersperses scenes common to any young man’s coming of age. There are tales of running and playing, of friendships, of hunting. But when Father Joe, as he’s known to parishioners around the region, his stories are anything but common. When his eyes fix, that spot is half a world away from the pond-dotted woods of Downsville, to a quiet corner of southern India, nestled close to the Arabian Sea.
Puthuppally’s journey is just half the story. And understanding the journey requires beginning at its destination.
Golden Pond Spiritual Center occupies 120 acres of pristine forest in Union Parish. The grandness of the center’s vision is matched only by the scenery. Towering trees crowd close to walking paths. Squirrels and birds flit from branch to branch, and in the eponymous pond, a fish breaches the surface and vanishes just as quickly, the only evidence of its presence a series of concentric circles spreading across the water.
Interdenominational, open to individuals, groups and churches, Golden Pond Spiritual Center is targeted at retreats, spiritual enrichment programs and cross-community events such as a movie ministry. The center is Puthuppally’s vision, an answer to what he sees is a dire need in northeastern Louisiana.
“We needed a place like this, where people of different faiths can come together and feel God’s love and enrich themselves,” Puthuppally said. “We want this to be part of the different worship communities in this area.”
The vision for Golden Pond began more than twenty years ago, not long after Puthuppally first arrived in Monroe as a priest at St. Matthew’s Church, though it would be years before the opportunity would present itself in the form of Ellen Randall, who approached another priest with a question. Like so many elements of Puthuppally’s story, the curves in the path aren’t nearly as interesting as the intersections.
Father Job Scaria recounts being approached by Randall, who was growing older and looking for a worthy cause to which she could leave her estate. Scaria had met Puthuppally on his first day in the United States, when he came to the area as a new missionary priest. Without hesitation, Scaria knew what needed to happen. “I said, ‘Give it to him,’” Scaria recalled. That’s just what Randall did, willing to Puthuppally a significant sum to be collected upon his retirement for use towards some public good of his choosing.
Like any effective preacher, Scaria weaves elements of a biblical epic into the Golden Pond narrative. He especially draws a comparison between Joseph of the Old Testament and Father Joe. “The Holy Bible says the Lord was with Joseph, a great dreamer who was sold into slavery,” Scaria said. He went on to recount how Joseph was sent to prison for crimes against his employer, a wealthy Egyptian. Eventually, Joseph’s dreams lead him to an audience with the Pharaoh, who installs Joseph as his chief lieutenant, providing him with wealth and placing him in charge of the entire land of Egypt. Endowed with resources and land, Joseph was able to realize his dreams. “In that whole story, it says the Lord was with Joseph. With Golden Pond, Father Joe was a dreamer, but the Lord was with him.”
Puthuppally dismisses such high praise from his brother, demurs from credit and instead deflects everything upward. “God must be our master plan,” Puthuppally said. “We did not come here for this.”
Even though Puthuppally didn’t come to northeastern Louisiana to build a massive spiritual center—he came to be a minister of the Gospel at the church and at St. Francis Medical Center—he nevertheless realizes now a greater plan. Scaria immediately shifts the focus back to Puthuppally’s dream.
“That’s all we had,” Scaria said. “A dream. Now, we have a dream with the land.”
Puthuppally was born into a large family of farmers, the middle sibling among seven girls and three other boys, in Kottayam, a small town in the Indian state of Krala, an agricultural region near the Arabian Sea. The family was poor, Puthuppally recalls, and that placed a strain on the meager financial resources available for basic sustenance, leaving little, if any, room for luxuries.
“The farmers didn’t make much in India,” Puthuppally said. “Some had to struggle. But Dad understood the importance of education. So he sent all of us to school.”
Education in 1940s India wasn’t free. Parents had to shoulder a significant financial burden to pay for supplies, books and tuition fees. Yet, his father did so without hesitation and at great strain. Meanwhile, the challenges extended beyond just the financial resources. Like family farms of 1940s America, in India, children weren’t just progeny. They were labor. His father’s decision to educate each of his eleven children wasn’t met with much support among the family.
“My uncle, Father’s elder brother, really discouraged him from sending us to school,” Puthuppally said. Yet, in the end, his father ignored the objections, committed to the struggles ahead and provided an education for each of his children—including the girls, something rare in Indian families of the day. The sacrifices of the parents were rewarded greatly in their children.
One of Puthuppally’s sisters became a nun. Two sisters became teachers, and one became a nurse. His younger brother lives in New York City, where he works as a hospital dietician. In the case of the Puthuppally children, they all left Krala at a young age for opportunities across the globe.
Puthuppally was no exception. He departed his home to go to North India, where he would enter seminary and become a missionary. “So I joined training for the priesthood,” he said.
He was 16 when he first entered the Papal Seminary near Bombay. After seminary, he joined a community in Calcutta, and it was there that he came to understand true grace and devotion to service in the form of an elderly East German nun who had committed her life to ministering who had committed her life to ministering to lepers.
“For me, one of the great joys was watching her pray,” Puthuppally said of Mother Teresa. For several years, he worshipped in the same community with her, ministered to the needy there, and to observe firsthand her faith in action, which he views as a blessing itself, describing her as a holy presence. It was a presence that had profound impact on those around her. “When we were with her, we also felt holy,” Puthuppally said.
By 1986, it was time for a change. The path was curving away from India, from Mother Teresa, and over the horizon was a vast unknown, an entirely new environment on a different continent. Puthuppally had been transferred to America.
Scaria recalls the day he arrived in the United States, the end of his own journey from India. Like Puthuppally, Scaria was from a small, poor community and entered the priesthood young. He was being sent to America to minister as a missionary, one of the early waves of an ever-growing trend of the Roman Catholic Church to send foreign missionaries to bolster the declining priesthood ranks in the United States. Though he trusted God, Scaria was still nervous for the journey.
“This is the first time I came out of my home, the first time I’m seeing an airplane,” he said. Unfamiliar with the U.S. beyond what he had gleaned from Indian media and entertainment, he was unsure of what to expect. But he knew he was being met at the airport in Monroe by a man from his own country. Stepping off the airplane, Scaria came face to face with the beaming smile of Puthuppally. The pair formed an instant bond.
“He loved me for what I am. He accepted me as a brother priest, a friend,” Scaria said. Because they came from different worship practices, Scaria needed assistance to understand the complexities of the liturgy. He turned to Puthuppally, who acted as a mentor. “We have a different church, sacraments, everything.”
Having an elder upon whom he could rely set Scaria at ease. Puthuppally led him through those early days, mentoring him not only in the order of worship, but also in the ministry of the Gospel in northeastern Louisiana. It is a relationship that continues today. “What he tells me, I can trust him,” Scaria said.
That trustworthiness is echoed by Nancy Robinson, a volunteer at Golden Pond and a parishioner at St. Matthew’s. She first met Puthuppally at morning mass in 1998, and he invited her for breakfast. Her assessment of Puthuppally is straightforward.
“He’s a constant,” Robinson said.
Over the years, she attended daily mass at St. Matthews, where Puthuppally was serving as pastor. He got to know Robinson, and he has been there for every crisis, every celebration, since he arrived.
“He’s a gentle soul, a constant spot,” Robinson said. “And I know, I’m not aware of it until a crisis hits. But when it does hit, that’s the first thing I reach for.”
She’s not the only one. When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Scaria recalls, a group of sisters were displaced from their home. Puthuppally had a solution for them.
“He gave up his complete house to them,” Scaria said.
“The first thing is surprise,” Puthuppally told BayouLife of his arrival in America. He had been transferred to the states as a missionary priest, and he arrived in New York City in 1986, choosing New York, because he had family there. “It’s entirely a different world all together.”
Even today, India is a developing country, with challenges stemming from a lack of infrastructure, transportation difficulties, industrial expansion and social issues. Yet, in the U.S., those factors seemed minimized. “To see a developed country fully grown, with the amenities…,” he said, his voice fading. “In the U.S., you can become what you wanted to become.”
What Puthuppally most wanted to become was a servant. So he served. That’s at the heart of the priesthood. “Service is to serve God, and because we serve God, we also have to serve God’s children,” he said. “Priesthood is the means by which we preach the word of God to everyone with whom we come into contact.”
He quickly points out that by “preach” he means hands-on actions, not lofty words from an oak pulpit. It’s a form of ministry he learned from watching people like Mother Teresa, and it’s what drives him today.
The service to God in building a spiritual center is that it addresses a root difficulty of bringing together diverse communities, something Puthuppally hopes Golden Pond will help overcome, if only because there is value to diversity. “From within diversity, you’d like to have a common ground. That’s why we are more interested in building up a structure that can be utilized by these different communities,” he said.
Instead of a spiritual center for just Catholics, the center is aimed at people from all denominations and beyond, and it’s even open to non-profit groups, the kinds of organizations that Puthuppally contends are also preaching the Gospel. “From wherever love can come, and that love I firmly believe is from God, I believe people of different experiences can come together in love. That’s what I want this to be,” he said.
To that end, Puthuppally, Scaria and Robinson are just a small part of a band of volunteers working to build up Golden Pond Spiritual Center. Though he retired from St. Matthew’s in 2012, Puthuppally hasn’t stopped serving the people of the region. One area of interest to which he’s particularly devoted is Golden Pond’s place in youth development, where he argues the center can become a driving force for “building up character of the present-day youth.”
They host numerous events at Golden Pond for youth. Also, couples retreats are a regular feature on the schedule, under the Family Enrichment program. The Family Enrichment program brings together 12-16 couples who are at various points in their marital journey. Some have families, some don’t. Younger couples meet older, more experienced couples, and they exchange experiences.
“They have in their families trials, tribulations and differences,” Scaria said. “Still, in their families they keep on moving.”
There is value in sharing those experiences, if only to aid couples in not feeling isolated, alone in their lives. While everyone’s experiences are unique, Scaria doesn’t want anyone to think they have to bear those experiences in a vacuum. Instead, they can have a supportive, encouraging community to rely on. That’s the mission of Golden Pond, to serve individuals and communities, and it’s the ultimate dream for that 16-year-old from Kottayam today. “Retired” is definitely a relative word, especially for Father Joe, who never foresees a time when he’s not serving God’s children.
“Wherever you are put, you try to do God’s work,” he said. “That means caring and doing good works wherever you go. In that way, I am still in his service.