Originally from the Southern Indian state of Kerala, Father George Kochuparambil – also known as Father Johnson, a name his mother gave him during the era of President Lyndon Johnson – was raised in a devoutly Catholic home. “My family has been long-time Catholics,” he said. “I was an altar server in my parish, and at the age of 15, I joined a seminary in India and belonged to the religious order, Oblates of St. Joseph.”
Now on the staff of the Most Blessed Trinity Parish in Tremont, Pa., Father Johnson has led a vigorous priestly journey through his Catholic lifetime. While he is probably well known for his international ministry and travels, what Father Johnson is also known for is his cooking skills, having participated in the “Cooks with Collars” competition organized by the Diocese of Allentown, in 2022, for which he won funds for his parish. He made the traditional Indian dish “Chicken Tikka Masala.”
“My mom, Elizabeth, taught me to cook it,” he said. “I would call her in India every now and then and would ask her how much salt, how much spices, etc. She would tell me over the phone the amount to add. My mother is my cook guru.”
Recounting his path toward the priesthood, he noted that his first seminary, St. Joseph Minor Seminary, was in Kalamassery, a small town in Kerala, where he studied his pre-college studies for three years. Then, the order sent him to Italy for his novitiate formation and to study philosophy and theology.
“Italy’s Catholic heritage fascinated me,” he said, “Besides my priestly and religious training, I ate a lot of spaghetti and cheese, and drank a lot of wine there,” he said. As part of his priestly formation, he finished his bachelor’s in philosophy from the Pontifical Urban University (Urbaniana) and his bachelor’s in theology from the Angelicum, both in Rome.
He was ordained a priest Dec. 22, 1991, in his home parish in Panangad, Kerala, in front of his parents, George and Elizabeth.
“It was the most cherished moment in my life, as it was in the presence of 700 people attending,” he said.
After being made a priest, he was sent to be an assistant pastor and later a pastor at St. Joseph Parish in Goregaon East in the megalopolis of Mumbai, India. While being a pastor, he was enrolled at the University of Mumbai to pursue his studies of bachelor’s and master’s in sociology.
After serving as pastor and studying sociology for six years, he returned to his home state of Kerala, where he was appointed as the Director of the Study House of the Oblates of St. Joseph in the city of Alwaye, where, at the same time, he was assigned as the professor of sociology to two major seminaries: St. Joseph Pontifical Seminary in Carmelgiri, Alwaye, and Sacred Heart Philosophy College, also in Alwaye.
“Teaching has always been my passion because it makes a person more cultured and more up-to-date,” Father Johnson said.
Once again, this well-traveled priest returned to Italy to help serve in the parishes of Nuero and Capoterra on the Italian island of Sardinia for a year. At Nuoro, he was at the Our Lady of Grace Shrine, which is also staffed by the Oblates of St. Joseph.
“I lived there for two months, especially hearing confessions of pilgrims who visited the shrine from different parts of Europe. It was a great experience because people opened their hearts fearlessly to a foreign priest. On certain days, I heard confessions for eight hours. I truly believe that confession is a sacrament of healing. At Capoterra, where I was an assistant pastor, I celebrated Masses in Italian and led youth groups,” he added.
After his priestly mission in Sardinia, he was invited by the Oblates of St. Joseph of the Pennsylvania Province to be an assistant pastor at Mount Carmel Church in Pittston and the church of St. Gabriel in Hazleton in the Diocese of Scranton.
“The life in the area enriched me in different ways, especially to know the Hispanic Community and their culture and to learn their language,” Father said. It was in Hazleton he felt the call to learn Spanish because, in his view, “priests should be good listeners, counselors, and healers.” With that intention, he went to attend Spanish classes at the University of Bloomsburg, and in a year, he spoke perfect Spanish.
After eight years of community life with the Oblates of St. Joseph, he joined the Diocese of Allentown and later incardinated into the same Diocese.
“The entry into the Diocese was with the kind permission of my Oblate superior and with the warm welcome of my diocesan authorities,” he said.
“I have been here almost 19 years now, and I know what people like,” he said. “Last year, I cooked tikka masala for 78 people, and some of my parishioners helped me to make it a grand dinner for my people. I served it with basmati rice – very colorful and a good taste.”
In the “Cooks with Collars” competition this year, Father Johnson prepared Louisiana-style chicken with bowtie noodles, though he did not win. He does love to cook, though.
“I cook Indian food for myself, like egg curry or chicken curry … I love cooking. Cooking, for me, is like meditation – I pray and I cook every day.”
Chicken Tikka Masala
Serve with basmati rice. Serves 3.
- 1 cup plain yogurt
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon ginger paste
- 1 teaspoon garlic paste
- 1/2 teaspoon garam masala
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 pound chicken breast, cut into 2-inch pieces
- 4 tablespoons canola or extra virgin olive oil, divided, for browning and sautéing
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 medium onions, peeled and thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon coriander powder
- 1 teaspoon garam masala
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
- Red chili pepper powder to taste
- 2 cups plain tomato sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic paste
- 1/2 teaspoon ginger paste
- 1 cup heavy cream
- Salt to taste
- Chopped cilantro for garnish
Mix the yogurt, lemon juice, ginger paste, garlic paste, garam masala, and salt in a large bowl and add the chicken. Refrigerate for at least 20 minutes.
In a 12-inch skillet over medium heat, add 2 tablespoons of the oil and brown the chicken in batches; put aside.
In the same skillet over medium heat, add the remaining oil and butter. Sauté the onion for 3 minutes, then one by one, add the turmeric powder, coriander, garam masala, and red chili pepper, stirring after each addition. Add the tomato sauce, garlic and ginger pastes, and reduce the heat to low. Simmer for about 10 minutes as the sauce thickens. Add the heavy cream, stir, and simmer for 2 more minutes. Add the chicken, cover, and simmer for about 10 minutes, or until done. Add salt to taste. Garnish with the chopped cilantro and serve.