Jeff Manes: A spiritual journey through priest’s eyes
June 8, 2013 10:56AM
Father Joseph Ivans, a Catholic priest was born and raised in India. He now lives in Hammond. | Supplied photo
Updated: August 8, 2013 2:21AM
“Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work.”
— Mother Teresa
The Rev. Joseph Ivans lives at the Albertine Retirement Home near Bishop Noll Institute in Hammond. The place is run by the Albertine Sisters, a group of Polish-born nuns.
Ivans, 89, stands in at 5 feet, 2 inches tall and weighs 115 pounds soaking wet. He arises at 5:15 every morning and says his prayers for about 90 minutes. Then, he attends Mass. And then he has breakfast. Some days he goes to the Carmelite Monastery in Munster to hear confessions. He still makes visitations at local hospitals.
In what part of India were you born?
“In the State of Kerala,” he said. “It means ‘land of the coconut palms.’ Kerala is located in the southwest corner of India. I was born as an Eastern rite Catholic. I belong to the community known as St. Thomas Christians.”
Being Catholic you had to have been in the minority.
“Yes, 80 percent of India is Hindu; 10 percent Muslim. About three percent are Christian.”
You’re old enough to remember India’s caste system.
“The caste system was very strong in India. There were four major castes. The educated people were known as Brahmins. St. Thomas, the apostle, preached only to the Brahmins. Brahmin means ‘God’s people.’”
What about the bottom rung of the social ladder, the Untouchables?
“You have heard of Mahatma Gandhi?”
“Gandhi said the Untouchables were God’s people. By law, the caste system was officially banned. With that said, some of the upper classes still take advantage of the ignorant to this day.
“I remember when Gandhi came to Kerala. He was a well-educated man who lived a very simple life. Although a Hindu, he was a believer in the teachings of Jesus Christ.”
Father, I consider Cesar Chavez and Mahatma Gandhi two of the greatest men who ever lived.
“Gandhi was spat upon by a British man.”
“He gently took his handkerchief and smilingly wiped the saliva from his face. He then reminded the man that Jesus taught that you should not return evil acts with vengeance. You must forgive them.”
When were you ordained?
“In 1952. I attended Madras Christian College. It was the most prestigious college in all of India. As a student, I was involved in protests. We would march and shout out slogans. Gandhi told us to push out the British gently, but not to harm them.”
“She used to visit Kerala often. Mother Teresa was so popular in those days. She was always invited to big Catholic gatherings that would last a week. I remember on one occasion, one of the archbishops asked her to eat with us. She told him, ‘Archbishop, I am not worthy of kissing your feet.’ People thought so highly of her because of the wonderful things she was doing. She was held with the highest respect by the whole church.”
Let’s switch gears. Sports in India?
“Soccer was very popular. Cricket was for the upper classes.”
Your thoughts on author Rudyard Kipling?
“‘Oh, East is East, West is West, and never the twain shall meet.’ He was a typical British imperialist.”
“My father was a very prominent businessman — a merchant. We were upper middle class. My father would always give the beggars alms. When the ordinary people had complaints, they would come to him and he would return the petitions to the government. My mother was a very devout Catholic. She would pray and pray all the time.”
What year did you come to the United States?
“In 1976. I was invited by our previous bishop of the Diocese of Gary, Bishop Grutka. That was a time of turmoil in the entire Catholic Church. There was a shortage of priests throughout the Western world.”
Favorite traditional Indian meal?
“Rice and curry. Rice was a standard meal at home. In our language — not as here — curry is the food that is mixed with the rice, such as fish or vegetables.”
First assignments in America?
“St. James in Highland for three years. I also taught theology at Bishop Noll High School and was at Sacred Heart in Gary.”
I’m not a Catholic, but whether interviewing Sister Peg Spindler, a Catholic nun; Rabbi Michael N. Stevens, a Jew; Moanes Khawalid, a Muslim; Mineko Hirata, a Buddhist; Rev. Charles Edward Adams II, a Baptist; Patricia Riley-Churilla, a Pagan; Rev. Roger Brewin, a Unitarian; or several atheists, I have learned something from each and every one of them.
And when I interviewed this humble man who was born Varakukala Dominic Joseph, a man who knew Mahatma Gandhi, I was touched by his compassion as he told me the story of St. Teresa of Calcutta; a native of Albania. The woman who felt she was not worthy of kissing the archbishop’s feet.
Father Ivans wept.