Mary Nadayil, who immigrated from India to the United States two decades ago, watches her children struggle between two cultures and recognizes that she cannot push them into their Indian heritage.
So when she looks down at the pew beside her in church on Sundays and sees her 11-year-old son in a Mass that follows the traditions of her homeland, it gives her a sense of pride.
"I saw my children singing in my own language. That made me so happy," she said.
The Syro Malabar church, Our Lady of Health, attracts hundreds of Indian Catholics from a three-county area in South Florida, and is one of eight such parishes in the United States. A place of familiar faith, Our Lady of Health also provides a welcome community for a growing group of immigrants.
"It's nice to have our own church, our own priest. And it's nice to get together our own people," Nadayil said.
Syro Malabars, who follow one of the five Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church, trace their history to the beginning of Catholicism. St. Thomas the Apostle is said to have traveled to India in A.D. 52 converting Hindus to Christianity, particularly in the southern state of Kerala, now a lush tourist destination that bills itself as "God's own country."
Most of the approximately 3.5 million Syro Malabars worldwide are in India, with the majority in Kerala, said the Rev. Roy Joseph Kaduppil, chancellor of the St. Thomas Diocese of Chicago. That is a tiny fraction of the country's nearly 1.1 billion people, more than three-quarters of whom are Hindu. But while religious conflict between Hindus and Muslims is more prevalent in other parts of India, Kerala tends to be a peaceful, tolerant state, Kaduppil said.
The only Syro Malabar diocese outside of India was founded in Chicago in 2001, after the Vatican determined there was enough demand in North America. The leader of the diocese, the Most Rev. Jacob Angadiath, oversees parishes in Illinois, Texas, New York, California, Pennsylvania, Florida and Toronto, representing about 100,000 people.
The Coral Springs parish, about 11 miles northwest of Fort Lauderdale, started as a mission in 1986, reaching out to Indian transplants in South Florida. Most families belonged to other Roman Catholic parishes but came together periodically for worship.
"They were isolated in a strange place," said the Rev. John Melepuram, pastor of Our Lady of Health. "They feel they're strong when they come together."
The Syro Malabar service is more ceremonial than a traditional Roman Catholic Mass, with more incense and singing. Women in colorful saris fill the pews at the Coral Springs church on Sundays, songs ring out in Malayalam, and worshipers follow the Mass in a misselette that features English and Malayalam on facing pages.
The community focuses on family, passing down language, faith and traditions to children who are growing up in a very different culture. While this is reinforced by a growing Sunday school program that runs through high school, parents said it was their duty to pass down traditions.
"I have a responsibility to pass it on to my children," parishioner Sunny Thomas said of the faith he learned from his parents. "When they go back to India, they see the same liturgy."
Melepuram, an energetic man whose cell phone conversations flip between English and Malayalam, is a Kerala native who moved to Florida in December after spending nearly a decade in North Dakota, Michigan and Texas. In Dallas, he was pastor of the first U.S. mission to become an independent parish, and he has since watched others follow suit.
"They wanted to have a community here," he said. "They wanted to come together and celebrate the liturgy in their own tradition."
U.S. worshipers sometimes exhibit "a kind of religious indifference" that is rare in a country where religion can be a fervent and divisive force, Kaduppil said.
"In India, we see very rarely someone with religious indifference," he said. "We have to safeguard that liturgy, that spirituality . . . even though we have migrated to another place for financial reasons or other reasons."
The desire to start a new church in South Florida grew with the Indian community. With help from the Archdiocese of Miami, the community bought a former Baptist church in this leafy community, renovated the building and formally established the parish in May.
Since then, residents of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties have joined, some driving 11/2 hours to attend services, Melepuram said.
In an already culturally diverse region, Our Lady of Health simply adds another flavor, some parishioners said.
"When you look at the culture here, it's not unique. It's a hodgepodge of many cultures. We can add to the hodgepodge," said Kakkanattu Joseph, who helped found the church.
Because parishioners' ties to one another often stretch back thousands of miles to their homeland, the draw is more than religion.
A few years ago, a newcomer from a certain Kerala town was pointed to Nadayil, though she had left the town in 1977 and had not kept in touch with many people. The man turned out to be a relative, whom she had last seen years earlier when he was a boy.
"That's the way we meet each other," she said. "We are so happy to meet our own people."
The church attracts hundreds of Indian Catholics from a three-county area in South Florida, and is one of only eight such parishes in the United States.A parishioner dips her finger in holy water before entering Our Lady of Health Church in Coral Springs, Fla.