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February 1, 2009

A people person, just following the ‘Light’

By Dolores Madlener



Father Britto Berchmans cooks in the rectory kitchen at St. Nicholas, Evanston. He learned to “cook Indian” in America, out of necessity.Catholic New World/Karen Callaway

He is: Father Britto Berchmans, ordained a Salesian missionary in Madras, India, 1981. Incardinated as a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago in 2003. Master’s degrees from Marquette University in theology and journalism and a doctorate in communications from the University of Illinois at Champaign/ Urbana. Pastor, St. Nicholas Parish in Evanston.

Youth: “I grew up in a very close-knit family. There was a love of learning. From the time we were little we had this big view of the world, not just of the little place where we lived.” He is the second of seven children.

Parents: “My father was a professor for 40 years. He taught logic and world history at Jesuit University. Mom was very smart in her own right; a loving, wonderful woman. She planned to go to college, and then her parents got this marriage proposal from my dad’s side, so my grandmother and grandfather married her off.”

What about arranged marriages? “All my siblings have arranged marriages except my brother in Green Bay. If you look at marriage on a continuum basis, on the one hand you have ‘romance’ and on the other end you have ‘commitment.’ My culture is more on the commitment side. In America it is more on the romantic side. A healthy marriage is somewhere in between.”

Nurtured vocations: “From the time I was little my focus was on being a priest. My father had been in the seminary as a young man, but he came home. As an Indian my identity was determined by my Catholicism. We were first ‘Catholics’ and then everything else. By the time I was 13 and my brother was 11, we went to the Salesian junior seminary, like Quigley. We had a fantastic formation.”

Do you cook Indian? “Yes, there is no one to feed me in the rectory. I learned to cook Indian in America. When I arrived 24 years ago, I wrote home: ‘Send me recipes.’ Now all I need is the time to cook. When I was at St. Ann’s in Barrington, one of the items they auctioned at their fundraisers was a dinner by Father Britto. One year I raised $15,000 by cooking two Indian dinners for 20 people each. And I’ve done it at St. Nicholas too.”

Lonely? “I think loneliness is inevitable for everybody — even married people. It’s the human condition. Living alone in this rectory was a hard thing. I’ve gotten used to it. I’m surrounded by people morning ’til night, but I wish I had another priest.”

Coping: “Certainly through prayer — in my intimacy with the Lord, or it would be impossible. I have a best priest friend who lives in Peoria; my brother and his family in Green Bay and lots of wonderful friends.”

Becoming pastor: “I attended the new pastors’ course at Mundelein — very helpful — but then you learn by speaking to other priests. You have to be a people person. The more important thing is to be holy and prayerful because you are called to shepherd, not just to be a manager or CEO.”

Hobbies? “My ‘hobby’ is actually giving talks to engaged couples or young adults at parishes around the country on spiritual life, marriage, relationships. I love giving Lenten missions.”

American or Indian movies? “Indian movies are dealing with romance, running around a tree and fantasy. They cry a lot in Indian movies. I used to say to my mom, ‘In real life people are crying enough, why should they want to cry in movies?’ I love American comedies. Once I was on a plane and Robin Williams was in the inflight movie. I was cracking up so much people were turning around to see who this guy was. I also enjoy movies that uplift you, like ‘Amazing Grace.’”

Words to live by: “When I was ordained I came across the prayer of Cardinal Newman, ‘Lead Kindly Light,’ especially the words, ‘I do not ask to see the distant scene, one step enough for me.’ God has taken those words very seriously with me along my own spiritual journey.”