Photos are displayed proudly throughout the living room of Rose Mayer, a 91 year old woman from St. Joseph. Naturally there are photos of her family — her daughter and son-in-law Kathy and Dave Rennie, for example, and her grandchildren.
But among the family gallery are photos of a man who appears not to be related to Rose. He is a man from India. These are the photos that catch one’s eye.
The man is posing on the streets of St. Joseph under the spires of the church. He is squatting next to Rose in her home. He is standing next to a World War II memorial in the Netherlands commemorating the service of Americans missing in action, including Rose’s husband.
And, in the most recent photo, taken in early July, he is being blessed by Pope Benedict XVI.
The man is Bishop Sebastian Thekethecheril who on July 2 was consecrated as bishop of the Diocese of Vijayapuram, one of the poorest in India.
Bishop Sebastian Thekethecheril and Rose Mayer, 91, enjoy sharing family stories on one of his visits to St. Joseph. She started sponsoring him when he was just beginning in the seminary in 1973, and their relationship has developed into a mother and son bond.
But why are his photos on display all over Mayer’s St. Joseph home? It’s almost as if he were family. Well, in a way, he is.
When Sebastian, who was ordained in 1980, began studying in India to be a priest for the Diocese of Vijayapuram, Mayer began sponsoring him financially. She had heard about other people sponsoring priests in poor countries and decided she wanted to help a seminarian too.
“I sent him a check every month, and he started writing letters to me. I always answered his mail,” Mayer said.
And so, Mayer’s gift of money led to an exchange of letters, which eventually led to several visits by Father Thekethecheril to Mayer’s home in St. Joseph. The pair naturally got to know each other pretty well.
“He’s real common, really easy to talk to. We talk about anything. He always tells us how his family back in India (whom Mayer has met) is doing. I tell him to do chores,” Mayer said, laughing.
During his St. Joseph visits, Bishop Thekethecheril spends his days at Mayer’s home and his nights as a guest of St. Benedict’s Monastery, Mayer said, her face lighting up as she pointed to the couch and added, “but he naps right there.”
Kathy and Dave Rennie traveled to India to be present at Bishop Thekethecheril’s July 2 installation as ordinary of the Vijayapuram Diocese. In a July 24 e-mail interview with the Visitor, Bishop Thekethecheril expressed appreciation of Mayer and the Rennies.
“Usually sponsors stop their connection with the sponsored when they become priests,” he wrote. “But Rose preferred to keep it — in other words, she continued to write to me and send personal gifts even after I became a priest,” he wrote.
Bishop Thekethecheril, who had served his diocese as vicar general, is the third native Indian bishop in the Diocese of Vijayapuram, which is on India’s southern coast. Spanish Carmelites began mission work with the lowest caste — the “untouchables” — in 1930. Those missionary roots are still evident in Vijayapuram’s modern church in that most people from the diocese are still of the lowest caste and thus the poorest, Kathy Rennie said.
Kathy Rennie went to India in part to represent her mother for Bishop Thekethecheril’s consecration ceremony. She said the trip was memorable, even “life-changing,” but what stands out most in her mind is the small private ceremony at which Bishop Thekethecheril took the oath of allegiance to the church by both spoken and written word. His predecessor, retiring Bishop Peter Thuru—thikonam, blessed the miter and staff as he passed them on to his successor.
The day of the consecration was especially touching because over 12,000 people came to watch their new bishop begin his service. As Rennie watched the procession pour into the outdoor tent, she said she could “feel the excitement in the air.”
Rennie said she could tell that the bishop — from his vantage point, the altar at the front of the tent— had a perfect view of the statue of Mary inside the Cathedral which seemed to bestow a perpetual blessing over the ordination-day events. Rennie said that Bishop Thekethecheril’s “coat of arms” reveals his love of Our Lady.
Everything about the ceremony was outstanding and well worth the journey, Kathy Rennie said. The Rennies did get to spend time with Bishop Thekethecheril, but not much since he was so busy with scheduled events, including a retreat for solitude and peaceful prayer.
During her stay in India, Kathy Rennie was interviewed along with Bishop Thekethecheril on an Indian television program called “Voice of the Bishop.” She talked about the program she started called “We Share.” Through this program, she explained, people in America can sponsor seminarians in India like her mother did, or they can sponsor entire families.
“We can build houses for $1,500 through this program,” Rennie said.
This is not Kathy Rennie’s first experience with India. She has taken other trips there — and has even lived in India for a time. She founded “We Share” as an answer to the rampant poverty and injustice she had to face during her time there.
Through this program, she is carrying on the tradition her mother started 33 years ago. Rennie hopes that perhaps other young men will see the success Bishop Thekethecheril has seen.
Kathy Rennie is Mayer’s daughter; Bishop Thekethecheril might be called her “spiritual son.”
Both appear to be carrying on her living legacy of love and generosity.
“Our meeting (Bishop Thekethecheril with the Rennies) was a beginning of a new history. I became part of the Rennies and the Rennies became the friends and benefactors of my diocese,” Bishop Sebastian wrote in his e-mail. “When I look back, I feel that it was the strong Catholic faith of Rose Mayer that was the motivating force to bring us closer to share the love of God.”
Rennie added that she is honored that Bishop Sebastian has become like a spiritual brother to her, and since Kathy is the only child Mayer had, he has become like a spiritual son to her mother.
Bishop Sebastian agrees. “I think I am fortunate to have her as my mom, precisely because I lost my mother 10 years ago. And I feel that she considers me as her son, and she is proud of me being the bishop of my diocese,” he wrote.
“I feel pretty lucky that he was named a bishop, and of course I’m very proud,” Mayer said. “He’s a very nice man — he should have been a bishop a long time ago!”
Because it is difficult for her to travel long distances, Mayer was not among the mix of the 12,000 celebrating the new bishop’s ordination in India. But she did celebrate quietly and simultaneously in her home.
And although she wasn’t able to attend that special ceremony, the photos surrounding her living room attest that her heart was definitely with her spiritual son. St Cloud Visitor
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