From India to Burrillville: Pastor brings unique perspective, big plans to town’s Catholic churches

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BURRILLVILLE – Father Jose Parathanal has traveled to more than 50 countries, visiting some as many as six times.

Recalling just the recent past, he’ll list off dozens of pilgrimages; to Rome, Portugal, Turkey, Greece, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, England and Ireland, just to name a few.

In the U.S., he’s served in parishes on the east and west coasts, from Los Angeles to Narragansett, adjudicated marriages for the Catholic church, and led groups of the faithful to other holy places of worship.

As the new pastor serving the Burrillville Catholic Collaborative, Parathanal took residence this year on the picturesque country property that is home to the Shrine of the Little Flower, the only place of pilgrimage in Rhode Island that has received official recognition of the Roman Catholic Church.

He brings vast experience and a worldly perspective to the role, but it seems one aspect of small-town life is still a bit intimidating for the religious leader: the New England winter.

“The whole area, I like,” Parathanal told NRI NOW in an interview last week at the 8-acre Shrine property, an idyllic country setting featuring scenic vistas and rolling hills.

“It is very nice. It’s very peaceful and very serene,” said Parathanal, noting that still, “It was a very big change coming to New England.” 

Parathanal was born in India, where he completed his religious studies, joining the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate in 1977. He was ordained in 1990, and served the CMI congregations in the Bijnor Province and diocese in various capacities, before coming to the U.S. in 2005.

The priest, who holds degrees in both civil and Cannon law, served in Los Angeles, Calif. for 13 years and in Brooklyn, N.Y. for two, before he was transferred to St. Thomas Moore in Narragansett in 2020.

He replaced Fr. Michael McMahon as pastor of the BCC in May, overseeing three Burrillville churches that have merged in recent years; Our Lady of Good Help Parish, St. Patrick’s Church and St. Theresa’s, which is home of the Shrine.

Now, he’s doing seven masses a week between the three congregations, with services at 8:30 a.m. Monday through Thursday mornings at St. Theresa’s, Sunday services at the sister churches, plus a Saturday evening service back on Dion Drive – and he intends to add more.

Parathanal also serves at the Marriage Tribunal of the Diocese of Providence, working with those seeking a religious annulment from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., three days a week. At the end of the day he returns to Burrillville for various meetings, to host groups at the Shrine or to handle general business for a collaborative that now includes two cemeteries and three parishes, each with their own congragations, needs and budgets.

It’s a busy schedule for the town’s new pastor, but he said he loves the work.

“I like doing good for the people,” Parathanal said.

At the tribunal, the priest serves as a judge, following a deliberate process with those seeking annulment from the Diocese, which includes submission of documentation and testimony from witnesses. The religious board can declare a marriage invalid for any of 12 reasons that include mental health issues, severe addictions, extramarital relationships and more.

“Based on that, we will make a judgement what went wrong. It’s just like a civil process,” Parathanal said. “I see, when they get the annulment, how happy they are.”

He also enjoys the hustle and bustle of the Shrine, where groups and individuals often come as pilgrims for retreats or spiritual renewal.

“A lot of people visit from so many places,” he said. “People sit on the benches and meditate. People come and spend some quiet time.” 

When NRI NOW visited the Shrine last Friday, 40 students from Massachusetts had just completed a week of community service hours, cleaning the grounds and painting the various features and structures that comprise the outdoor facility.

“They did a lot of work here,” Parathanal said.

As the Shrine approaches its 100th year, it’s help that’s greatly needed. The property is home to dozens of statutes, relics and structures, from the Holy Stairs, or “Scala Sancta,” and the Votive tomb, to an open air chapel. Benches and picnic tables dot the grounds along handmade walkways, and the property holds a bookstore and rectory, along with the church itself.

“This whole year I’m going to focus on repair and renovation,” Parathanal said. “I am planning a full year renewal program with something every month.”

But the priest becomes most animated when he discusses his main objective for the next twelve months: the rebuilding the Rosary Walk. Like so many features on the Shrine grounds, the garden was originally built with volunteer labor of visitors, using unknown materials. It was demolished last year due to deterioration.

“I am going make a big, very beautiful, attractive Rosary Garden before next spring,” Parathanal said. “It’s a big project. It will take some time. When you come by next year, you will see.”

As a world traveler who has visited many such places of healing, Parathanal sees the potential of the space in Burrillville, with hopes to attract many from outside of Rhode Island. 

“My whole intention is, I want to raise it to the level of an international, well-known pilgrim center,” he said.

Soon, he’ll get some assistance, with a second priest to be assigned to the Burrillville collaborative. The help, he said, will allow him to extend mass at St. Theresa’s to Friday and Saturday mornings, as well as offer a second 10:30 a.m. mass at the other two churches in his care.

As the Shrine celebrates its 100th anniversary next year, he said he plans to add more programs and retreats.

This week, the priest was preparing for a trip to Germany for the Oberammergau Passion Play. The performance, a staging Jesus’ passion, began in the 1600s as an offering from Bavarian villagers, who hoped to be spared from the bubonic plague. According to legend, no one died of plague in Oberammergau after they vowed to perform the play every ten years, and the tradition continues to this day.

“Everyone from children to elderly people partake in that,” said Parathanal, who is bringing a group of 40 Americans to the event. 

The priest says without hesitation that such miracles also happen in Burrillville, and has brought the perspective to town congregations of one who has witnessed what’s possible on the world stage.

“I am optimistic and really hopeful that everything will work,” he said.

“People who come and really pray – they experience miracles,” Parathanal added.

It is all in a day’s work for the experienced pastor, who faces just one unknown in his new rural setting.

“I don’t know how challenging it’s going to be when all the snow comes,” he said with a nervous smile, but still optimistic smile.

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