‘A new era for Philly’: Spanish-speaking Catholics praise Hispanic archbishop

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David Serrano is the director of religious education at Visitation BVM church in Kensington. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

David Serrano is the director of religious education at Visitation BVM church in Kensington. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

David Serrano was thrilled when he read the news online. For the first time in its 145-year history, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia will have a Hispanic leader.

“For those who cannot raise their voice in English, they can raise their voice in Spanish and they can be heard finally in the Archdiocese,” said Serrano, a Mexican immigrant, who directs religious education for Visitation B.V.M. Roman Catholic Church in Kensington.

After roughly two years in Ohio, Cleveland Bishop Nelson Perez, a Cuban American, will replace Archbishop Charles Chaput, who is stepping down after eight years because of age.

Under church law, prelates must offer to resign when they turn 75.

Perez, 58, will officially be installed as archbishop on Feb. 18.

Serrano crossed paths with Perez at a gathering outside New York City a few years ago. As a seminary student, he was struck by Perez’s approachability and humor.

“There are different types of pastors and leaders in the Church. Some of them keep to themselves. He liked to share his experiences,” said Serrano, who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico as a teenager.

In Cleveland, Perez often shared his opinions of U.S. immigration policies, saying in an interview with Cleveland.com that the federal government’s child separation policy was “a result of an immigration system that is broken.”

“We’ve lost our moral compass,” said Perez, who also personally pleaded with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to allow a Mexican father to stay in the country so he could care for his severely disabled stepson.

Siria Rivera is the executive director of the Providence Center in Kensington. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A short drive away from Serrano’s church, Siria Rivera stood inside a red-and-blue recreation space at The Providence Center, which offers educational programs to children and adults, many of whom, like her, are Puerto Rican. Rivera said it’s a bonus to have an archbishop who understands the plight of Latinos.

Perez’s parents came to the U.S. from Cuba in the early 1960s to escape Fidel Castro’s government.

“It makes sense,” said Rivera of Perez’s appointment. “Latinos make up a large population in the Catholic community, and all communities in the United States, period.”

Roughly 15% of Philadelphia’s population identifies as Latino or Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Within the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which also covers suburban communities right outside the city, that figure increases to between 18-20%, according to the Archdiocese.

Rev. Gus Puleo, a pastor at St. Patrick’s in Norristown, has known Perez for years. Back in 2004, they worked at St. William’s together — Puleo as a deacon and Perez as pastor.

“He taught me how to be a priest and a pastor,” Puleo said.

St. Patrick’s Church in Norristown (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

The phone at St. Patrick’s, where roughly the majority of parishioners speak Spanish, has been ringing all day, Puleo said.

On the line: churchgoers who are ecstatic over the appointment of a Hispanic archbishop.

“To me, it’s like a new era for Philly, for the Archdiocese,” said Puleo, adding that he thinks Perez can help bring the English-speaking and Spanish-speaking members of Philly’s Catholic Church closer together.

Perez does have a history with the City of Brotherly Love.

He was a seminary student in Philadelphia in the late 1980s. His first role in priesthood, a parochial vicar, was at St. Ambrose Parish in Olney.

He also served as assistant director of Philadelphia’s Office for Hispanic Catholics in the early 1990s and was founding director of the Catholic Institute for Evangelization from 1993 to 2002.

St William’s church in the Lawncrest section of Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

That same year, he became the pastor at St. Williams Catholic Church in the Lawncrest section of the city. He stayed for seven years.

Longtime parishioners at St. Williams remember Perez fondly for his humility, sincerity and way with language.

It’s why Roseanne Trainor always looked forward to his homilies, the commentaries that pastors deliver during Mass after reading a passage from the Gospel.

St William’s church parishioners Roseanne Trainor, Julie Kurdziel, and Tom Connell. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“Often after the readings are read, the priest will just retell you the Gospel. He didn’t do that,” Trainor said. “He took whatever lesson was in the Gospel and turned it into a reflection, into something to think about.”

For fellow parishioner Tom Connell, it was Perez’s openness and honesty that made him memorable.

“I’m sure their hearts are broken [in Cleveland] with such a wonderful person leaving, but we’re so happy to have him back,” Connell said.

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