Father Davis Chackaleckel, MSFS, the pastor of St. Stephen Catholic Community in Old Hickory, has always been attracted to the life of a missionary.
“I liked the kind of missionary adventure life,” said Father Chackaleckel, who marked the 40th anniversary of his ordination as a priest on Nov. 9.
As a teenager growing up in the city of Thrissur in the Indian state of Kerala, the center of the country’s Catholic population, Father Chackaleckel would read magazines from missionary orders. A priest from the Missionaries of St. Francis de Sales (also called the Fransalians) visited his high school and talked about the missionary life.
“I thought about trying it,” said Father Chackaleckel, who entered the Fransalians because of their missionary work, “and also they have an adventurer’s spirit.”
His early years as a priest were spent in India’s northeast corner near the borders with China and Myanmar.
There were very few Catholics in the region, and Father Chackaleckel’s work there focused on “spreading the faith and growing their faith,” he said.
The Missionaries of St. Francis de Sales serve in many of the parishes in the region, and have established parish schools, a minor seminary, “and we have a few colleges even.”
After serving as the rector of a seminary for his order in Kerala for five years, Father Chackaleckel accepted a new missionary assignment in 2001, this time serving in the Diocese of Nashville. Bishop Edward Kmiec had invited the Fransalians into the diocese.
“It’s a different kind of work, but it’s missionary just the same,” Father Chackaleckel said. “Pope Francis said the whole Church is missionary.”
Serving American Catholics as their pastor, “I feel so much satisfaction here because it’s maintaining the faith,” Father Chackaleckel said. “Those who come to church are very, very faithful. It challenges my faith too.”
His first assignment in Tennessee was as the administrator of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Dover, one of the smallest parishes in the Diocese of Nashville. Its previous pastor, Father Thomas Maurer, SDS, had died in a car wreck, and the diocese asked Father Chackaleckel to fill in until a more permanent solution could be found.
“They asked me to take it temporarily,” Father Chackaleckel said. “It ended up being six years.”
It was a good six years, he said, during which he earned a graduate degree in counseling. While balancing his work in the parish and his studies, Father Chackaleckel received support and help from Father Eric Fowlkes and Father Ed Steiner, who each served as pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Clarksville during that time.
In 2006, Bishop David Choby asked him to take on a bigger job as pastor of St. Catherine Church in Columbia.
While at St. Catherine, Father Davis helped the people strengthen their faith. “That became my mission in Columbia,” he said.
He established bible study groups, faith study groups, and other ministries in the parish, all serving that goal of strengthening people’s faith. “It was a great experience for me.”
Father Chackaleckel served at St. Catherine for 14 years before being named the new pastor at St. Stephen in the summer of 2020. He was formally installed as pastor of St. Stephen by Bishop J. Mark Spalding on Sunday, Nov. 22.
Father Chackaleckel has found similarities between St. Stephen and St. Catherine, as both are active parishes with many faith study opportunities and ministries, he noted.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown up some barriers between Father Chackaleckel and his new flock.
“I haven’t seen many of them because of COVID,” Father Chackaleckel said. “Many people are afraid to come to church. … Most of the seniors who are very active and contribute, they are the ones who can’t come.”
Because people are wearing masks, “I can’t see their faces,” Father Chackaleckel added. And with social distancing, “It is hard even to talk to them.”
“For priests, it is agonizing to go through that type of situation,” where they are unable to make a personal connection with their parishioners, Father Chackaleckel said. “It’s a new challenge.”
St. Stephen, like other parishes in the diocese, has tried to meet that challenge by livestreaming Masses, classes and other parish events.
The parish also has at least one Mass every weekday and two on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Fridays, to make it easier for senior citizens to attend Mass during the week rather than on Sundays, when the larger crowds might put them at greater risk of contracting the virus, he said.
“I am edified by the people who come every day,” Father Chackaleckel said.
After completing his degree in counseling, Father Chackaleckel became certified by the National Board for Certified Counselors and licensed. The skills he learned as a counselor help him as a pastor, he said. And Father Chackaleckel saw clients while pastor of St. Catherine.
Many of his clients in Columbia weren’t Catholic, but were people who wanted psycho-spiritual counseling, Father Chackaleckel said. “A lot of people are looking for that.”
Father Chackaleckel didn’t take payment for his services as a counselor. “I told them to make a donation to the parish.”
He has stopped taking clients until he gets situated at St. Stephen, he said.
A dream of his would be one day to have a spirituality and counseling center somewhere in the United States. “That will be in the hands of God who called me to serve Him!”