FLORAL PARK — A group of Indian Americans gathered in the office of Our Lady of the Snows Church to meet with their pastor, Father Kevin McBrien, to plan the parish’s celebration of the feast of St. Alphonsa of the Immaculate Conception.
But the talk that evening at the church in leafy Floral Park, where New York City borders Long Island, was about more than the procession they were planning to honor India’s first Catholic saint on July 16.
The parishioners also reflected on how grateful they felt to be living in the U.S., a country where 63% of the population is Christian — including 23% Catholic and 48% Protestant — and how it was a far cry from India. While there are 20 million Catholics in India, that number represents less than 2% of the country’s 1.4 billion population.
Our Lady of the Snows has 540 Indian American families in the parish, representing 40% of the congregation. Father Robert Ambalathingal, the Coordinator of Ministry of the Indian Latin Rite said he estimates there are more than 1,000 Indian American parishioners in the diocese.
“We feel more at home here, this is true,” said Deacon Timothy Gladson, who came to the U.S. from Kerala, a state in southwest India, in 1995, and was ordained a permanent deacon in May. He came to the meeting with his wife Bindu, a faith formation teacher.
In the old country, they were outnumbered, and while many of them said they did not personally face religious persecution, they were always aware that India is not a Christian nation.
According to the Pew Research Center, the vast majority of Indians are Hindu, nearly 80%, and dominate the country’s culture. India’s Muslim population, at 14.2%, also outnumbers Catholics.
While India’s constitution prohibits religious discrimination, Indians nonetheless reported many instances of restrictions interfering with their religious freedom. And according to a 2015 report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, there were at least six states in India that have laws on the books restricting proselytizing. Those laws have been used to intimidate Christians and Muslims, the commission found.
Many Indian Catholics left the country and came to the U.S. According to aapidata.com, there were 4.4 million Indian Americans in the U.S. in 2021 and they accounted for 23% of all South Asians living here.
Many of the Indian immigrants who came to New York settled in Floral Park, attracted by its suburban-like atmosphere.
“The initial population that came were either some people who are in education, or people who are in the health care industry,” Deacon Gladson explained. “There were a few families who came here and then everybody followed. So they started living here and then they started going to Our Lady of the Snows.”
Paul Panakal came here in 1987, bringing his deep Catholic faith with him. He lives near Our Lady of the Snows. “In India, many of us lived right near the church, next door in some cases,” he recalled. “So when you come here, the first thing you ask when you are looking at places to live is, ‘Is it near a church?’ ”
Jose Nedukalle and his wife Mary came to Floral Park even earlier than that, in the mid-1970s. “We love this church,” he said.
Today, the Indian American population at Our Lady of the Snows is sizable enough for the church to celebrate Mass in Malayalam, the language spoken in Kerala, every Sunday at 5:30 p.m.
The parish recently gathered together for the feast of St. Alphonsa, a grand celebration that attracts hundreds of people and features a procession. St. Alphonsa, who was born in 1910 and became a nun and an education advocate, died in 1946. She was canonized in 2008, becoming the first Indian to be declared a saint. Her feast day is July 28, and the parish celebrated on the 16th.
“It is always a beautiful day when we pay tribute to her,” said Bindu Gladson, who added that the feast instills pride in the Indian American community.