The message could not be missed. From the red, white and blue streamers to the American flag on Father George Devanapalle's T-shirt, everyone could tell he was proud to be an American, and his parish was proud to have him.
The parishioners of SS. Joachim & Anne Church in Attica and Varysburg threw a party in the former parish gym to celebrate their administrator becoming an American citizen. The June 10 gathering had a picnic flavor with hot dogs, hamburgers and potato salad. A month later and one would swear it was the Fourth of July.
Father Devanapalle comes from Marlapalle, Andhra Pradesh, in the southeastern coast of India. Born into one of only 15 Catholic families in his village, he attended public school. It was there that his teachers thought he would make a good priest.
"The inspiration came from my teachers, elementary school teachers, they found my cousin and me being good boys," he explained. "By the time we went into seventh grade, they put that thought into the ears of the pastor. 'These are good boys. Why don't we send them to the seminary?' The seed was put in at that age."
He admits his thoughts weren't much on the priesthood at the time, but he agreed with his elders. "You obey. You do what parents say, what teachers say," he said.
After a few years of boarding school, he entered the seminary. While studying theology he realized that he did want to become a priest.
On April 20, 1995, Father Devanapalle was ordained for the Diocese of Kadapa, India. After serving in various positions in India for 10 years, his bishop singled him out to come to the Archdiocese of New York as an international priest. American dioceses have always relied on foreign-born priests to serve in the local parishes. American priests peaked in the 1940s and 1950s. In recent years, the Diocese of Buffalo has sought out priests from outside the States to serve its parishioners.
Father Devanapalle guesses his friendliness and adaptability made him a good choice to come to New York. "Bishop has reasons. He knows me. I am sociable and able to adjust to different people and the cultures," he said, adding it is a privilege to be chosen. "Many want to come, but the bishop chose me."
After serving in Kingston, 100 miles north of Manhattan, Father Devanapalle wanted a smaller, friendlier atmosphere. He came to Buffalo through Father Francis "Butch" Mazur, who has worked extensively with ecumenical and interfaith communities. The two had met while Father Mazur visited India.
"I was in India twice in his diocese. We met and we knew each other. Then he was stationed in the Archdiocese of New York. He was looking for a place not so large and something more personal so I invited him to come to Buffalo. George came to Buffalo and he fell in love with the place, snow and all," Father Mazur explained.
While in Kingston, Father Devanapalle only visited the New York Catholic Center once in eight years.
"The city was too much," he said. "I felt it was too crowded. I like this place better. It's a small diocese. I felt in the last diocese, we were not as close as the Diocese of Buffalo because of lots of priests. To meet priests here, it is close community."
He settles in so well, that becoming a United States citizen seemed like a natural step for Father Devanapalle.
"It took me two or three years to get set in this country. Now I am used to this culture and this weather. I feel very happy," he said. "I am ready to be here. Bloom wherever you are planted, I believe that."
He swore his oath of loyalty on Feb. 22, 2018. He said the process was quicker than expected, mostly due to the fact that he had paid his taxes, had no criminal record and "had a good employer."
Within four months he finished the process. After taking the 10-question citizenship test, he was asked to take the oath.
"Becoming a United States citizen should make one feel proud, grateful and hopeful," said Tammy Burry, head of the social committee, at the beginning of the picnic. "All of these things are characteristic of Father George. He is proud, proud of his parish family. He has more excitement for our parish family that at times, he just cannot contain it. You can feel it radiating out of him when he speaks. He is grateful. He loves his parish family and community. He has been so appreciative and supportive for everyone who has had a hand in making the church one community. And he is hopeful, hopeful for our future that people know that the Catholic Church is alive and we're doing great things."
SS. Joachim & Anne Parish is the result of a 2008 merger between St. Vincent Parish in Attica and St. Joseph Parish in Varysburg. Father Devanapalle has worked to unite the communities of the two worship sites. He revitalized the former St. Vincent School gym, cleaning it up, fixing the floors and tables. The parish now uses it for large gatherings and dinners. During Lent they sold nearly twice their usual numbers of fish frys.
"People are excited again to get involved," said Burry.
"He's a dynamic pastor for us," said Marian Nappo, who also serves on the Social Committee. "We were so blessed to have him. He goes out of his way to make sure people are comfortable. He has our parish alive and doing things together."
Nappo admits that it has taken some time for the members of their two worship sites to see themselves as one parish. "Father George stresses do little things and we'll come together," she said.
She thinks the 100 people who came together to celebrate Father Devanapalle proves that.