New pastor brings inclusiveness, care to changing community

David Briggs
Father Pudota serves congregations at Tomales’ Church of the Assumption and Marshall’s St. Helen’s.

On a cold Monday morning below an overcast sky in Tomales, the walls of the historic Church of Assumption blur into the dreary clime. Perhaps the only thing less colorful is Reverend Shouraiah Pudota’s monotone delivery of the 8 a.m. service to a pious weekday congregation of three. It could be mistaken as a deficiency in charisma, but his minimalist Mass marks a deep faith in Catholicism and the priesthood, which he has demonstrated in multilingual and outreach services spanning more than 30 years and three continents. 

“My approach is, first of all, a spiritual union with God,” said Father Pudota, who adopts a lively tone in conversation. “I am more meditative and contemplative at [Mass]. It’s not about me, [but] about God himself. When people really begin to feel the presence of God, then that is exciting and a happy experience for me.” 

Pudota, the church’s newly appointed 59-year-old pastor, first became enamored of the Catholic tradition as a young boy growing up in a 100-family Catholic enclave in the predominantly Hindu Indian delta city of Patareddypalem. His devout parents often spoke highly of the Irish- and Italian-Catholic missionary priests that assisted the community. His father, a middle-class rice and peanut farmer, allowed him to pursue medicine or engineering, but Pudota was inspired by his parents’ beliefs and decided, in 11th grade, to make a 300-mile journey to a seminary in Hydrabad and commence his studies for the priesthood. After 10 years of intense scholarship, he was ordained as an archdiocesan priest in 1979.  “I would have become twice a doctor,” Pudota, a small man at 5’5’’, said. “I never looked back.” 

After serving at the local Diocese of Guntur for a decade and receiving Masters degrees in theology and sociology, a group of Indian nuns working in Buenos Aires told him about openings there and suggested that he apply for reassignment. In 1989, with no knowledge of the Spanish language or Latin culture, he flew across two oceans to become the first priest to leave his diocese to pursue missionary work abroad. 

“In India, we don’t hear anything about Spanish,” said Pudota, who speaks seven other languages, including English, Italian, Portuguese, his native Telegu and three other Indian dialects. “I learned by studying myself and interacting with the people. To learn a language is not only just to speak, but you learn their history, their culture, their traditions, their life. That is really challenging.” 

Pudota loves a challenge. He not only successfully learned the language but also initiated community services for the Catholic and non-Catholic community alike and established a Catholic middle school, which he led as principal. 

“I believe in hard work,” Pudota said. “Where there is no sacrifice, there is no gain. Life is a happy struggle.” 

In recognition of his accomplishments, the County of Montansa awarded him a community development award. 

In 2002, Pudota’s father passed, and the difficult transitional period led him to request an assignment in California, where his cousin was working as a computer engineer near Fremont. In 2003, he decided to leave Buenos Aires and accept a position as a pastor near Salt Lake City. Soon after he arrived, Pudota received a letter from Monsenor Juan Horacio Suarez, his bishop in Argentina. 

“I want to thank you for your priestly ministry here in Argentina,” Suarez wrote. “I marvel at the way you have adapted to our Argentine culture and traditions in serving God’s holy people. A priest is a ‘point of reference’ for the people … and a ‘support’ for all those who are weak. This, I am happy to say, you have done extremely well.” 

Pudota takes great pleasure in building parish communities and insists that communicating with his congregants outside Mass and promoting ministries is key to that process. In the desolate community of Wendover, Utah, just off Interstate 80, another superior, who must remain anonymous due to the secretive nature of church correspondence, acknowledged his knack for uniting a divisive parish through outreach and called him “a true reconciler for the good of the church.” 

After four years in Utah, Pudota relocated to the Bay Area to join Archbishop George Niederauer, with whom he had previously worked in the Salt Lake City area, and assumed a pastoral role at Church of the Epiphany in the Mission District. There he relieved two priests that split time catering to English and Spanish congregants; he spent four years in San Francisco, but another challenge called.

Father Robert White had recently announced his retirement from service, and Assumption needed a bilingual priest who could engage the Spanish-speaking population. Bishop Niederauer offered him the assignment. 

“I respond to my faith. There’s the need of the church and the need of the people,” Pudota said. “If there’s need, we are there. That is our faith. Faith is not a convenience. Faith is a challenge.” 

So Pudota packed his bags again and headed, sight unseen, to Tomales. “I drove by myself and it was really a great place, no doubt about that. But I can see it is more isolated,” Pudota said. “Not many people around. It’s a big challenge.” 

The expansive ranching area that the church serves means many of the potential 250 parish families live a good distance from each other and their place of worship, and a passive attitude toward the church has become the norm. Pudota hopes to unite the entire Catholic community by making Assumption an accessible and frequented destination with offerings beyond Mass. 

In typical Pudota fashion, he has pulled up his sleeves and begun to make that plan a reality in a little over a month and a half of service. He has spearheaded an outreach donation program for those in need that provides money for things like bicycle repairs or gasoline to those who might otherwise have difficulty attending church. He has visited Catholic families who are not yet members of the parish, the lonely, the sick, the grieving and people in crisis, and encouraged them to come to Assumption for assistance. He has also begun brainstorming organizations and activities, such as the Knights of Columbus and Eucharistic Ministry, that might generate interest and add families to the 50 or so that already attend. 

To engage Spanish speakers, he recruited a bilingual secretary, Margarita Gomez, who can advise potential Hispanic parishioners when Pudota is away from his desk. He is also considering beginning a religious group dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, which has deep devotion among Hispanics. “It is high time that [Hispanics] can really have their community in [Assumption],” Pudota said. “It takes awhile. We can see the trend, but still it needs to be more clear.” 

Pudota also believes that historical preservation of the 151-year-old church, which used to be served by a pastor who rode on horseback from Healdsburg, will help maintain older parishioners as well as attract new ones. He has begun efforts to preserve an old water tower and bell and to repaint the church and rectory. 

Although not a member of the parish, longtime Tomales resident Beth Keolker lights candles there and has appreciated his work. “He seems to be a mover and a shaker,” she said. “The church is being revealed in all its beauty. I think he’s inspired people to care for their church even more than they have.”   

Despite all his current projects, Pudota does not enjoy idling at the end of a long, tiring day. “Time is precious,” he said. “My relaxing is my hard work. Imagine something that’s not there and do something creative. God has created us with his own imagination. When you do hard work, you grow in faith and in union with God. When you are given hands to work, when you are given a heart to love, why don’t you put your hands to work and your heart to love?”