Few people could trace a Christian lineage as far back as Father Thomas Kochalumchuvattil. He was born in the state of Kerala in southern India, where St. Thomas the Apostle is believed to have brought the Gospel between 48 and 58 A.D. “We are called St. Thomas Christians,” he said of his home community, which has remained a center of Catholicism in India across the centuries.
Like his namesake, Fr. Thomas has traveled long distances in the service of Christ, helping to build up the Church in Africa by training seminarians there and serving here in St. Damien Parish as a visiting priest over the past several summers. But his formation occurred in the Catholic environment in which he was raised. His parents modeled for him a “living faith” through their generosity and sacrifice. Father Thomas said his mother was so committed to attending Mass, even when she was sickly, that he would carry her to church in his arms “and I could see the greatest joy in her,” he said.
Did Fr. Thomas always know he would be a priest? “I had intended to be a doctor,” he said. Two of his uncles had died of cancer at a young age and he wanted to find a cure. But he himself fell ill right before the national examinations, giving him time to reflect on his priorities. “Maybe it was God wanting me to go into this life,” he said. On the day he was ordained, his mother told him that she had a premonition before his birth that her son would be a priest. In 1986 Fr. Thomas joined the Missionaries of St. Francis de Sales, a saint he describes as “all human and all holy” and whose book, Introduction to the Devout Life, offers practical guidance on prayer and the universal call to holiness.
Now, celebrating his twentieth year in the priesthood, Fr. Thomas is founding rector of the Lumen Christi seminary in Arusha, Tanzania in East Africa, where he also teaches philosophy. The seminary opened in 2010 and continues to grow rapidly, training future priests from countries throughout Africa. “I accompany seminarians in their priestly journey,” he explained, “seeing their ups and downs, their doubts, and their aspirations. And when they become good and holy priests, that is my great joy.”
Father Thomas’s other great joy is administering the sacrament of the Eucharist. “I always try to bring joy to the sacrament,” he said, “and the more people who come, the more joy and happiness I feel.” That is one reason Fr. Thomas appreciates St. Damien Parish so much. “I love being here not because it is a beautiful place,” he said, gesturing toward the ocean, “but because of the faith of this community and the number of people who come for Mass. Many are here for summer enjoyment. They could be sleeping late. But they have made the Eucharist a fundamental part of their life.” He also enjoys a great friendship with Fr. Michael Rush. “He is like an older brother to me,” he said. Fr. Thomas is spending some quiet time writing this summer in Ocean City. He just published a book entitled Empowering the Individual: A Path Toward Eliminating Ethnic Conflicts. He is working on another book on religious formation. He is grateful for the support the seminary has received locally through Mission Co-op. Parishioners again have an opportunity to support the education of individual seminarians on an ongoing basis. Parishioners also can help to fund building projects at Lumen Christi. “We will grow next year from 60 to 75 seminarians,” Fr. Thomas explained. “We lack space. We have an urgent need for a lecture hall. That is a real concern I have to address when I get back to Tanzania.”