WAGGA’S rising Syro-Malabar Catholic community now has its own priest to conduct Mass following the appointment of Father Anto Francis from India.
Fr Anto will minister from Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church, South Wagga, which has hosted regular Syro-Malabar Masses celebrated by Cootamundra parish priest, Fr Joshy Kurian.
The Syro-Malabar rite traces its origins to the arrival in India of St Thomas the Apostle, who landed at Kodungallur in the state of Kerala in 52AD.
Syro-Malabar Catholics in Wagga are mostly health professionals, such as nurses, who have moved from Kerala to work in hospitals and in nursing homes, and their families.
There are about 75 families practising their faith in Wagga, according to Fr Anto.
“They are very happy that a priest from Kerala came for them,” Fr Anto said.
“And I am pleased to look after the spiritual needs of the community, to be a priest for them.”
Fr Anto, 40, has been a priest for 15 years.
“I am a millenium priest,” Fr Anto said, referring to his ordination in 2000.
He is the youngest of six brothers and one sister.
Fr Anto arrived in Australia in late November and is still adjusting to life in a foreign country, including the climate.
“It is a new culture,” he said.
But there is one keen interest Fr Anto has in common with most Australians – a love of cricket.
A batsman before his calling to the priesthood, Fr Anto said his favourite player was the Indian great Sachin Tendulkar, while Steve Waugh was his favourite Australian player.
“He is a very popular player in India,” Fr Anto said of Waugh.
Fr Anto’s priesthood has been dotted with dramatic events.
He was at Mumbai in 2008 when terrorists bombed and shot people for four days, killing 164 people and wounding at least 308 others.
And he was there for the historic flood of 2005 when 944 millimetres of rain fell in 24 hours.
“There was 20 feet (about six metres) of water in the church,” said Fr Anto, who would be hoping for a much less eventful time in Australia.
Fr Anto will conduct a Syro-Malabar Mass in the Malayalam language every Sunday at 5.30pm in Our Lady of Fatima and will assist South Wagga parish priest, Fr Paddy Sykes, with English-language Masses at other times during the week.
“It is great that Bishop Gerard (Hanna) and Fr Paddy have welcomed us wholeheartedly, that they have allowed us to use the church,” Fr Anto said.
Fr Anto said there were five or six Syro-Malabar priests in the Eparchy (Diocese) of Melbourne, and more were expected soon.
Fr Anto does not know how long he will spend in Australia, but has a four-year temporary visa.
He was introduced to South Wagga parishioners at Masses last Sunday.
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