BANGOR, Maine — On Saturday, worshippers at St. Matthew Catholic Church welcomed a new priest to St. Paul the Apostle Parish. That is not so unusual since the first week of July is when priests in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland move to new assignments.
The Rev. Antonyiar Soosai, however, came to Maine from India by way of Africa. He is part of a growing number of priests from Asia, Africa and South America serving in the United States, Canada and other Western nations where there is a shortage of clergy.
Soosai, 42, goes by “Father Tony” to make it easier for Americans to pronounce his unfamiliar name. He is a member of the Heralds of Good News, a missionary society based in India. It was established in 1984 with the intent of promoting vocations. The specific aim of the society, according to its website, “is the training and supply of saintly, dedicated and hardworking missionaries wherever there is need, especially due to the shortage of local vocations.”
He spent the weekend being introduced to his new parishioners in Bangor, Brewer, Hampden and Winterport. Soosai, who co-celebrated Mass at St. Matthew’s with the Rev. Timothy Nadeau, parish administrator, replaced the Rev. Kent Ouellette. Ouellette was named administrator of St. Agnes Catholic Church in Pittsfield and Our Lady of the Snows Parish in Dover-Foxcroft,
“We welcome you into our parish and greet with the peace of Christ,” Nadeau said Saturday.
“Peace be upon you,” the congregation said in unison as Soosai opened his arms to receive their welcome.
Soosai and the Rev. Antonydass Pichaimuthu arrived in Maine in September to serve the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland. The discussions — which took place mostly through e-mails — to bring the priests to Maine began two years ago, according to a story published earlier this month in Harvest, the diocesan magazine published six times a year.
Until the July 4 weekend, both men lived and worked in the Prince of Peace Parish in Lewiston. Soosai now is serving St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Bangor and Pichaimuthu is assigned to Good Shepherd Parish in Lewiston. A third priest is expected to arrive in Maine before the end of the year.
Soosai said after Mass on Saturday that he has purchased his first car so he can drive himself to the six churches he now serves. He expects to be in Maine another four years.
“This new work, this is wonderful,” he told Harvest earlier this year. “It’s all good. It is very happy.”
The priest said Saturday that he welcomes the work and ministering to people in Greater Bangor. Soosai added that he is not looking forward to another winter and has been enjoying the hot, humid summer weather Mainers have been complaining about.
India is a predominantly Hindu nation, but Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism also are practiced. Only 2.3 percent of Indians practice Christianity, yet there are 17 million Catholics in the country, according to Harvest.
The Rev. Andrew Dubois, the moderator of the curia for the diocese, told the magazine earlier this year that while a lot of seminarians are studying to become priests in India, many dioceses in the U.S., including the one in Maine, are experiencing a shortage. Dubois works as an administrator in the chancery in Portland, with duties similar to those of a chief executive officer.
“We continue to have some real needs in the diocese because of the growing shortage of native clergy. And we had heard wonderful things about the Heralds of Good News who were established in India as a missionary society to go and serve in other countries,” he said recently.
There are 27,500 diocesan and religious order priests in India, according to a 2003 report by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, the most recent statistics available. That means there is one priest for every 629 Catholics compared with the U.S., where there is one for every 1,641.
Soosai told Harvest that in India the priesthood is held in high regard and that his father encouraged him to become a priest.
“Parents play a vital role for the priesthood,” he said. “They give it a boost, always encouraging. Not discouraging, encouraging. That someone from our house is a priest is a privilege.”
Soosai was ordained in 2001 after earning a college degree in biology and working on his family’s farm for three years. Before coming to Maine, he taught at a school and served Mass at churches in Tanzania in central East Africa.
Andrew Brown, 19, of Hampden grew up in St. Matthew’s. He is home this summer after completing his first year at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, where he is studying nursing. He met Soosai at the 6 p.m. Saturday Mass.
“I would definitely say it’s good to have more diversity in the church,” he said. “I got to Franciscan from Maine and it’s a melting pot of people. Having a priest from India helps young people understand that the Catholic faith is worldwide, not just in little Hampden, Maine.”