Indian American Catholics help immigrants
When large numbers of Indian Catholic immigrants first started moving to the United States in the 1970s, they formed the Indian Catholic Association, based in Philadelphia, to help them retain both their national and religious identity.
Back then, it had about 100 members representing three different ancient church rites.
Now the organization, which was renamed the Indian-American Catholic Association after it merged with another Indian Catholic group in 1992, boasts 1,000 families in the Philadelphia region alone and many more chapters throughout the country.
The growth of the local chapter has its president, Charly Chirayath, of Lower Makefield, beaming.
On Aug. 12, several hundred group members, with the women dressed in elegant saris, met at St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Catholic Church on Welsh Road in Northeast Philadelphia to celebrate Indian Catholic Heritage Day, and mark both the 70th anniversary of India’s independence from Great Britain and the Catholic feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The night included a Mass celebrated by Auxiliary Bishop Edward Deliman, of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, who serves as bishop to immigrant communities from St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Bensalem where he is pastor. Following the Mass, roses were presented to couples celebrating special anniversaries and winners of spelling bees were announced. Then girls and young women in brightly decorated and sequined costumes took to the stage, performing traditional dances for the appreciative crowd.
Indian Catholics are minorities both in their homeland and here, but the association has helped meet their social and religious needs in America, Chirayath said.
Asian Indians started coming to the United States in large numbers in the 1970s. The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 had opened the borders for more skilled-worker immigrants from Asia to enter the United States.
Chirayath and his wife, Dr. Mercy Chirayath, a retired physician who was associated with St. Mary Medical Center in Middletown, were among those who came to the U.S. in the ’70s. They have two married daughters who are a doctor and lawyer, as well as grandchildren.
“When we came, there was no association or places to worship,” said Chirayath, who received a master’s degree in electrical engineering from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and worked in satellite engineering for both General Electric and Lockheed Martin before he retired recently.
Immigration from India increased tenfold from 1980 until 2013, from 206,000 to 2.04 million, according to a report by the Migration Policy Institute in Washington.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimated in 2015 that 8,962 immigrants from India were living in Bucks County in 2015 and 14,044 living in Montgomery County. The religious affiliation of the immigrants was not available, a Census spokeswoman said.
According to research by the Pew Research Center, 51 percent of Indians in the United States are Hindu and 18 percent are Christian, including 5 percent who are Catholic. Ten percent of Indians are Muslim and 5 percent are Sikh. Another 10 percent are unaffiliated and 2 percent practice the Jain faith.
The percentage of Catholic Indians here is larger than the 1.6 percent of the population in India who are Catholic, states a survey of the National Catholic Reporter. Most of these Catholics belong to three different rites — the Syro-Malabar, the Syro-Malanakara and the Latin rite. A group called the Knanaya are a subgroup of the Syro-Malabar, Chirayath said. Almost all Indian Catholics come from Kerala, a state in Southwestern India, he added.
Members of the Syro-Malabar rite trace their lineage to when St. Thomas the Apostle established a Christian mission in the first century A.D., Chirayath explained. Locally, they worship at St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Church where the IACA’s celebration was held. Members of the Knanaya subgroup trace their lineage to the Middle East as their ancestors came with St. Thomas to India, Chirayath said. They worship at St. Albert the Great Church in Huntingdon Valley.
Members of the Syro-Malanakara rite, also trace their founding to St. Thomas but were associated with the Indian Orthodox Church before they came into association with the Catholic church, Chirayath said. They attend St. Jude Church in Cheltenham.
Members of the Latin rite trace their lineage to the missionary work of St. Francis Xavier. They meet at the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Feasterville.
The IACA has been so successful in welcoming new immigrants that members of the different Catholic rites now have established their own places of worship, said the Rev. Saji Mukkoot, pastor of St. Jude Syro-Malanakara Church in Cheltenham. But they still enjoy meeting together for association events.
And members also participate in the Ecumenical Fellowship of Indian Christians in Pennsylvania, an umbrella organization that includes 22 different churches of several denominations.
Addressing the gathering on Heritage Day, Deliman told them he hoped they had found “a happy home here in the United States.”
“Walking with one another fills a vacuum and instills hope,” the bishop said.