Nelson Pérez, named by Pope Francis to be the first Hispanic archbishop of Philadelphia, is the son of Cuban émigrés who grew up in New Jersey and served for 23 years as a priest in the same ecclesiastical domain he is about to lead.
And he has been a deep sea diver not afraid to swim with the sharks.
In the church’s political spectrum, he will likely fall to the left of the man he will replace, Archbishop Charles Chaput, a conservative who has chafed under the liberal papacy of Francis and never received the red cap of a cardinal like his predecessors.
A Spanish speaker, Pérezis one of the few American prelates who can speak to Pope Francis in his native language.
Here is what you should know about the incoming archbishop of Philadelphia.
Nelson Pérez was born June 16, 1961, in Miami. His parents, David and Emma Pérez , were Cuban émigrés who fled after Fidel Castro took over the island. The family later moved to West New York, N.J., once home to the second largest community of Cuban Americans outside Miami.
Pérez was one of three sons and has one surviving brother, Louis Martin Pérez.
He is a product of public schools, having attended P.S. No. 4 and Memorial High School in West New York. He went to Montclair State University, and graduated with a B.A. in psychology in 1983. After college he taught Colegio La Piedad, a Catholic elementary school in Puerto Rico and , before entering St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood. During the summers of 1985 and 1986, he worked as a staff therapist for Catholic Social Services in New York City.
Pérez was ordained in 1989 by then-Archbishop Anthony Bevilacqua after earning a master of arts and master of divinity degrees.
As a priest in Philadelphia, he served as a vicar at St. Ambrose Parish in Olney (1989-1993); assistant director of the Office for Hispanic Catholics (1990-1993); founding director of the Catholic Institute for Evangelization (1993- 2002); pastor of Saint William Parish in Lawncrest (2002-2009); and pastor of Saint Agnes Parish in West Chester (2009-2012).
He also taught courses in psychology and religious studies at La Salle University and developmental psychology at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary.
In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Pérez auxiliary bishop of Rockville Centre on Long Island, a diocese with a growing Hispanic population.
Pope Francis named Pérez bishop of Cleveland in 2017.
Pérez opened a February homily at a Cleveland church by mentioning his background in Philadelphia, saying the pastor of the Cleveland church relayed that their Stations of the Cross — images of Christ’s crucifixion — had come from Our Mother of Sorrows, a West Philadelphia church that closed in 2017. Pérez said he’d been in that church several times during his tenure in Philadelphia, meaning he’d likely been in the presence of those images before.
“Never would I have thought back then, quite a bit ago, 20 years ago, that I would have been in their presence in Cleveland,” he said. “But God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and his ways are not our ways.”
Pérez became bishop of Cleveland after Bishop Richard Lennon retired due to health problems. Lennon’s popularity suffered after undertaking what the Cleveland Plain Dealer called “the ugly and painful duty of shuttering many of the city’s shrinking Roman Catholic churches,” a thankless job that also confronted Chaput.
One of the issues Pérez took on as bishop was immigration reform and he became personally involved in 2017 in the case Mexican immigrant who had asked officials to suspend his deportation and allow him to care for his disabled stepson. The immigrant eventually was deported.
In 2018, he said the immigration policy separating parents from their children was not a political issue but a moral one.
During his tenure, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops elected Pérez to be chairman of the conference’s Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church. “The word ‘Catholic’ comes from the Greek word ‘universal.’ " Pérez said at the time. "Diversity is a hallmark of the Catholic Church.”
Pérez discussed immigration nine months ago in an interview with the NBC affiliate in Cleveland, calling for comprehensive immigration reform and offering a veiled reference to President Trump, saying “our rights and our dignity, listen, there’s no wall that could stop that.”
“Being the son of refugees to this country who came looking for freedom, and this country was generous enough to open its borders, its doors, to welcome my parents, that’s why I’m here today,” he said in the interview. “So it pains me to see that we might be going in another direction in terms of our thoughts and our heart. Because that’s not our soul. And we will lose our soul that way.”
Pérez is a deep sea diver who received his certification from the National Association of Underwater Instructors 30 years ago. But as he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer, he has not “gotten wet” in years as his duties in the church increased.
Before that, he said he would dive 25 or 30 times year, including exploring wrecks, off the East Coast and at the Florida Keys. “Sharks and stuff never bothered me,” the bishop said.