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A family tree, Catholic since apostolic times

By Dolores Madlener | Staff writer
Sunday, February 13, 2011

Father George Velloorattil is pastor of St. Bernardine Parish in Forest Park. (Brian J. Morowczynski / Catholic New World)

He is: Father George Velloorattil, pastor of St. Bernardine's in Forest Park, former pastor of Queen of the Universe Parish. Former associate at Queen of All Saints Basilica and at Immaculate Conception in Highland Park. Born and raised in Kerala, India, ordained in 1978 on April 6, his 26th birthday. Incardinated into the archdiocese of Chicago in 1996 by Cardinal George.

Life in Kerala: "Christians, Hindus and Muslims — we lived like good neighbors. There was no animosity. Kerala made the Guinness World Records when it reached a 100 percent literacy rate back in the 1990s. The Catholic Church was responsible. It set a year aside for this. Our nuns and priests spent hours in the evenings visiting houses, teaching everyone to read and write. Catholics have a lot of schools and that made our efforts easy."

Family life: "We were eight children, six boys and two girls. My dad was in the movies, before Bollywood [modern Hindi movies]. He started his career in the 1940s — in the days of silent movies in India — no talkies until the 50s. He was mainly a technician who edited movies and also a projectionist. They didn't have permanent theaters in those days. They would go from place to place with the movie, put up a tent, give a little publicity, and the whole village would come. Then he would put on the movie and take up a collection. Dad was involved with movies until he died in 1983. We children always got in the theaters free by mentioning dad, so I grew up seeing a lot of movies!"

The family tree: "St. Thomas the Apostle came to India and evangelized in 50 A.D. He spent 20 years in India, especially in Kerala, in the south, where he founded seven churches. I come from that stock, so my catholicity can be traced back to apostolic times. People think Christians in India are all converts." He sees the humor in this.

Priesthood: "We had a lot of priests in my family. My vocation did not start with an extraordinary event, but rather the visits of my two priest uncles on summer vacations. I admired them from the time I was five or six. They continued to be in touch with me, so I had a natural inclination. Right after high school I entered the seminary. My parents were happy — 'Out of eight, one has to be given to God!' It runs in the family." He finds humor in this too.

He went to the seminary in Mangalore, run by Jesuits from Milan, and completed a masters in theology before ordination. "I continued my studies and have a master's in history, and in sociology and a certificate in journalism."

Chicago: "My dad died the same year as a younger brother who had joined the Salesians. It was a great shock to my mom. My older brother Matthew, now a permanent deacon at St. Ladislaus, already lived here. He brought Mom and the family to Chicago."

"I was hesitant to stay in the United States. My second day here I visited Father Bill Lisowski, pastor at St. Ladislaus Parish. He invited me to live there, and I did for a year. But I missed my missionary life. I was used to taking my backpack on Monday mornings and biking to villages in the mountains of Kerala. A rather hectic life. I had done it as a priest for several years, and for many summers as a seminarian.

"But my mother asked me to come back to Chicago. So I spoke with my bishop and he let me go. It took three or four years to be incardinated in the archdiocese. I am happy to be here."

Leisure: "I spend my day off with six Indian priest friends. We have good times. The Carmelite in the group is a good cook. Two are Salesians and three diocesan priests. We have a real brotherhood.

"I took a mini-Sabbatical in 2009, spending a month in California at a center run by the St. Joseph Sisters of Orange, taking a course in spirituality. Then I spent two months in India, taking Ayurvedic treatment for my bad back for several weeks. Finally 10 days at the wonderful Benedictine monastery there founded by the English monk and mystic Bede Griffiths [friend of C.S. Lewis]. He wrote 'The Golden Thread,' a famous book on Indian spirituality. People come there from around the world."

Favorite saint: "St. George, of course — the dragon-slayer and my patron!"