Father Anil Thomas, administrator of the parish of St. Peter Catholic Church in Pine Bluff, is described as a soft-spoken man who has already made a big impression on the local community since his arrival in August.

Father Anil Thomas, administrator of the parish of St. Peter Catholic Church in Pine Bluff, is described as a soft-spoken man who has already made a big impression on the local community since his arrival in August.

Thomas made news recently for leading a successful effort to raise more than $150,000 in seven days to keep St. Peter Catholic School open until at least May 2012.

The school has an enrollment of 64 students in grades pre-kindergarten through sixth.

Thomas attributes the successful fundraising campaign to the realization of the next step in God’s plan for Pine Bluff that also includes his appointment to St. Peter.

In addition to his duties at St. Peter, Thomas serves as administrator of St. Raphael Catholic Church in Pine Bluff and as sacramental minister of St. Justin Catholic Church in Star City.

“I am a member of the Society of the Divine Word, which is an international missionary society within the Catholic Church that began in Steyl, Holland, in 1875,” Thomas said. “I am originally from Kerala, India, and came to the United States in 2006 to serve as an associate priest in Jasper, Texas. I also served in Liberty and Livingston, Texas. The society has three provinces in the United States that are headquartered in Bay St. Louis, Miss.; Chicago and Los Angeles. I was assigned to the southern province, which includes Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.”

He was sent to Mexico to learn Spanish in 2006 because the priests he worked with in Texas didn’t know Spanish and he conducted the Spanish language mass, Thomas said.

“I was asked to take on the parish here in Pine Bluff in May and I began my work here in early August,” Thomas said.

“The money that the community raised will allow us to keep the school running up until May,” Thomas said. “We have achieved our goal. That was incredible. We have excellent teachers here at St. Peter who have been here between 25 and 30 years.”

The next goal is increasing student population.

“Since we already have the best teachers we need more enrollment. When we have this we will have more efficiency. We are looking at doing this (an enrollment drive) towards the end of January. What we need are more students. We have to see the reality of how many children are there.”

Goals for St. Peter Church

“I am also planning to start a capital campaign with the theme ‘Save History, Save St. Peter,’” Thomas said. “We will look to begin this within the seven months leading up to May 2012. The dream is to bring back the people who have stopped coming to this church. There are so many people who have gone away.”

Thomas said that current active parishioners on Sundays total 90 English speakers at 9 a.m. and 100 Spanish speakers at 11 a.m., with another 40 English speakers attending the 5 p.m. Sunday mass at St. Raphael and 30 people attending the 1 p.m. Sunday bilingual mass at St. Justin.

Community

“I told the people last Sunday that in order to serve the community we must first take care of our church and build it up,” Thomas said. “A church that is not active is a dead church. I think our life should become a living Gospel. The real test of our faith is not in the church. The real test of our faith is outside. I’m not going to be here for 1,000 years; maybe 100 if I am lucky. So, as a human being we should make whatever difference we can in our community. There is nothing wrong in trying.”

“When it comes to the matter of crime in our community we have to educate our youth,” Thomas said. “I think that once our young generation is educated and in good shape then our community in Pine Bluff will be in good shape. When we all work together the face of Pine Bluff will be different.”

A supporter weighs in

Dr. Erma Washington, a physician whose children are graduates of St. Peter and who is the great aunt of a current student, was also called instrumental in the recent school fundraising effort. She credits Thomas with energizing a base of supporters who had been downbeat about the school’s chances for survival past the end of the year.

“One of the things that I was impressed with about him [Thomas] was his openness to ideas when the Diocese of Little Rock came to us with a proposal to raise money,” Washington said. “We didn’t know where to begin. We were convinced that the school would close in December when we came into the Nov. 9th meeting with the Diocese and once we left, Father Thomas had charged us all up with the notion that this could be done.”

“Father Thomas was open to anything; was always positive and never negative,” Washington said. “I think he is always guided by God in working with the students. He has an energy and a belief that Pine Bluff and the students will be OK in the future even in this rough, tough economy. He is just a real breath of fresh air. He is the leader and we are just the followers.”

“What he accomplished in leading the effort to raise the money for the school was truly remarkable, truly a miracle,” Washington said.