The impact of a faithful life

Father Denis is leaving Immaculate Conception Catholic Church

When Louise Laughlin told Father Denis she was planning a dinner for him before he leaves the church, he told her not to worry about cooking so much food.

But Louise knew better.

On Sunday night, roughly 300 people crowded into the hall at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church to honor Reverend Father Denis D'Souza before he steps down from his leadership in the church in order to continue his ministry elsewhere.

The turnout was certainly bigger than Father Denis expected, and even bigger than Louise expected. The church had to bring out extra tables and chairs to try to fit everyone in. Glowing with Christmas lights and filled with happy chatter, and perhaps a few tears, the hall was full of the warmth that Father Denis has helped bring to the church for the past decade.

"I would say [this has been] one of the best times of my Christian life," Father Denis said of his time in Green River. "I've been in ministry for 44 years now, and the ten years I spent here was one of the best."

A history of service

Father Denis was born in India in 1953 to a Catholic family. He grew up going to the local Catholic school, and originally planned on going into the medical field.

"Last minute it changed and I went to the seminary," he explained. "Everybody was surprised."

Father Denis went across the country with the intention of being a missionary. When he was ordained in 1979, it was the first time in his diocese that a priest was immediately made a pastor. He argued with his bishop about the decision, but it wasn't any good. While he struggled with not only a new role but a new culture and setting, he enjoyed the work he was able to do.

"I always liked to work in missions, the development of a people," he said. "It is not just religious working but also socio-economic development."

Father Denis helped establish schools, train people in literacy and financial skills, and help develop communities where people were given the means to continue to help themselves. He worked with people of all different backgrounds and faiths, from Christians to Hindus to Muslims.

"I never went for conversion of people, no. Just help them," Father Denis explained. "But in a way it brought the people into a religious faith. They said 'there is something strange in why Christians work that way.' And they were attracted and many of them were converted. No force. No force at all."

After a while of doing this work, Father Denis was ready for a new challenge. So when his bishop asked where he wanted to go, he opted for a tribal mission.

"The minute I went there, I regretted my decision," he said. "This is not my place that I want to be. Snakes. Scorpions."

While he thought he'd landed in the wrong place, Father Denis knew he had made a commitment, so he told himself he would stay for one year.

"That one year had become about two years, every year repeat, it went on and on - 11 years," Father Denis said.

During the 11 years, Father Denis worked with a German foundation to help establish permanent housing for the tribal community, building about 750 permanent houses by working in segments with the local people.

After his tribal mission, Father Denis's bishop asked if he would serve in the United States of America. While he didn't leave India while his parents were still alive, Father Denis eventually made his way to America, and to Wyoming. He started in Cody, but was eventually asked to go to Green River.

A local impact

As soon as he came to Green River, Father Denis was drawn to the beautiful landscape, the small community, and the church in the center of town.

Arriving in Green River in 2013, Father Denis wouldn't leave for another ten and a half years.

"The church is really a very good community," Father Denis said.

Immaculate Conception has over 600 families who are part of the church, according to Father Denis, and is the second-largest religious community in Green River.

According to Louise Laughlin and her husband Ted, some of the size of the church is thanks to Father Denis's work.

"He's brought quite a few people into our church," Louise said.

"He has a way of getting people involved," Ted added.

Louise and Ted have been part of Immaculate Conception for the past 23 years. But it was Father Denis who ultimately convinced Ted to be baptized, which Louise is especially thankful for. The Laughlin family has become close to Father Denis, which is why they were all happy to pitch in to organize the dinner in his honor.

The Laughlins are also aware of and thankful for the impact Father Denis has had on the church as a whole. From helping make improvements to the church to working in various programs to changing the mass schedule to accommodate people in the church, Father Denis has been actively involved and continually making improvements.

"He's very accommodating," Ted explained. "Almost to a fault."

"I think that's what's going to be missed the most about Father Denis," Louise said. "He gives of himself to the members of our church."

That hard work and self-sacrifice extends from the church and reaches outward as well. Louise and Ted noted that Father Denis is well-known in the community. While Father Denis acknowledges that he is actively involved in many ways, he brings the credit back to the church members.

"There are so many other aspects in the church, like Knights of Columbus, we have helping the community and trying to get the church involved into the life of Green River," he said. "So our people, we are not secluded. They work like a leaven in the community and add to the work of Green River."

And just like in his days in India, Father Denis looks to find ways to offer help and assistance to anyone in need of it without caring about their religious background or asking any questions about their circumstances.

"We'll never say no to the person. We try to help as much as possible," he said. "Never deny anybody any help."

Thinking of all the programs and activities taking place in the church, Father Denis is thankful for the support of the church members and all that has been accomplished.

"I really take pride in being here for 10 plus years," he said.

A future of faith

Father Denis's next step is to return to India.

As he is still a part of his diocese back home in India, Father Denis has taken a new assignment to establish a parish in a poor city, creating a structure so the people there can have regular Sunday worship.

Thinking of his return to India, Father Denis recalled some of his past experiences there. He remembered working with a group called "Birds of the Air" that had to live out the reality that Jesus spoke about when he said the birds of the air and lilies of the field don't toil, but are provided for. That group didn't have resources or income and had to rely on providence and charity for their basic needs, but he recalls that they never lacked food.

Other memories come from times when people asked him to pray for rain. Once, a non-Catholic group requested he pray for rain and had him set up in the middle of a dried-up lake.

"Halfway through the prayer we could see some kind of cloud coming up," Father Denis recalled. "By the time we finished consecration, thick clouds started raining. I couldn't finish the mass."

He remembered another similar time when he was asked to pray by a dried-up stream, and it rained until they were all soaked.

"When miracles happen that way, they are kind of eye-openers sometimes," Father Denis said. "I never believed that it would happen. I never took a raincoat or umbrella, anything. I never believed in that - 'it is going to rain.' The one who prays for rain did not believe that in his own prayer. But it happened."

Father Denis credits the faith of others working even when his own was weak.

Looking to the future, Father Denis admits that making a transition and returning to work in India will be hard, and he has mixed feelings because of the connections he's made in Green River.

However, Father Denis also has faith that he will return.

"There is the intention and a request from the diocese here that I need to come back," Father Denis said, explaining the Diocese of Cheyenne, which is over all of Wyoming, wants him to return. "So that may be next year."

Father Denis already has plans to at least come visit in June to perform some ceremonies he was asked to do, including a wedding and baptism.

But while he's gone, his loss will be felt.

"He's going to be missed," Louise said.

"A bunch," Ted added.

Louise agreed: "A whole bunch."


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