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Indian Catholics strive to keep culture, faith alive in Cleveland

CLEVELAND, Ohio (Catholic Universe Bulletin) - Spirituality surrounds those growing up in India. The tinkle of the Hindu temple bells on the wayside; the muezzin’s call from the mosque at noon; the distant clang of church bells were some of the more obvious signs.

CLEVELAND INDIANS - Maria and Kulwant Coutinho pray with their children Kiernan, 10, and Krysta-Marie, 7. The Coutinhos have incorporated regular prayer into family life as they observe customs from their Indian Catholic culture. (Catholic Universe Bulletin/George Shuba)

CLEVELAND INDIANS - Maria and Kulwant Coutinho pray with their children Kiernan, 10, and Krysta-Marie, 7. The Coutinhos have incorporated regular prayer into family life as they observe customs from their Indian Catholic culture. (Catholic Universe Bulletin/George Shuba)

Dr. Maria Coutinho grew up in Pune, India and like other Catholics, attended Catholic school. Sunday Mass and religious education classes were compulsory. Her family gathered for morning and night prayers and recited the rosary every week. Participation in parish activities was encouraged.

“My parents and relatives were examples to me of how to live the Catholic faith; we all went to church and I was a witness to their relationship with each other and with others,” Countinho says.

In 1985 Coutinho immigrated to the United States and is today a parishioner of Our Lady of Peace Church. She strives to make her Catholic faith meaningful to her children.

“I want my kids to have the same faith that I grew up with,” she says. “I continue the traditional morning and night prayers with Keiran, who is 10 years old, and Krista Marie, who is 7 years old. Besides Sunday Mass, I attend a weekday Mass where Keiran is the altar server.”

In her home, religious pictures sit next to Indian artifacts. Her children attend the parish school of religion every Sunday. With her husband Khulwant Aulak, the family attends prayer meetings and events held by the Indian Catholic community.

About 300 Indian Catholics are scattered throughout Greater Cleveland, largely attending churches in the suburbs. Several families of the Syro-Malabar Church meet every third Sunday of the month at Our Lady of Peace Church in Cleveland’s Shaker Square neighborhood, where a priest from Chicago celebrates the liturgy in Malayalam, a local language in Kerala. There also is a small group of Knanaya Catholics, a sub-group of Syro-Malabar Catholics from Kerala.

Small minority

When Judy D’Cruz mentions she is from India, people often presume that she is a Hindu. That’s not surprising, because 80.5 percent of the estimated population of 1.1 billion in India is Hindu. Muslims comprise 13.4 percent and Christians 2.3 percent. Because of her Portugese last name, she is sometimes mistaken as being Hispanic. People find it hard to understand that someone with a last name like Rodrigues, Gonsalves, Pereira, Jacob or Mathew can be as Indian as the Taj Mahal.

Michael Sreshta has to explain to people that his first name was not changed when he immigrated. Christians in India do have names like John and Margaret, Michael and Barbara.

This can be traced back to the long history of Christianity in India, dating back to A.D. 52 when St. Thomas the Apostle, as a missionary to India, landed in Kerala. St. Bartholomew also is said to have visited India.

The Portugese influence began with the arrival of Vasco da Gama in 1498. The purpose of his visit: Christians and spices. Large-scale conversions took place mostly along the west coast of India.

In 1542 St. Francis Xavier arrived and was responsible for converting many Indians. His body is venerated in the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa, which remained a Portugese territory until 1961. Then there is the influence of the English as India was also a British colony from 1858 to 1947.

Many people associate India with Mother Teresa. Indians, too, are unaware that the only Catholic canonized saint of India was Gonzalo Garcia, who was martyred in Japan in 1597.

According to the 2001 census, of the 24 million Christians in India, about 70 percent are Roman Catholic including 300,000 members of the Syro-Malankara Church and 3.5 million of the Syro-Malabar Church which was founded by St. Thomas.

Comfortable in church

For Iona Abraham from St. John Neumann Church, Strongsville, “being Catholic allowed me to assimilate easily into American culture by natural membership. After all, we were brought up with common rituals in the Catholic Church in India.”

Most Indians are comfortable with their faith here, but with some it takes a while to stop being conscious about being the only Indians in church.

Indian Catholics have lived in Cleveland since the 1960s. Pamela and Dennis Rebello were involved in establishing the India Association in 1964, and Pamela became the first editor of the Indian newspaper The Lotus.

In recent years the Indian Catholics of Northeast Ohio formed a committee to organize spiritual and social events to bring the community together. The diversity of Indian cultures is one of the challenges facing the organization.

“What unites us is our religion,” says Father Albert Veigas, an Indian priest who is pastor at Holy Trinity Church, Bedford Heights. He is active in the local Indian community.

“We need to be aware of the rich heritage of Christianity in India, which has the highest number of vocations in any country,” he says. “Families have a tradition of daily prayer, reverence for the elders, etc. Coming together helps children in faith formation.”

Forging community

Two feasts are celebrated each year by the community: the feast of St Thomas the Apostle in July and the feast of St. Francis Xavier in December. Besides, the community has been hosting prayer meetings and trying to reach out to newcomers in the area.

“Our goal is to forge a community that cares for each other, prays and celebrates together, helping each other grow in faith,” said Roy D’Sa, a parishioner at St. Joseph Church, Strongsville.

At social gatherings one will find a blend of cuisine — fragrant basmati rice pulao, spicy chicken vindaloo, pork sorpatel and fish curry nestle comfortably next to turkey and mashed potatoes or lasagna.

It was in 1999 that Abe (now deceased) and Annie Kuttothara of Loudonville became the first Indian representatives at the Asian Ministry of the Cleveland Diocese along with Gerard D’Souza, a Lakewood attorney.

Notre Dame Sister Rita Mary Harwood, diocesan secretary for parish life and development, recalls that her visit to India years ago “was a deep spiritual experience. I met God in ways that I had never known God before.” She appreciates the richness the Indian community brings to the greater church and is excited to see the community coming together more closely.


This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of the Catholic Universe Bulletin (, official newspaper of the Diocese of Cleveland, Ohio.



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1 - 1 of 1 Comments

  1. Mrs Myrtle Maxwell
    6 months ago

    Hi there,
    My son Disney Osmond Maxwell came to Toledo in 2009 Jan, to do his MS at the University of Toledo. He had done his 4 year under graduation in Engineering in Kerala, India before leaving for the USA. I have been shocked to know that people in America know so little about people like us in India. It was a surprise for many to know that Disney is a Roman Catholic of the Latin Rite. He comes from a traditional Roman Catholic family of. Latin Rite and both his parents trace their faith back to many generations to be of Portuguese descent. If you look up history you will know that the. Quilon Diocese was the oldest diocese in India and it is in Kerala and it is Disney's parents diocese which again traces it's inception to the 13th century!!
    The Catholics in Kerala belong to three different Rites. The Syro Malabar Catholics who call themselves the Roman Catholics actually follow the Syrian Rite So also the Malankara Rite Catholics. The Quilon Diocese follows the Latin Rite and except for the Anglo-Indian community to which Disney belongs, the rest of the local Catholics started calling themselves Latin Catholics in order to belong to a backward class to avail of government aid. Most of them belong to the fishing community and are financially challenged.They are actually Latin Rite Roman Catholics.
    It may surprise the christians in USA that in Kerala we have a large population of Christians, not just Catholics but Christians of all denominations including the Pentecosts.
    Incidentally, Disney's maternal grandmother's first cousin is the present Bishop of the Quilon Diocese, Most Rev. Dr Stanley Roman. Disney's maternal uncle's wife's paternal uncle is Rev Fr. Tommy Rodrigues who is on duty at the Veteran's Home in Sandusky, a wonderful priest.
    I am happy to also say that my son Dusney is involved very actively in the Young Adults Group in Toledo. He is at present working in the Health Applications section as Software Developer Fter having graduated and enjoyis his stay in Toledo very much.
    Our visit to Toledo is overdue and we hope to make it there by end April 2015. Disney's father is Mr A G Maxwell who did his religious studies in Theology and Philosophy, was a deacon and is now teaching Latin at the St Raphael's Minor Seminary.
    Please arrange for us to meet the community there when we visit so we can share many interesting facts about Catholicism in India.

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