On the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, the Church celebrates the opening of St. Paul’s heart to the love of God. For one Bronx priest, that day will forever be associated with the day that he himself received a new heart, and a new chance at life.
On St. Paul’s feast day, Jan. 25, Father Aloysius Thumma, an international priest who serves as parochial vicar at Our Lady of the Assumption in the Bronx, received a heart transplant at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan. The six-hour surgery was performed by a team of five doctors and nine nurses.
“It is very clear to me the integration of God’s hand in my life,” said a joyful Father Aloysius in an interview that took place at the convent of the Sisters, Servants of Mary in the Bronx two weeks after he left the hospital. Father Aloysius has been staying at the convent under the care of Mother Sylvia, S.M., the superior and a registered nurse.
For the past few years, the health of Father Aloysius, who suffered from congestive heart failure, had been slowly deteriorating.
On Nov. 14, Father Aloysius visited the sisters’ convent to celebrate Mass—he has been chaplain there for some 10 years. Mother Sylvia noticed that he was not well and told him that he would not be able to celebrate Mass. She placed him in the sisters’ infirmary where he was given oxygen. Two days later, his vital signs were worsening, so Father Aloysius was taken to New York Westchester Square Medical Center in the Parkchester section of the Bronx.
On Nov. 18, he was moved to New York-Presbyterian and placed on artificial life support to keep his heart beating. For 10 weeks, he remained on life support while he waited for a heart transplant.
He told CNY that he never became discouraged about his worsening physical condition because of “the gift of faith.”
“When you are so sick, the eternal hope of seeing God face to face is so real. It doesn’t threaten you, it gives you strength,” he said.
Without a hint of darkness or morbid thought, he reflected on what he was feeling as he was wheeled into the operating room, and said he knew no matter how the surgery went, one way or another he would be free of pain. “That profound feeling was not out of nothingness, it was out of faith,” he said.
After the successful surgery, Father Aloysius moved into the guesthouse at the sisters’ convent in the Bronx. “I came home on Valentine’s Day with a new heart,” Father Aloysius said.
Mother Sylvia continues to care for Father Aloysius’ health—particularly with the distribution of the many pills he takes daily. “All of the Sisters, Servants of Mary, we really appreciate and love what he does for us. All the sisters helped me out. Everyone was praying for him and we are pleased to see that he’s back and back to his ministry,” she said.
She told CNY that the priest’s recovery has been amazing. “He was about to die,” she said. “A couple of times, we thought we were losing him.” She added joyfully that she and the sisters’ are happy to see him in recovery. “I know how much he went through and how strong he is in the faith,” she said.
Even though the surgery was a success, the risks to his health have not vanished. The possibility that his new heart will be rejected will remain throughout the rest of his life. However, with proper care and medication, that risk is reduced.
With sincere gratitude Father Aloysius spoke about the precious gift he received. “I pray for my donor every day, and their family,” he said.
He said that his heart was from a 25 year old, but he does not know any other details about the donor. He also said that he is now an organ donor himself. “That would be the greatest gift I could give,” he said.
He has been invited to tell his personal story at a prayer service for organ donors and recipients in St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Saturday, April 14, and he hopes to be well enough to attend.
He also plans to return to active ministry within a few weeks. He told CNY that he credits the support he received from those around him with his recovery. Along with Mother Silvia and the sisters, he noted the assistance of Theresa Broglio, a parishioner at Our Lady of the Assumption, who continues to drive Father Aloysius to his medical appointments and visited him daily in the hospital.
“The emotional support, physical support and moral support was very important,” he said. He also noted that Cardinal Dolan called him three times to see how he was doing. Parishioners from the Bronx sent him get well cards and Mass cards throughout his illness, he said.
Msgr. Anthony Marchitelli, administrator of Our Lady of the Assumption, and Msgr. Donald Dwyer, pastor of Resurrection in Rye and a former longtime pastor of Our Lady of Assumption, as well as his other brother priests were also supportive.
In fact, he said that the first words he heard after surgery were spoken by Msgr. Dwyer who told him that his surgery went well. Father Aloysius said upon hearing those words, “I squeezed his hand. That was my first feeling of new life.”
Msgr. Dwyer said that Father Aloysius is a “dedicated and humble priest who has worked in the Bronx for 15 years. He is a remarkable man who approaches life with an equal measure of passion and compassion.”
He added, “As St. Paul’s heart was changed after an encounter with Jesus, may Father Aloysius’ story be a source of strength to those feeling sick and downhearted.”
In emphasizing how important the support he received from others was to his recovery, Father Aloysius told CNY that his family is from India, so his friendships with others lifted him up. “However much faith you have, you are human,” he said. “You need affection, love, concern.”
He added, “Why did Jesus have his mother at the cross? Because it was a great support.”