Nativity of Our Lord Parish in Rhinelander recently welcomed a new parish priest, the Fr. Tom Thakadipuram, an India native and lifelong athlete who says he arrived full of energy, ready to “preserve Nativity’s legacy, and plant new seeds in the garden.”
Thakadipuram comes to Nativity following a six-month stay at Holy Family Catholic Church in Woodruff. Holy Family is a smaller congregation than Nativity of Our Lord and does not have a grade school, so Thakadipuram admits his new job will be markedly different than the old.
But he’s not worried.
Organizing and administrating are two of his strong points, he said. A former president of an Indian university, Thakadipuram’s not short on determination, either.
“I have great hope for our school, and I’m looking forward to working on the challenge we face as a community,” he said with a smile, seated in the parish’s administrative office, where he was in the process of moving books and other personal items.
Thakadipuram believes he has the tools to move Nativity forward in a big way. The parish owns a large tract of property on Stevens Street (near the Rhinelander Animal Shelter), and has long been planning to build a new complex that would house both the St. Mary’s and St. Joseph’s Catholic Church congregations (numbering between 5,000 and 6,000 parishioners in total), along with Nativity of Our Lord Catholic School. According to Nativity officials, they will soon begin another capital campaign to raise funds for the proposed new complex.
“It’s an exciting time to be involved with this congregation,” said Thakadipuram. “These people have a lot of love and ambition for their church and this community. It’s inspiring to me.”
Thakadipuram hails from the “Spice Coast” of India, growing up on a farm near the city of Kochin. He first came to the U.S. in 2002 to pursue a degree in the seminary, enrolling at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. He moved back to India in 2009 to serve as the president of a Catholic university before once again travelling stateside to take over the Holy Family parish as the church transitioned from a retiring priest to a new one. He said he’s know for awhile that he was the pick to succeed Fr. John Gerritts at Nativity of Our Lord.
“I was appointed to Nativity by Bishop Peter Christiansen, of the Diocese of Superior,” said Thakadipuram. “It was a very happy day when I learned I’d be coming here to northern Wisconsin. I’m still very excited about it.”
Thakadipuram said he was looking forward to getting involved in Rhinelander’s community outreach efforts, and will push the members of his congregation to do the same.
“There are areas of this community that could use the help,” he said. “When we have people that are looking to give back, sometimes all they need is to be pointed in the right direction. I can help do that.”
He’s not forgetting regular churchgoers, either, stating that he knows the parishioners “need a priest who’s available, approachable and amiable,” a description he plans to fulfill. Thakadipuram later described himself as “wanting to know and understand the needs of the faithful.”
True to those words, during his interview, Thakadipuram excused himself for several minutes to hear the confession of one of his parishioners. He said his top goal is to be there when needed.
“I didn’t come here to guard a museum, but to continue guarding life,” he said.
Thakadipuram is also well aware of the Rhinelander area’s small minority population. He said that he expects some in the community to question his heritage, and he’s prepared to answer all questions and doubts that may crop up.
“I have been navigating these waters for many years, so I don’t believe it be a problem,” said Thakadipuram. “Because of my position as a priest, I have been universally accepted in the community. Kids often ask me about where I grew up or why I look different, and I have no problem talking about it. I’m very proud of my heritage.”
While he doesn’t have family in the immediate area, Thakadipuram’s uncle recently retired as a professor of accounting from Loyola University of Chicago. He also has an aunt in Atlanta that he talks with regularly. He said he’s depending on the members of his congregation and the community to be his immediate family, though…a challenge that they have readily accepted.
“I’ve been invited to have dinner with so many parishioners already, and I’ve only been here a short while,” he said. “I feel very at home in this community.”
Thakadipuram said one of the aspects of the community that has impressed him the most is Rhinelander’s citizens’ love of connecting with each other. He believes its his job to foster that.
“I hope that I can help people to see things differently,” he said. “I want Nativity to be a light in the heart of this city.”