American citizenship is dream come true for Chattanooga priests

Father Kuzhupil, Father Okere complete naturalization process with official ceremonies in U.S. District Court

By Bill Brewer

Father Okare

Father Kuzhupil

Father Joseph Kuzhupil and Father Bartholomew Okere are living the heavenly dream, but now they’ve found another one to add to it.

The American dream has come alive for the two priests in the Diocese of Knoxville who are carrying out their ministries in the Chattanooga area.

Father Kuzhupil, MSFS, a native of India, and Father Okere, a Nigeria native, realized that dream over the summer when they became U.S. citizens during naturalization ceremonies in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga.

The path to citizenship wasn’t easy for the priests, who went through an arduous process over several years that culminated in their naturalizations. Father Okere officially became a U.S. citizen July 22, with Father Kuzhupil’s naturalization occurring Aug. 18.

But after completing the steps, which included transitioning from visas to green cards to citizenship, trips to immigration and naturalization offices, seemingly endless paperwork, and successfully completing comprehensive exams that many U.S. natives couldn’t pass, the priests can officially call East Tennessee home.

Was it worth it?

“Since I first came to America in 2005, it has been my desire to become an American,” Father Okere said. “I need to be here to help people. It’s my American dream.”

Father Okere recalled an early thought that occurred to him soon after arriving in the United States from his native Nigeria, where he was ordained. “I said, ‘Oh my goodness, I need to become an American citizen.’”

Father Okere has been a chaplain at Memorial Hospital in Chattanooga for three years, ministering to those in need with health crises as well as the staff of East Tennessee’s only Catholic hospital.

Father Okere also is chaplain for the Knights of Columbus in Chattanooga as well as being involved in the Serra Club there.

He believes his ministry fits him well.

“I love people. I am a people person,” he said, describing how he interacts with people who come through the hospital’s doors and who are involved with the Knights of Columbus and Serra Club. “That’s my job. That’s my ministry.”

After passing the English and civics exams and receiving his citizenship document, Father Okere said Memorial Hospital held a reception for him, Bishop Richard F. Stika congratulated him and Deacon Sean Smith, Diocese of Knoxville chancellor, hugged him.

“I was very much delighted.”

“It is now my country. I am proud to be an American. The American dream is true. America shows the world God’s many blessings,” he said.

Father Kuzhupil, pastor of St. Augustine Church in Signal Mountain, was ordained a priest in 1985 in his native parish in Kerala, India.

He has been in the United States since 2004.

After 10 years serving in the diocese, Father Kuzhupil joined the Missionaries of St. Francis de Sales order and began the final phase of becoming a U.S. citizen.

He had been carrying out his ministry through a religious working visa and after five years obtained a green card.

Like Father Okere, Father Kuzhupil had to pass exams that tested his English, history, civics, reading and writing in English.

Father Kuzhupil described the citizenship process as very impressive – and emotional.

He said it was painful to have to renounce his India citizenship, although he can maintain a permanent overseas visa. But outweighing the loss of his India citizenship was the opportunity to support his order, which he said is seeing dwindling numbers.

“My decision was entirely based on the ministry and what God is calling me to do,” Father Kuzhupil said. “I feel at home here in this country. I love my parish. It’s my home away from home.”

He was pleased by the representation of parishioners at his naturalization ceremony and the reception St. Augustine gave him the following Sunday.

Father Kuzhupil sees his newly minted citizenship as the best of all worlds.

“This is a great country with a lot of opportunities. I can still support my home missions in India and Africa,” he said. “I can extend support to missionaries in other countries while offering a full range of ministry in this country.”

Bishop Stika expressed admiration for the priests going through the difficult process of obtaining U.S. citizenship.

“I admire them because they are true missionaries that come from another continent – India and Africa.

The beauty of this diocese is we have 80-plus priests now, and a number of them, some 15 or 20, are from other parts of the world. The Church is a universal Church. It isn’t an American Church, it isn’t a European Church, African or Asian. I tell people all the time that we are blessed because we have the universal Church in a very real way here with nuns, priests, brothers, and deacons who are from other parts of the world. That gives us a glimpse of the universal nature of the Church,” Bishop Stika said.

The bishop added that the naturalizations of Father Okere and Father Kuzhupil are testaments to their vocations and ministries and to the United States.

“The beauty of our nation, unlike any other nation in the history of the world, is we’re a nation of immigrants. … Here, people want to come to this country for a variety of reasons.”

Bishop Stika said his own family emigrated from Eastern Europe and noted that immigrants now are from Central and South America, Africa, Asia, and all over the world.

“They bring continued reinforcement of the beauty of culture and tradition and history,” the bishop said.

Bishop Stika recalled an Iraqi man who relayed the experience of Iraqi citizens gaining the opportunity to vote in his native country only to be persecuted by opponents of political freedom.

“He said people around the world are dying because they would like to vote, whether for school board or president. People in other countries are begging to be able to do that. But we in the United States are kind of comfortable with ourselves,” Bishop Stika said.

“Until you begin to lose things, like religious freedom, then you see the value. … We lose the sense of the importance of voting.”

Father David Carter, pastor of the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga, attended the naturalizations of Father Okere and Father Kuzhupil and was moved by the ceremonies.

“It was an honor for me to attend both naturalization ceremonies. As a natural-born citizen of the United States, I oftentimes take for granted the full import of being a citizen of our nation. Seeing Father Joseph from India and Father Barth from Nigeria standing beside me as a citizen reveals the deep richness of the diversity of the United States along with the bond of unity of ‘One Nation under God,’” Father Carter said.

“All of my ancestors have done the same thing at one point or another in the history of our country. The United States, being a country that mixes together various ethnicities and peoples, is an ideal place for our Catholic faith to thrive because the Church herself is made up of various ethnicities and peoples united together in one holy Catholic and apostolic Church,” Father Carter added.

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