February 26, 2012
His aim is to bring us across the goal line
He is: Missionary of St. Francis Xavier Father Peter Fernandes (the congregation is also known as the Pilar Fathers). Ordained April 27, 1999, at age 27 in his native India. Has been pastor of St. Timothy Church on the North Side since 2006.
Youth: “I was born in Goa, India, in a small coastal fishing village called Velsao Beach. Our beach continues to be pristine. We are still blessed not to have it commercialized. Goa is sometimes called ‘Hawaii of the East.’
“My father was a fisherman. Growing up, my three brothers and I went fishing with him. (My two sisters did not go.) That was the practice in our village. My father would wake us up any time of the night, and we would go fishing for three or four hours. Then you get up in the morning, have your breakfast, go to school, return. At evening we would play a little, and then for an hour get the nets ready. Evening dinner, rosary and then go to sleep on the beach and go to work again. Every night except in the monsoon season because the sea was too rough.
“Depending on the season the catch was a variety of sardines, mackerels and other fish. Our main diet is fish curry and rice in Goa. We would have meat only on Sundays or feast days.
“My parents were instrumental in nurturing my vocation. Every evening, even today, each Catholic family gathers in their home to pray the rosary and then the parents give a blessing to their children. My parents had no formal education but they made sure we went to Sunday Mass and on holidays when there was no school we went to weekday Mass.”
Seminary life: “After eighth grade I left and entered the minor seminary.” Was the seminary just an escape? “No it was a big struggle for me. I missed the whole dynamic and rhythm of growing up at home. The first year I wanted to come back. I go home on vacation now, and when I leave I feel bad. My friends and I go fishing as before and I still play soccer for the village team.”
Soccer: “Last year at this time we made it to the finals. We lost in the end but they voted me MVP for the tournament. When I was in grade 12 a priest gave us soccer boots and gear for the first time. Our ground is hard with gravel and we used to play without any shoes. As a junior I started playing well, and was playing with the upper seminarians in the theologate. That year I was selected to play for the state of Goa on the A-team and I also played for the high school. One professor asked me, ‘Why do you continue in the seminary? You could be a professional soccer player.’
“It was a kind of struggle through the rest of my seminary after that, even when I was ready to graduate. I was selected all three years to play for the university. The seminary rector would not allow me to go. When I came back to do theology I gave up the idea of becoming a soccer player, but I did play semi-professional sometimes with permission sometimes without.”
Priestly life: “After ordination I worked in central India, in Bhopal, (where the Union Carbide tragedy happened in 1984) in our order’s big mission there. We work among bonded laborers, lepers, and victims from the tragedy. I was in charge of our minor seminary there for two years before coming to the USA in 2001.
Life here: “The society asked me to go to Portland, Ore. where our order was already working. The first year I was assigned to the cathedral in Portland. Being emcee for the archbishop was kind of unnerveing. I had never done this kind of work. Also to celebrate Mass with a big crowd was a bit overwhelming. But Archbishop Vlasny and I have a great rapport and he visits me when he’s in Chicago. He also wrote the forward to my first book in 2008, “A Soul in Flight: Path to Contemplation.” It is reflective poems for meditation. I’ve written a second one and Cardinal George is writing the forward.
“After a year I was sent to the second biggest parish in the Portland archdiocese, St. Cecilia in Beaverton. I had made many friends at the cathedral, but St. Cecilia was more a family parish, not transitional. The parish school used to auction off a prize like: ‘Soccer with Father Peter,’ or ‘An Indian Dinner with Father Peter.’”
Chicago: “When Cardinal George invited our society to work in Chicago, he gave us St. Timothy Parish. It was struggling, with few people and a big debt. Since 2006 the parish is growing, from 16 kids in our CCD program today we have 70. We paid off the debt by cutting some things and using our resources carefully. It’s a multi-ethnic, diverse community. An Indian-Pakistani neighborhood mainly, but mostly Hindu-Muslims, very few Catholics.”
“In my wildest dreams I never thought I’d come to the United States.” He doesn’t forget about home. “I raise some resources for our society’s missions and I’ve let my superiors know I don’t want to stay here too long. I want to get back before I’m too old.”
The Pilar Fathers: Our [informal] name comes from a small hill in Goa called Pilar. A monastery was built there by Franciscan Fathers from Spain who arrived in the early 16th century. They dedicated it to Our Lady of Pillar (in Saragoza, Spain) where she appeared to St. James on a pillar. When our society was founded after the Franciscans had left, the bishop gave us that monastery. It became our motherhouse, and we became known as the Pilar Fathers.
Leisure: “I’m doing an on-line course through Holy Apostles College in Connecticut to earn a master’s degree in philosophy. I don’t have a cook. That’s one of the things I cut. I like steak and Italian food and salad, but I also cook Indian recipes. We have a prayer group community with the other two priests from my order who are here. And I also socialize with a group of Chicago priests -- we play tennis or go out for a movie. This winter we turned our basement into a kind of gym with ping pong tables and a couple exercise machines, so we congregate here.”
Favorite Scripture verse: “The one I chose for ordination: ‘I will make you fishers of men.’”