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Ministering to a World in Need of Reconciliation

By Julie Bourbon


If there were ever a time when we needed the charism of the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette — to spread the reconciling message of Christ to the poor — indeed it’s now, as the world grows ever more fractured and factionalized along cultural, economic, racial, and religious lines.


A message of reconciliation from our Weeping Mother of La Salette


The congregation was founded after the 1846 visitation of Our Lady — weeping, her face in her hands — to two children near Grenoble, France. She spoke the message of reconciliation and the importance of prayer, penance, and zeal for the word of God. “She asked the children to make this message known to all God’s people,” said Fr. Thomas Vellappallil, MS, director of the North American La Salette Mission Center in St. Louis, Missouri, a ministry of the Province of Mary, Mother of the Americas. “Reconciliation is particularly relevant today in our mission countries.”

The La Salettes are a congregation of 1,000 priests and brothers in 29 countries, with another approximately 450 women religious and the beginnings of a La Salette laity movement. The North American La Salette Province of the United States supports missions in Angola, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Haiti, India, Madagascar, Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia, the Philippines, and Tanzania.


There are eighty-five La Salette priests and brothers in the United States, including seven in St. Louis, who are all retired except for Fr. Thomas, who will turn sixty this June.


From India to the Philippines and then to the United States


Fr. Thomas Vellappallil, M S, is a native of Kerala, India, where he grew up with a solid devotion to the Blessed Mother. He recalled that most families in his Catholic community in the 1960s and ’70s were large — his with nine children — and had at least one priest or sister among them. This was an honor for them.


“That’s the kind of culture I grew up with. I got all the support from my family, parish, community, and teachers,” he said, noting that families are much smaller today, and parents are more reluctant to support a child entering religious life. “I was an altar boy. There was so much inspiration where I grew up.”


Fr. Thomas entered the seminary in Kerala after High School graduation, then took his Philosophy studies in India and his Theology in the Philippines, ultimately receiving a master’s in guidance and counseling and engaging in parish ministry. He was ordained in 1994 and came to the United States four years later. The La Salettes didn’t reach India until 1988; now, there are about sixty-five La Salette priests and at least thirty men in formation in India.


Once he began his ministry in the United States, Fr. Thomas worked in La Salette parishes in several places, including Texas, Florida, Arizona, Massachusetts, and Sulphur, Louisiana. The La Salettes have sixteen parishes across the South and New England — “many in places that could use some reconciliation,” he laughed. 


His multi-nation journey began as a member of the Indian Province serving in the Philippines. Then he became a member of the North American Province in 2005 and a U.S. citizen in 2010. He has been in St. Louis for thirteen years. Fr. Thomas appreciates the opportunity to visit countless parishes across the United States. He shares the La Salette charism while preaching about their many international mission ministries, preaching in English, Spanish, Tagalog, and his first language.


His ministry of making Mary’s message known


Fr. Thomas says: “Although I’m only there with this parish for one weekend, I’m not just going to preach. I’m establishing a relationship. I enjoy preaching for the missions, and it’s not easy to ask for monetary support, but I have seen such tremendous generosity from people in the United States.”


Fr. Thomas loves to talk about vocations in the parishes and dioceses where he is welcomed during his mission preaching, and vocations are one of his priorities. “We’ve hired a new National Vocation Director, an experienced laywoman, who works from our ministry center in Attleboro, Massachusetts.” He said: “The community has embraced her, which makes sense considering that another focus area is engaging more lay people. Given our diminishing numbers, this segues into another focus area: determining which ministries we can continue to manage. We are rightsizing/downsizing ministries as much as possible,” he said. “Our goal is that the laity will be able to take charge in the many areas we serve.”


While the La Salette Missionaries support missions internationally, Fr. Thomas is reluctant to distinguish between here and abroad. “The need is felt everywhere. Right here in our home country, we see issues to address, like homelessness,” he said. “There are many situations we, as Catholic Missionaries, can reach out to help. Often reconciliation needs appear, and we are inspired to face these challenges.”


Fr. Thomas was recently called back to India by his family at the end of March to preside at the Mass of Christian Burial for his beloved older brother, Jose Vellappallil, and to comfort his mother, seven siblings, and his brother’s wife and children. We hold them in our prayers at this time.


(Reprinted with permission of United States Catholic Mission Association [LINK: uscatholicmission.org], April 2023, pgs.