By Glenn Rutherford and Marnie McAllister, Record Staff Writers
The house at 1801 Harvard Drive fits right in with all the other Highlands homes near the campus of Bellarmine University.
There’s only one minor difference — in the front yard stands a statue of St. Francis of Assisi which also notes that the home is an “ashram” — a religious meeting place — for the Conventual Franciscan Friars who live there.
The home — the ashram — on Harvard Drive is the place from which three Franciscan friars from India live and work and continue to develop a new program they call the Kerala Kentuckiana Project. Kerala is the friars’ home state in India, and their project is part of the new evangelization — a concerted effort to reach out to those young people ages 24 to 35 who may have strayed from the church.
The friars themselves are a group of outgoing, warm and gregarious young men of God whose youthful appearances belie their ages. Father John Pozhathuparambil, 40, was the first to arrive, having come to Louisville in 2010. Father Leo Payyappilly, also 40, arrived a little more than a year later and this year, they were joined by Father Tony Vattaparambil, 34.
During an interview at their home and ashram last week, the trio was joined by Conventual Franciscan Father Sebastian Pendanathu, Provincial of St. Maximilian Kolbe Province, India. They welcome visitors to their home, and it serves as something of a base from which the trio live, work and reach out with their friendship and faith to share the word of God with as many young people in the city as they can reach.
The three are provided with both inspiration and direction by Father Adam Bunnell, special assistant for international and interfaith affairs to Bellarmine’s president, Dr. Joseph McGowan.
“Father Bunnell is really the impetus for our work here; he is our mentor,” explained Father Leo, whose face, like those of the other friars with whom he works, is most often covered with a warm and genuine smile.
“Father Bunnell came to India for my ordination,” said Father Leo. “He had this idea for having a young adult ministry here, a young adult ministry with a Franciscan flavor.”
Father John, as youthful a 40-year-old as anyone will ever encounter, noted that when the friars first came to Louisville, they lived and worked at St. Paul Church on Dixie Highway. It was under the guidance of Father Bunnell and Dr. Melanie-Prejean Sullivan, director of campus ministry at Bellarmine, that their move to Harvard Drive and the expansion of their outreach to young adults began to take shape.
The house on Harvard Drive is historically tied to Bellarmine University. It was the school’s first property — in fact, Monsignor Alfred Horrigan, founder of what was then Bellarmine College, enrolled the school’s first students at that house.
Father Bunnell was out of down during last week’s interview, but provided an email communique to answer questions about the new program, its goals and aspirations.
In addition to teaching at Bellarmine and helping with the school’s campus ministry as “special assistants,” the friars are determined that their ministry becomes “an outreach effort to young people and young adults throughout the area,” Father John said.
Father Leo noted that the ministry is in its infancy. “The first year we wanted to spend at Bellarmine, become familiar to students and young adults there. Now we want to move our ministry throughout Louisville, and then on to different parts of the country.”
Later this year, for instance, other Franciscan friars from India will arrive in this country and be assigned to Carey, Ohio, and Terre Haute, Ind., he explained.
The friars celebrate Masses in the Syro-Malabar Rite of their homeland on a regular basis in the undercroft of the Cathedral of the Assumption. And each year they conduct a week-long Indian celebration at Bellarmine, which they began three years ago. It’s all a challenge, they agreed.
“When I first came here to St. Luke in 2010, I asked Father Bunnell after a Mass ‘where are the young people?’ ” Father John said. “And he replied ‘that’s your job, to bring them in.’ ”
When the friars arrived in Louisville, Father John noted, “we said we would work very hard, and we have.”
“You just can’t sit in your office and expect people to come to you. Once people have seen our work and gained trust in us, the number of young people we can reach will grow,” he explained.
As the trio’s ministry has evolved, they’ve concentrated it in four areas, Father Tony said.
“First we try to meet with people one on one, to develop personal relationships,” he said. To do that, they often host dinners at the Harvard Drive ashram, and their smiling presence on campus is one that’s intended to be inviting to all — an open invitation to get to know them.
“We’ve found that when friendships are made one on one — when we use our Indian hospitality — then sometimes that person will bring a friend with them the
next time they come to dinner and prayer.”
Their second ministry, he said, involves the soup kitchen at the Franciscan Shelter House on Preston Street in downtown Louisville. They learned that the kitchen was closed on weekends, so one Saturday a month — with the help of as many as 50 young adult volunteers — they prepare a meal for the homeless and needy.
The third aspect of their outreach ministry involves retreats, and its fourth components are the small group meetings they hold on Harvard Drive.
“And we’re trying to extend our outreach to parishes once a month,” Father Tony said. “We try to bring our message to young people in the parishes on Sunday evenings.”
One of the major purposes of all their efforts, Father Bunnell said in his email, is to provide a ministry that “will touch those whom we are no longer feeding with a witness to the Gospel that is new.”
Bringing in the lost sheep is the way Father Tony puts it, and Father Bunnell doesn’t disagree with that assessment.
“The project,” he wrote, “is part of the new evangelization and it calls on the friars’ unique creativity to reach out to the young adults searching for a meaningful place for spirituality in their lives.”
“We’re looking for small victories; one at a time,” Father Tony said.
The next retreat will be Aug. 16-17 at Koomer Ridge Campground in the Red River Gorge. They’ve already filled that event, so they’ve scheduled a second retreat, also called “Finding God in Nature through the Spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi and Thomas Merton,” for September. To register for that event — or to meet the friars — call 594-4959 of reach Father John by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.