John Rieping/The Madera Tribune
Rev. Shaji Athipozhi shows off his Certificate of Naturalization. The Indian priest, who serves at St. Joachim Church, became a U.S. citizen on Dec. 18.
A week before Christmas, Rev. Shaji Athipozhi of St. Joachim Church joined more than 750 people, he estimates, in becoming U.S. citizens at the Fresno Convention Center.
“I have so much respect for the country, (and) the flag that represents it. So when it was time for me to do the oath (of allegiance to the U.S.) it was great,” he said, “because then it became official that I’m becoming a citizen and I felt happy and... really proud.”
Not that any friends were present, much to their chagrin.
“It was just me from here, because our priests were all busy … (and) I did not let any of my friends here in the office know about it,” he said. “I just didn’t want to bother anyone. But they were upset with me afterwards when they found out I had become a citizen like that.”
Athipozhi looks forward to voting and hopes applying for international visas will become “easier and faster.”
“For example if I have to go to a meeting in Italy for some reason, or to attend a course, which I did three years ago,” he said. “I had to go (twice) to the Italian embassy to get my visa ... It was very nerve wracking because I didn’t get the visa until the date before my departure for Italy.”
• • •
Ordained in January 2008, the local Catholic priest is a native of the state of Kerala in southern India where the apostle Thomas allegedly evangelized in the first century. The 2001 Indian census reported that Christians make up 19 percent of the state’s population, though the nation as a whole is overwhelmingly Hindu.
“A good number of Catholics live in that area,” said Athipozhi, who belongs to the Oblates of Saint Joseph, an international congregation of priests and brothers dedicated to serving Jesus in imitation of his foster father. The oblates have a formation house in Kerala.
“In 2008, our superiors decided to send me over here because of our shortage of priests here in California … Since then I have been in Bakersfield, Loomis... and finally I came to Madera five years ago,” he said.
Among other ministries, he serves as a Catholic chaplain for several groups, including the Kiwanis Club and Madera Police Department. The sense of welcome and belonging he felt as chaplain and his admiration for the nation motivated him to become a citizen.
“It’s a very beautiful community that we have (in Madera) ... You feel supported” as a priest, he said. “You feel as if people always consider you as part of their families and friends... That is something that I really like about our Madera community.”
He was surprised to hear a local law student praise his choice to officially immigrate despite the length of the process, which includes an interview, background check, and more. “He was telling me… it is such an inspiration for other people,” because they “might also think it’s possible to do what father did.”