My first big trip was when I left Kerala, India to come to the United States. It might have been August 18th, 1971 that I left India (or around that date). Those days, the plane had a layover in Geneva, Switzerland. I also stopped at Fumachino Airport in Italy and stayed for a few days with one of Achenpappa’s benefactors, Signora Piratoni Edvige. They supported him from his time in the seminary. Their daughter also stayed in touch with Achenpappa after they passed away. I stayed with them, but didn’t know Italian and just knew a few words of English. They did bring someone that could speak a little English. I was able to attend a local mass in Italian and visited the St. James monastery. They collected around $220 for me to take to the U.S. I traveled from Italy to JFK Airport in New York - arriving August 21st, 1971.
I stayed one night in New York. Anna Sesselman and Mrs. Murphy were also benefactors of Achenpappa. They met me at JFK and picked me up. They had a sign that said John Mathew Vilayil so I would know who they were. I stayed at the Sesselman’s house for the evening. It was a small house - I saw a few cars in their driveway and thought they were rich! In India if you have three cars, you must be very rich. I was just thinking in the Indian way. They had me stay in their guest room and prepared a meal for me. They asked a lot of questions about Father Jacob. It had been a long day, so I went to sleep.
The following day, Mrs. Murphy picked me up and took me to see Chester J. Murphy. They lived in Nutley, New Jersey. Chester gave me $15 when I visited him. I may have given him some art from India that I had brought with me. I then went back to the Sesselman’s house and then came to Detroit from New York.
Father Bartholemew Paytas was my sponsor to enroll in St. Louis University. He was a Byzantinian Catholic priest that was stationed in Detroit. He picked me up from the airport on a Saturday and took me to his rectory. This priest was not a benefactor to Father Jacob and was a stranger to me, but he had visited Kerala a few times and was a guest of the Archbishop Mar Gregorios. Due to some of the Archbishop’s connections, he was able to ask Father Paytas to sponsor me. The Archbishop knew of our family’s struggles and was connected to my father and brother priests and wanted to help our family. We were asked to send a copy of the sponsorship letter. I had to write that I would not be a public charge in the U.S. He notarized the sponsorship papers and sent it to me and that paved the way for me to get my U.S. visa. In signing the letter, he was agreeing to take care of my educational needs, but my family told Father Paytas that we would not need that support once I got settled in the U.S. I brought gifts for him as well and had a meal with him. On Sunday, I was able to attend a Byzantinian church mass. They also did a collection for me at the church and I got around $15.
After mass, they gathered in a room in the church/rectory and were drinking whiskey. They offered me the alcohol, but I didn’t drink anything. A few men did give a few dollars. From Detroit, I flew to Louisville, Kentucky. Father Jacob’s benefactor in Louisville, Father Joseph Hayden, met me at the airport and took me to his rectory and I stayed with him for a night. I had brought one piece of luggage but it broke down into pieces on this leg of the trip. Thankfully I didn’t lose any of my possessions. I got to visit Father Hayden’s brother Leo Hayden. He had a daughter who was around 6 years old and a wife. We visited with his family and he gave me one his suitcases. I still have that suitcase with me - it is still intact and I never used it again after that trip from Louisville to Saint Louis. I use it to store some things that I brought from India from that first trip. Father Hayden also gave me some funds to help me get settled Saint Louis. When I was a student, I remember him sending me money at different points as well.
I flew to the St. Louis airport from Louisville and the university sent a van to pick me up. I was able to live in a dorm that was for students that had traveled. It wasn’t a permanent place to live, but I was able to stay there 2-3 days. When I arrived there, I did ask if there were any Indian people I could meet.
Overall, I was excited on this trip, but also very nervous. I did have faith in God that everything would be okay. I came to America to study and didn’t have much money. But, I believed that God would help me find a way.