By Bill Brewer
Six months after devastating wildfires wreaked havoc on his parish and parishioners, the mood at St. Mary in Gatlinburg was considerably more celebratory May 24 as the parishioners joined together to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Father Antony Punnackal’s ordination to the priesthood.
Father Punnackal, CMI, who has served as St. Mary pastor since 2014, was the principal celebrant at a Mass to mark the anniversary.
Concelebrants were Father David Boettner, Father Joseph Thomas, CMI, and more than a dozen other priests. Bishop Richard F. Stika and Cardinal Justin Rigali were in choir at the Mass. Bishop Stika delivered the homily and Cardinal Rigali also offered remarks. Father David Carter, rector of the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga, served as master of ceremonies. Deacon Sean Smith, Diocese of Knoxville chancellor, served as deacon of the Word, and Deacon Al Forsythe, diocesan director of youth ministry, served as deacon of the Eucharist.
To begin the Mass, Father Punnackal said, “The almighty Father chose me and anointed me to be his minister. For the past 25 years I’ve been blessed to serve God and to serve God’s people. On this day, when we are gathered here on this altar, to offer in thanksgiving for this 25-year jubilee of celebrating Mass, I ask the Lord to give us strength.”
Strength from God indeed has been needed by the parish, which found itself at the center of wind-fueled wildfires that swept through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and into Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and surrounding areas on Nov. 28. The church was spared, although flames spread to within 300 yards of the building that sits near the center of downtown. Some adjacent buildings burned to the ground.
However, some parishioners weren’t as fortunate; they lost their homes and all their belongings.
But as rebuilding continues and lives are put back together again, St. Mary parishioners took time to celebrate Mass with the priest who led them through the disaster.
Bishop Stika, during his homily, noted Father Punnackal’s resolve in the face of disaster.
“Following the fires last November, we were concerned about Father Antony. We didn’t know where he disappeared to. We knew they were closing the area, and we heard the fires got close, to within 300 yards of the church. We eventually found Father Antony, who so wanted to get back and assess what was going on in his community. Within a few days, he contacted every family in the parish directory to see if everyone was OK, to see what he could do, to see what their needs were. Isn’t that a true pastor? … In everything he does, I see his pastoral zeal, his true missionary spirit,” the bishop said.
Father Punnackal on Nov. 28 was forced to close St. Mary and, like the entire population of Gatlinburg, had to evacuate outside of town.
The city was closed for days.
But within days of the fire, Father Punnackal worked with Bishop Stika and Father Boettner, rector of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus and a vicar general for the diocese, in establishing a fund to assist St. Mary parishioners affected by the fires.
Bishop Stika called Father Punnackal a missionary priest in the truest sense of the word. The priest of the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate order is a native of India who emigrated to the United States to serve his priestly vocation. Prior to joining the Diocese of Knoxville at Bishop Stika’s request, Father Punnackal served as a pastor for several years in the Diocese of Amarillo in Texas.
“We commemorate Father Antony’s celebration of his silver jubilee this year. But we also celebrate priesthood, and we celebrate mission.
The word Mass means to be missioned, to be sent forth. Truly, in the life of a priest, or a deacon, or anyone who would incorporate into their hearts the message of Jesus himself, we are all called to be missionaries wherever we find ourselves; to preach about Jesus, and to share Jesus, and to share our faith that gives us life, especially a life that is centered on God, centered on faith,” Bishop Stika said.
“Think of all the different characters in the Old Testament and the New Testament, people that you would at least expect them to be: true disciples, or followers, or prophets. People like Peter and the other apostles. They never knew they would be sent forth to places other than where they were comfortable being. It shows that so often in life we might have a plan for ourselves, but as the adage goes, if you want to make God laugh, tell him what your plans are for the rest of your life,” the bishop added.
Bishop Stika asked how many in the congregation were natives of Gatlinburg. A few raised their hands, and the bishop reminded them that they were in the minority.
In addition to being home for many people who have relocated from other parts of the country, St. Mary’s sees its attendance swell with visitors during the peak tourism times of the year.
“I’m sure Father Antony never thought 25 years ago that he would be in Gatlinburg, Tenn. To tell you the truth, neither did I,” the bishop said, drawing laughs, before noting that Cardinal Rigali was established in his Vatican role serving St. John Paul II in Rome, but the pope asked him to go to St. Louis to serve as archbishop and then to Philadelphia as archbishop. The cardinal, now retired, resides in the Diocese of Knoxville.
“And so many of my brother priests are from other parts of the country and other parts of the world. Again, that just shows when our hearts are open to God, the spirit of the Lord is indeed upon us. And the Holy Spirit can put us in places and situations that we least expect to be. We’re here because we are people of faith. The spirit of the Lord is indeed upon us,” Bishop Stika said.
In his remarks, Cardinal Rigali pointed out the love and support Father Punnackal received during his anniversary Mass. A dinner in his honor was put on by parishioners and held at the Gatlinburg Convention Center, which is next door to the church.
“Our ceremony here is filled with so many aspects of wonderful joy. One of those is the fact of the presence of so many parishioners with Father Antony and with Bishop Stika, and that so many priests are able to join in this celebration. … This is such a beautiful thing, and it is all within the context of the sacred priesthood,” said Cardinal Rigali, who cited sacred Scripture, which quotes Jesus speaking to the apostles, saying, “It was not you who chose me, but it was I who chose you.”
“It’s the mystery of the vocation to the priesthood. But Jesus is very clear, Father Antony, that you are here today because it was Jesus who chose you,” Cardinal Rigali said.
Bishop Stika described Father Punnackal as the perfect example of someone whose life is rooted in the Lord. He is a missionary priest who traveled to the United States from India to serve God and preach the teachings of Jesus. His ministry took him to Texas and Tennessee, where he has served as pastor at St. Alphonsus Parish in Crossville and now as pastor of St. Mary.
Bishop Stika recalled that Father Punnackal, who has a slight build, interviewed to join the Diocese of Knoxville, and when the bishop asked the young priest what his interests were, he replied “basketball” and “volleyball.” The bishop, taken aback at the time, still thinks of the unexpected answer in wonderment given Father Punnackal’s average size.
“Antony opened his heart to have a true missionary experience, to listen to the Lord, and to follow,” Bishop Stika said, adding that the Holy Spirit was at work when Father Punnackal accepted his invitation to join the Church in East Tennessee and begin serving its people, first at St. Alphonsus Parish in Crossville, where he loved the people and “served with distinction,” and now in Gatlinburg.
“I don’t think he considers himself just a priest from India who is serving in Gatlinburg. I know he believes he’s the priest of St. Mary Parish in Gatlinburg serving the people of God,” the bishop said.
“Father Antony, congratulations on your 25th anniversary. May you have many more years. And may you, the good people who love, and respect, and care for him, continue to do so, because a priest working with people and people working with a priest build what we call a community of faith.”
“He loves it here,” Bishop Stika told the Gatlinburg congregation, adding with a grin, “I hope you all save enough money to put in a basketball court.”