Sydney, July 17, 2019: Father Paul Murphy has become rather fond of Indian food. Fortunately, the Holy Redeemer parish priest doesn’t have to go far to satisfy his craving for dishes from the sub-continent. In fact, he doesn’t even have to leave the Whitney Pier rectory where he resides.
It all started after Father Murphy opened up his home, in this case his rectory, seeing a lack of suitable accommodation for the many newcomers who recently arrived in Cape Breton from abroad.
The four 20-somethings from India who currently stay with the Australian priest are Peter James, Binolin Baby, who is pregnant, her husband Aby Abraham, and Akhil John. All of Murphy’s new housemates are Catholic who grew up in southern India where Christianity has been alive since Thomas the Apostle traveled there after the death of Jesus Christ.
Speaking of Indian food, the priest said he never even tried it up to about six months ago. “Now, I love it,” said the priest, an East Bay native who has been at Holy Redeemer Catholic Church for about nine years.
The presence of the four represents a dramatic change in lifestyle for Father Murphy, who has been a priest for 36 years.
“This is a big change for me — other than living with other priests when I was starting out, this is the first time I have lived with young people,” said the 63-year-old clergyman, who grew up in a crowded house with nine brothers and two sisters.
“When I decided to open the house up to them I wondered what it would be like, but I didn’t have much time to think about it because they moved in early January.
“And it’s been wonderful, it’s been great for me and I tell them that the blessing has been mine — I’ve learned so much from them, often just by watching them interact.”
The Holy Redeemer Catholic Church, established in 1901, is located at Victoria Road, Whitney Pier Sydney. Some 1,000 people attend weekend Mass
About 30 people from India attend Mass each week and they have special Indian Mass on first Wednesday each month in Malayalam offered by Father Varghese Puthruparambil.
So how does a Cape Breton-based Catholic parish priest end up sharing his digs with four young people from the other side of the world?
Sitting in an easy chair in the sitting room of the James Street rectory, Father Murphy hesitates and then offers up some new information before explaining the genesis of the living arrangements.
“There’s actually going to be five — she’s pregnant,” said Father Murphy, nodding to the only woman in the room, who is sat on a couch beside her husband.
“When you think that this house has served as a rectory since it was built in 1913, it looks like they made some history now that they’re pregnant.”
Ironically, her name is Binolin Baby and she’s a 28-year-old nurse who arrived in Cape Breton at the end of January to rejoin husband Aby Abraham. He’s been studying at Cape Breton University along with hometown friend Peter James, who is upgrading his credentials in the institution’s petroleum engineering program. The latter admits he often gets double looks when he introduces himself because his name appears to belie his ethnicity.
“It’s my real name — there are actually some 20 million Catholics in India,” said James.
The other roommate is Akhil John, a public administration student at CBU, who like the others is a member of the India-based Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, a branch of Eastern Christianity that traces its origins back almost 2,000 years.
Today, some 20 million Indians identify as Catholic, a number that represents about 1.5 per cent of the country’s population. Still, it is a number that puts India 16th on the list of countries with the most Catholics. Canada, comparatively, is home to an estimated 13 million Catholics, while Brazil has the most with claims as high as 170 million people within the Church.
In Cape Breton, the huge influx of students from India includes many Catholics, who one might assume felt a certain level of comfort in moving to a predominantly Christian nation. And some of those Catholic Indian students found their way to Holy Redeemer.
According to Father Murphy, the young men approached him one Sunday after Mass and asked if he might help them find a place to stay as vacant accommodation had become somewhat of a scarce commodity by the end of last year.
“After looking around a bit I started to think about the university asking people to open their homes to the international students because there was a shortage of housing,” he recalled.
“So I thought about the fact that it was just me in this big house with so many bedrooms that were being heated but not used and I began to feel guilty.”
Father Murphy asked them to take a look at the house and they were duly impressed. Especially Abraham, who at that point was desperate to find a decent place before wife Binolin’s arrival at the end of January.
The reverend offered the couple the housekeeper’s downstairs suite which includes its own bathroom, while James and John took bedrooms upstairs.
Six months have now passed and all is well at the rectory.
The guests enjoy the privilege of living in a comfortable and secure residence that is located along a major transportation route, while further immersing themselves into one of Cape Breton’s many sub-communities.
As for Father Murphy, he’s enjoying the company.
But at some point, the dynamics at the rectory will change. Abraham and Baby plan to move to Glace Bay to be closer to her work at a call center. Abraham said it will be difficult to leave the rectory that they have come to consider home.
“He’s like a father, a real father to me, so it will be really hard for me to leave — but we aren’t going far,” he said.
But that’s life in Cape Breton — people come and people go.
In the broader picture, Father Murphy’s decision to offer shelter to the four young Indians has brought the local parish full circle. After all, Holy Redeemer was established in 1901 to meet the spiritual needs of the many Catholic newcomers who had come to a Sydney that was booming because of its newly built state-of-the-art steel mill.