By Jennifer Mauro | Managing Editor
Sitting behind his desk at the rectory of St. Ann Parish, Browns Mills, Father Edwin J. Mathias unrolls a large scroll of paper. On it are lines indicating his family tree, tracing his Catholic heritage back to the 16th century – no small feat for a boy born in India and raised in Pakistan or the man who would serve both predominantly non-Christian countries as a priest.
“I try to be a priest who serves the people spiritually in one way and in other ways, brings the parishioners together as a community,” the pastor said.
That is a mission he has tried to accomplish during his 50 years in the priesthood.
“I never expected to reach this age. I thought if I reached 25, that would be good enough,” he said, smiling. “God is good.”
Father Mathias was born in 1942, in Mangalore, India. One of seven children, he received his education at Allahabad University and at Christ the King Seminary, Karachi, Pakistan. He joined the seminary when he was 15 and was ordained Jan. 8, 1967, at age 24.
“I thank very much my senior priests who were mentors. Not just one or two but a good number of them who were supportive,” he said, adding that not only was he an altar boy when he was younger, but out of that group of eight to 10 young boys, six became priests.
He spent three years in Pakistan after ordination, where priests of the diocese would meet informally once a month to discuss pastoral work and the changes taking place in the Church during the Second Vatican Council.
“We used to have nice discussions. It strengthened my vocation,” he said.
One of those changes was, he said, quoting Pope John XXIII, “open the windows and let the fresh air come in.”
“When I was ordained, I was living in non-Christian surroundings in Pakistan,” he said, explaining the work of the Church making itself present among non-Christians. He touted the faith-sharing among the different religions in the area.
“I had lovely Muslim and Hindu friends,” he said.
That work continued as he went on to serve 18 years in the Diocese of Bhopal, India, including in mission stations and time as a mission director in the city of Ashta, India.
With less than 2 percent of the population practicing Catholicism, Father Mathias said it was important to find ways to not only relate to the non-practicing population, but encourage and train fellow priests to do so as well.
“Many of the people have this notion that ‘Christians have come to convert us,’ and in a way, yes. But after the Second Vatican Council, we learned how not to create animosity,” he said, adding that he found evangelizing enjoyable.
One way of bringing others into the faith was through education, Father Mathias observed. In the Cathedral parish in Karachi, Pakistan, where Father Mathias grew up, a majority of the students in Catholic schools at the time were Muslim.
“In those days in Pakistan, a number of officials were educated in Catholic schools,” he said, citing the schools’ tendency for good education and discipline.
Change of Scenery
Though enjoying his work in India, by 1989, all of his family had left the country, the majority of whom was living in Canada.
Desiring to be in the same hemisphere as his family, Father Mathias came to the Trenton Diocese, serving as a parochial vicar in Our Lady of Sorrows Parish (now Our Lady of Sorrows-St. Anthony), Hamilton, and St. Joan of Arc Parish, Marlton.
“Going from having a Sunday congregation of six people in India to 800 or 900 at Mass in Our Lady of Sorrows … the Holy Spirit guided me,” he said with a smile.
Father Mathias was incardinated a priest of the Diocese Sept. 23, 1993. In 1995, he was named pastor in Browns Mills. On a diocesan level, Father Mathias served a three-year term on the diocesan Incardination Board from 1999 to 2002.
Father Mathias said that during his time in Browns Mills, he has made it a priority to build a community in the parish and beyond. The annual summer festival, for example, is one event that parishioners and non-parishioners alike look forward to. In addition, he works tirelessly to ensure young people are attending Mass, checking in on the progress of children enrolled in religious education programs, encouraging them to attend services with their parents and giving them roles in the Church.
“I was happy for the experience that I’ve had as a missionary and in an established parish,” he said of his time as a priest. “I try to reach out to people and that has been a great help to me.”