BALLINGER — Catholic worship services began in Ballinger around 1895 and soon there was a need for a permanent church building. After quarrying native rock locally, the St. Mary Star of The Sea Catholic Church was constructed and fell under the pastorate of J.B. Frigon. The construction was not completed until 1910. The church, located on North Sixth Street, towers over the nearby homes as a beacon of solace and fellowship.
The church is currently led by Pastor Yesuratnam Mulakaleti. “Father Yesu” as he is fondly referred to, is a native of India who has been in the United States since 2007 and has led the St. Mary Star Of The Sea congregation since July 25, 2016. Father Yesu was the pastor in Eden before coming to Ballinger.
Father Yesu and the church are under the Diocese of San Angelo. The diocese covers a large expanse, both in land and in people. The area it covers is approximately 37,000 square miles and includes 800,000 Catholics, which represent a demographic of 14.7 percent of all people in that area. The St. Mary’s congregation currently has approximately three hundred families that participate regularly in mass and other services. There was another Catholic church, St. Joseph’s, that was incorporated into St. Mary’s in 1980. The first combined worship service was on New Year’s Day, 1981.
Immediately after sitting down with Father Yesu it becomes clear that he genuinely cares about the parishioners, his staff, the town of Ballinger and humanity in general. Born a catholic, he decided to become a priest at “19 1/2years old.” His professors and classmates in India encouraged him to become a magistrate but he says God had different plans.
“I got inspired that God was calling me,” Yesu said. He went on to speak about the decision to become a priest. “It was a real challenge. You have to make sacrifices and every day you listen to God.”
Father Yesu is a humble man who leads by faith and says that he sees the church’s role as outreach.
“It’s not about one race or one country or one tribe, the church is for all nations,”Yesu said. “God’s plans are mysterious and every day that we listen to his voice is a grace-filled day. That is why the priests bless us with open arms, open for all peoples.”
His faith is strong and unflinching in today’s world that is filled with everyone seemingly running to stand still.
“I want this town to receive God’s blessing,” Yesu said. “We need to give our time to God because His time is important and we need to realize that and give Him our time.”
As he leads his congregation, he says that his true nature is serving others, “I’m here to serve people, for the needs of people.” His influence has been the inspiration for several orphans that he once cared for in India to join the clergy. Four of the boys became priests and three girls became nuns.
“We need to have confidence in one’s self,” Yesu said. “We need to release our control and let God control our life. We can’t control our lives in competition with God.“
Father Yesu has a faithful staff that helps him run and organize everything that the church is involved with, from their fundraising events to their food pantry to the daily operation that is required to keep the church running smoothly.
It is readily apparent to anyone who visits the church or parish building that Father Yesu holds a special place in the hearts of the members of the congregation.
Frank Cantu, a volunteer at the church, speaks of Father Yesu fondly.
“He makes it a point to remember everyone’s name,” Cantu said. “Whenever he meets new people, whether at church or a wedding or some other function, Father Yesu makes it a point to remember their names. He says that it’s like seeing the face of God.”
No matter who you speak to about Father Yesu, they all say the same thing, “He’s a strong, faithful man, “ “He cares about us,” “He’s benevolent.” The respect the parishioners have for him is endless.
While the church has undergone changes over the last 108 years, Rev. David Workman, the deacon at St. Mary’s who joined the congregation in 1972, says that one of the most important events in the church’s history was physical rather than spiritual: the addition of air conditioning in 1976.
“There was some work being done in San Angelo and some old buildings were coming down for construction of the then-new Houston Harte expressway.,” Workman said. “We had the opportunity to get some used air conditioners for the church so we gathered several volunteers, went and got the air conditioner units and then brought them back here and installed them.”
There is no doubt that the addition of air conditioning to a church in the middle of West Texas was truly a blessing. Rev. Workman points out that the opportunities to make great things happen for the church never ends.
“Every generation has their opportunity to do something for the church and they all do their share,” Workman said.
Cantu added, “The doors to the church, to my knowledge, have never been locked. People are always welcome here.”
There are 19 ministries within the church that afford parishioners the opportunity to help in a variety of ways. One of the recent highlights for the church was the dedication of the semi-perpetual adoration chapel on Oct. 2, 2017. Bishop Michael Sis is the leader of the Diocese of San Angelo and came to Ballinger to dedicate the chapel himself. The bishop also visited Ballinger in June of this year. Father Yesu’s face lights up as he talks about the bishop’s visit.
“It was a special day full of blessings,” Yesu said. “People came from miles around to see him. We had a procession through the town and the bishop blessed the town.”
St. Mary Star of The Sea has a long history in Ballinger and it will continue far into the future under the solid guidance of Father Yesu.
“We search with our spirit,” Yesu said. “Faith brings peace. We are here for everyone.”
The doors at St. Mary’s are always open.