MYRTLE BEACH—Father Norbert Mendonca recently spent his lunch hour darting between tables at the Sea Captain’s House restaurant, urging his family members to try local seafood specialties such as she-crab soup.
The setting—a historic restaurant in a tourist town in South Carolina—was almost unheard of in his life a year ago, when he was serving in his home country of Pakistan.
For 25 years, Father Mendonca ministered with dedication in the Archdiocese of Karachi and rarely worked outside the borders of his home country.
On the anniversary of his ordination, Dec. 8, he decided it was time for a change.
The priest wanted to move to North America to be closer to his mother and four siblings, who emigrated to Toronto, Canada, more than 15 years ago. He said he petitioned his bishop to let him move, and then started the search for a parish.
It led him to St. Andrew Church in Myrtle Beach, where he was appointed parochial vicar in February.
On Aug. 30, more than 240 people turned out for a Mass celebrated by Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone and a catered luncheon to honor Father Mendonca’s 25th jubilee.
“It was incredible to see all those people — parishioners, the Knights of Columbus, family and friends,” the priest said. “This place has been so very welcoming to me. I have no words to describe how I feel.”
Father Mendonca discovered his vocation when he was about 14 years old, and said it was largely sparked by the devotion and faith of his parents, Mary Mendonca and the late Louis Bernard Mendonca.
He studied at seminaries in Karachi and began his life as a priest in 1989. Over the years, Father Mendonca has served as associate pastor and pastor at six Karachi parishes and as principal and administrator at five Catholic high schools in the city. He was also on the Karachi Catholic Board of Education and was an editorial consultant for The Christian Voice, an English Catholic newspaper.
Vocations run in the Mendonca family. For 16 years, Father Norbert’s younger brother, Father Johnny Mendonca, has been a priest in the Diocese of Rockville Centre on Long Island, which is Bishop Guglielmone’s home diocese.
When he learned his brother wanted to come to the United States, Father Johnny introduced Father Norbert to Bishop Guglielmone, who invited him to serve in the Diocese of Charleston.
Father Mendonca said he is amazed by the welcome he’s received at the large Myrtle Beach parish, which serves permanent residents and a huge yearly influx of summer tourists and winter “snowbirds.”
He assists Father James LeBlanc, the pastor, by celebrating Mass and working with parishioners. He particularly enjoys visiting the sick in area hospitals and nursing homes three days a week.
“It’s a special privilege,” he said. “It has really helped me to feel I am bringing God’s healing and the love of Jesus to people in Myrtle Beach.”
There are some notable differences between the Catholic experience in Pakistan and here. Because Pakistani culture in general is much more conservative than in the U.S., Father Mendonca said the Church there doesn’t often confront issues such as same-sex marriage or abortion. What it does struggle with is safety. Christian churches all too often have been targets for violence in recent years.
“In Pakistan, we have religious freedom to a degree,” he said. “We can worship but we have to do so with security guards or volunteer guards guarding our churches, because we have had to deal with suicide bombers and other attackers. Here you have a freedom to worship in safety and without worry. It’s a freedom not many people here realize you have, but I appreciate it.”
Father Mendonca is also thankful that he is closer to his brothers and in-laws, nieces and nephews, and especially his mother.
Mary Mendonca, meanwhile, could hardly stop smiling as she sat outside and watched the ocean after the celebratory family meal.
“To see so many people come out to honor my son, and to have him serving as a priest for so long is an amazing thing,” she said. “I thank God all the time for what He has given.”