In 2012, a group of Indian Catholic families and Jesuit priests from Marquette University led by Fr. Nicholas Santos, a Jesuitand assistant professor at Marquette, started a monthly gathering of Indian Catholics in the Milwaukee area to grow in faith and share in their Indian culture.
While Fr. Santos was studying for his doctorate in marketing, management and ethics at the Santa Clara University in California, he witnessed a large community of Indian Catholic families gathering for a Mass and meal to share and evangelize their Catholic faith. With the help of several Indian Catholic families in the area, he brought this idea to Milwaukee.
“Each one of us was part of some sort of Indian Catholic organization based in Chicago, but we didn’t have a local group, despite having such a large population of Asian Catholics in Milwaukee,” said Sarita D’Souza, co-leader of the monthly group.
Christianity has a long and rich history in India, although it is usually overshadowed by the large amount of diverse religions and cultures boasted throughout the country. India is an amalgamation of several cultures. The 2011 Indian census found six major religions in India, one of which is Christianity, with many different tribal religions practiced throughout the country.
“Most people I’ve met in this country are surprised when I tell them that I am Catholic,” said D’Souza. “India has a very rich history of Christianity. Of its 1 billion inhabitants, 30 million (3 percent) are Christians; about 17.5 million are Catholics.”
“St. Thomas, one of the Twelve Apostles, introduced Christianity to India in 52 AD,” said D’Souza.
For many centuries, different missionaries arrived in India to evangelize the Catholic faith, including Franciscans, Jesuits, Dominicans and Augustinians.
St. Francis Xavier, especially, holds deep importance to Indian Catholics. As a Jesuit missionary in the state of Goa, he spent from 1542 to 1545 converting many native Indians to Catholicism and building more than 30 churches in southern India. Because of his work in spreading Christianity throughout India, he is the patron saint of India.
D’Souza and other members of Indian families meet monthly in Herian Hall at Gesu Parish. From September through May, 30 to 40 Indian Catholics gather on the fourth Saturday of every month at Gesu for a Mass, meal and sharing of their faith through teaching lessons and witness talks.
“Faith, culture and fellowship are the three main pillars of this group. We meet as a group to share our faith with fellow Christians of all denominations, race, background, ethnicities and age groups” said D’Souza.
“It is part of our faith journey,” said Tony Antao, another member. “The group promotes cultural diversity and helps us grow in our faith.”
The meetings begin with Mass celebrated by several Jesuit priests; it is followed by a potluck dinner consisting mostly of Indian dishes, and then a discussion of Catholic faith.
“The children especially benefit from these meetings,” said Antao.
The children sing in an informal choir led by one of the adult members and participate in other activities.
D’Souza’s two children, Sean, 12, and Giselle, 11, attend the meetings with her and her husband, Godwin, offering them the opportunity “to be part of a close knit group of people who care about their faith and are willing to share their stories with others.”
“The meetings reinforce what has been taught to (the children) and guide them on their faith journeys,” said Antao.
For each meeting, a sub-committee picks a specific theme to celebrate and discuss. Themes include liturgical seasons orsaints.
“We also study the Bible,” said Antao. “We make it fun for the children through Bible quizzes and other activities.”
The group also gives back to their community. Because of the support of Indian Jesuit priests in the Milwaukee area, Gesu allows the group to host its monthly events free of charge. Due to Gesu’s generosity, the group gives back by holding a special collection at Mass to donate money to the meal program held the first three Saturdays of the month at Gesu.
Since 2012, the group, which began as an informal gathering of several families in the area, has expanded to unify Indian Catholics in the Milwaukee area. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee has responded to this through the Asian/Pacific Islander Ministry under its intercultural ministries office. An expansive number of Asian cultures are represented in the ministry, including Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Indonesian, Hmong and Vietnamese.
Antao, D’Souza and other members hope to expand and further organize the group to include and unite more Indian Catholics in the area.
“By being an active member of this group, I have firsthand experience of the challenges and work it takes in order to evangelize our current generation (of Indians) living in this country,” said D’Souza. “Back home, faith was a part and parcel of life. But here, I find that religion is not as popular.”
D’Souza and others reinforce the need to share their faith through example.
“We as parents need to make a conscious effort in finding avenues for our children so they can grow strong in their faith.”