Fr Jose Manjaly MS believed that he had returned home upon his installation as the 23rd parish priest of St Nicholas of Myra Parish, Penrith, in November 2019.
“When I came back from [being an Administrator at St Anthony of Padua Parish] Toongabbie because I already knew the community, [and] I was only two years away from this parish community, it’s like I’m coming back home, like a boomerang,” Fr Joe, as he is known, told Catholic Outlook.
“The people know me, I know them, that makes a big difference.
“I feel that my ministry as a priest is a special gift [and] I enjoy ministering to people in parishes. Over the past 15 years, I have been in parishes to minister, whether it is as an assistant priest, or administrator, or parish priest, so I feel that it is my special call, even though I am a missionary priest,” he added.
Fr Joe was born in the central Kerala region of southern India and has four siblings. He was ordained as a member of the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette on 8 September 2005, Mother Mary’s birthday.
“I used to go to the church every day with my sister, and my sister once told me ‘maybe you can become a missionary priest’, and that caught my attention. [From that day], I prayed to be commissioned as a priest, and finally, when I finished my high school studies, I joined the Missionaries of La Salette,” Fr Joe said.
Following his ordination, Fr Joe served in various parishes in Kerala before moving to Atlanta, Georgia in the United States, where he ministered as an assistant priest for four years.
In September 2011, Fr Joe came to Australia, where his first appointment was as an assistant priest at St Andrew the Apostle Parish, Marayong for one year, before joining Penrith as an assistant priest in 2012. In 2016, he became Administrator of Toongabbie and returned to Penrith in February 2019.
During Fr Joe’s installation, Bishop Vincent Long OFM Conv, Bishop of Parramatta, told the congregation, “We join in prayer for Fr Joe for his ministry and service and leadership, which is reflected in the ministry of Christ, which is to serve and not to be served. Your prayers and presence ensure Fr Joe is supported in his ministry.
“Today, we celebrate a new beginning or a new chapter in the life of this community. We give thanks for the pioneers, who have left us with the legacy of service in mission. We unite ourselves with the new shepherd Fr Joe who exemplifies the missionary spirit by his embrace of the unknown.
“Together as disciples of Christ, we endeavour to be the Church that is an oasis of hope and a soothing presence for all,” Bishop Vincent said.
One of the most recent examples of stepping into the unknown for Fr Joe has been the coronavirus pandemic.
With the changing government and diocesan regulations, parish life had to change from week to week. But Fr Joe remained resilient and continued in his service of the parish.
“A parish without parishioners is very hardening to see,” Fr Joe explained.
“The parish had live streaming Masses since the lockdown started, but during Holy Week, I felt sad seeing the empty pews. Even though I knew my community is spiritually connected with the live stream Masses we organised and the Holy Week liturgies, it is not the same when they are not physically present.
“I also realised that despite the lockdown and their absence from the church, people continued to practice their faith and tried everything to be spiritually connected.
“During this time, a few people shared with me their devastation and sadness over the loss of their loved ones from the COVID-19 outbreak in the Newmarch House nursing home. However, the parish was able to journey with them in their celebration of life.
“The parish office and priests were always available for the people during the main lockdown. As a result, lots of people continued to touch base with the parish and its activities.
“As Pope Francis said, ‘despite the suffering and challenges posed by COVID-19, the church’s missionary journey continues’,” Fr Joe said.
Jacinta Ortiz, Business Manager of the parish, told Catholic Outlook that during the pandemic, Fr Joe would regularly check in with his parishioners, and even went so far as to help older worshippers set up their own Facebook accounts.
Assistant Priest Fr Jobi Payyappilly MS, who has been with the parish for over a year, explained that Fr Joe has encouraged him to embrace his ministry in the parish.
“I respect Fr Joe as the parish priest and I follow what he wants me to do for the church, especially carrying out my ministry.
“Fr Joe gives me the opportunity to learn the sacramental activities of the parish and to get to know people. He has made me comfortable to stay here and minister.
“I’m happy to do my ministry here in Penrith along with Fr Joe,” Fr Jobi said.
For Sharon Clarke, secretary of the parish council, she appreciates Fr Joe’s youthfulness and energy.
“We’ve had some amazing priests throughout the years I’ve been here, and it’s been wonderful. They [Fr Joe and Fr Jobi] are young, so I think they bring an energy to the parish. People find them very approachable, and they relate really well to young and old,” she said.
In addition, Fr Joe is a good listener and easy to talk to, according to Joe Tabone, the chair of the parish’s finance committee.
Jacinta added, “Fr Joe and I are great friends, and I think that makes a difference when it comes to bouncing ideas off each other and respecting each other’s ideas. That relationship has helped us in the past couple of months, navigating through the tough and challenging times.”
Fr Joe said, “I would like to thank God for the great gift of my priesthood. It is because of His kindness and mercy that I am a priest.
“When I came here [in February 2019], I said that quote from the Bible of King Solomon’s prayer, ‘O Lord God, You have let me succeed my father as king, here I am among the people you have chosen to be your own, give me the wisdom I need to serve your people with love and compassion,’
“The Diocese [of Parramatta] has been a huge support, not just now, but over my eight years of priestly ministry here. All the priests are always very supportive and encouraging.
“I was humbled and I am thankful to the Diocese and to Bishop Vincent for giving me such an opportunity and trusting me as a priest to bring good things to these people of Penrith.
“I consider this as my home – this parish, this church, where I am assigned – I always work hard, as if it is my home. That makes a big difference for people, they see that I don’t do anything just for myself.
“It is a very humbling experience and a great privilege to serve in this local church as the parish priest of St Nick’s,” he said.
Jacinta concluded, “I hope that through his leadership, Fr Joe will be able to reaffirm the Catholic community of their absolute worth and their need to be prominent examples of faith in Penrith.”
This article was originally featured in the Spring 2020 Edition of the Catholic Outlook Magazine.