FOND DU LAC — Fr. Thomas Naidu watched from the rectory window of his rural Brazilian parish as scores of women, babies clutched tightly in their arms, lined up in the Amazon heat.
One-by-one the mothers, beaten down by poverty in a country ironically known as a land of milk and honey, begged for money to feed the infants.
“They would ask for 50 cents to buy milk for their children. They always believed priests had money to help them,” Fr. Naidu said. “Whoever comes to me asking for help, I try to fill their needs — especially the poor.”
Fr. Naidu, 41, is the latest missionary priest to come from India, where there are ample priests to do sacramental work, in order to serve in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
Mission to serve
On July 18, Fr. Naidu, in his first trip to the United States, became one of four priests serving Holy Family Catholic Community in Fond du Lac. With nearly 16,000 people, Holy Family is the largest parish in the archdiocese.
“Our priests from India bring a real sacramental ministry and a real devotion to the church,” said Rick Tank, director of priest and lay ecclesial personnel and placement for the archdiocese.
Tank said 12 priests from India serve in the archdiocese.
“We regularly get letters from priests who want to come here and serve,” Tank said. “In their training in India, they have a real mission to come and serve. They are really serious about it. It’s an opportunity for them to get to another part of the world and see things from a different perspective.”
Priests from India are granted a 2.5 year, renewable visa.
“They feel God is calling them to come here. Some seek permanent residency with here. Some seek permanent residency with our help,” Tank said.
He said some of the bishops in India want their priests to come to the U.S. and return to India to take leadership roles in their diocese.
Oftentimes, people don’t realize what the priests have done or their degree of commitment to their faith, Tank said.
“Fr. Thomas is a great example of that,” he said.
‘Nothing special — except for God’
Fr. Naidu, ordained a priest for the Diocese of Tiruchirapallli in 2003, is modest in his explanation of the work he hasdone during assignments in India, Africa, the Middle East and South America, particularly among the poor in Brazil.
His concern about getting milk for children led to Fr. Naidu to convince area farmers to donate milk for a self-sustaining milk supply and securing a grant of land from local officials to erect an industrial plant using milk and sugar to produce sweet products, and much-needed employment, for the poverty-stricken residents.
“I have nothing special — except for God. I am here to share my faith with the people of Fond du Lac. I will wait to see what God wants of me,” said Fr. Naidu.
Born in Chennai, the capital city of Tamil Nadu in South India, Fr. Naidu, the first-born in a family of two children, including a sister, was named by his grandmother after St. Thomas the Apostle (Doubting Thomas), who arrived in India in 52 A.D. Known as the patron saint of India, St. Thomas was martyred and is buried in the San Thome Basilica, a pilgrimage center for Christians in India close to Fr. Thomas’ birthplace.
“We’ve had Christians from the first century in my town,” Fr. Naidu said.
Influenced by missionaries
As a young boy, Fr. Naidu was impressed with the missionaries, priests and brothers serving his parish.
“When I was a small boy, the missionaries used to bring us food, clothes and books. That was always a help,” Fr. Naidu said. “My mother put me in a countryside (Catholic) school to gain religious education. She didn’t want me to be a city boy. Because she loved religion so much, she wanted me to grow in faith, discipline and religion. I grew up with the Montfort Fathers. All my education was in Catholic institutions. The brothers and priests were my role models who inspired me to become a priest.”
It wasn’t easy for his family to have their only son enter the priesthood.
“But I made my decision and God has been very good to me. I’ve had many great experiences in my life and this appointment to Fond du Lac and the Milwaukee Archdiocese is the best opportunity I have as a priest to work in America,” Fr. Naidu said.
Accustomed to serving large parishes
Working in an expansive, multi-site parish like Holy Family doesn’t discourage the priest.
“When I worked in a very poor region of southern Brazil, I was the single pastor for 26 parishes serving 100 communities. I used to drive 200 kilometers (1,243 miles) per week. People in these parishes might have Mass once a year or once every two or three years,” Fr. Naidu said. “It was hard work but I was happy. I naturally have a heart for the poor. When I went to Brazil my priority was to reach the poor. I felt God was using me.”
Fr. Naidu, who is fluent in English, Portuguese, Tamil and Telugu, said his first impression upon arriving in the U.S. was, “I have a lot to learn.”
“The liturgy here is very traditional and good, but the practices are different,” he said. “During Mass everyone consumes the blood of Christ, which is very new to me. The involvement of lay ministers is new, as is carrying in the cross. I think the American church is very close to the Vaticancy, while in countries like Africa and in Asia, they like to have their (religious) ways connected more to the culture.”
Since his first day in Fond du Lac, Fr. Naidu said he noticed the large number of people attending Mass.
“There is good participation and collaboration which you don’t see much in India,” he said. “I see people have very strong faith here. And the visits people make to the Blessed Sacrament here is amazing. Someone is always praying. I’ve also seen a lot of discipline and strong values here in Wisconsin. Maybe it’s the fear of God people have.”
Having lived in Wisconsin only a few months, it may not be the fear of God fully occupying Fr. Naidu’s mind, rather a fear many state resident feels– fear of the State Department of Transportation.
Although he drove the wilds of the Brazilian countryside, Africa and the Middle East, Fr. Thomas failed his first attempt at passing the DOT’s road test to gain his driver’s license.
“I failed because I wasn’t checking my blind spots. I was unaware,” Fr. Naidu said.
On Aug. 27, he took the test again, and is now a licensed Wisconsin driver.