ELYRIA, Ohio — A simple shrine hangs over the dining-room table in Seleste Wisniewski’s home. And nestled among its flickering votive candles sits a photograph of two men: her husband of six years and the man who, for the last two, she has been proud to call her bishop.
In 2017, just days after he was installed as the top Roman Catholic cleric in Cleveland, Bishop Nelson J. Pérez personally intervened in an effort to spare Wisniewski’s husband, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, from deportation.
He met the family at the immigration office and pleaded with agents to reconsider. His overtures ultimately proved unsuccessful, but he sat with Wisniewski for hours afterward — a gesture that left an indelible impression on the mother of four.
“It just meant so much that a bishop — someone I’d never met before — would put himself out that way for our family,” she said on a recent afternoon, sitting under Pérez’s photo on her wall. “In that moment, he made me feel like God’s royalty, and I’ll always be thankful to him for that.”
On Tuesday, Pérez will be installed as the 10th archbishop of Philadelphia, returning to a city where he spent more than two decades as a priest. And he arrives with an army of Seleste Wisniewskis at his back — people whose lives he has touched on each leg of his career who say their faith has been strengthened by their association with this dynamic and down-to-earth priest.
He is no “prince of the church,” they say, like Cardinals Anthony Bevilacqua and Justin Rigali, two prelates whose embrace of the pomp and circumstance of their office encouraged a sense of reverential awe among their flock. Nor does he arrive with the stature of Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, who came to Philadelphia more than eight years ago with his reputation already cemented as one of the U.S. church’s leading intellectual voices.
Instead, they describe Pérez as a cleric as quick to break out his guitar during dinner at a parishioner’s home as he is to deliver a stirring homily, seemingly off the cuff. He pops into baseball games, talks avidly of his love of Star Trek and scuba diving and who made a splash in the papal receiving line on a recent visit to Rome.
While other bishops greeted Pope Francis with respectfully deferential gestures, Pérez, according to one priest, went in for a hug.
“It’s hard not to be charmed by him,” said Sister Therese Sullivan, former chancellor of the Cleveland Diocese. “Bishop Pérez portrays himself immediately. What you see is who he is.”
And for dozens of clergy and parishioners at each of his postings — in Philadelphia, in Long Island, and in Cleveland — he is their buddy, their mentor, their lifelong friend. So much so, that some here say they have struggled to process the news that he’s also about to become their spiritual leader.
“My kids wanted to know whether they should call him ‘Your Highness’ now,” said Anna Vega, the former director of the archdiocesan office for Hispanic Catholics, whose 30-year friendship with the man dates back to his seminary days. “He said: ‘Are you kidding me? I hope they’re going to call me Nelson.’ ”
Despite that unassuming affect, Pérez’s tenure as archbishop of Philadelphia will be historic.
He is the first Latino and first fluent Spanish-speaker ever appointed to the role. And at 58, he will become the youngest serving archbishop in the United States, potentially granting him a nearly two-decade runway to leave his mark on the region’s 1.3 million Catholics.
“I truly believe this was a handpicked appointment by Pope Francis,” said the Rev. R. Stephen Vellenga, of Painesville, Ohio. “He is exactly the kind of leader the church is looking for now.”
Since assuming the papacy in 2013, Francis has railed against the tradition of clericalism within the Catholic Church — that tendency among some in the hierarchy to hold themselves apart from or above those they have been appointed to lead. The pontiff speaks instead of a church that meets its flock where it is and has sought to appoint bishops who “smell like their sheep.”
With that in mind, it’s easy to see why Pérez has caught Francis’ eye.
Two days after a whirlwind tour through Philadelphia last month for the announcement of his new post, Pérez returned to his eight-county diocese in northeast Ohio to celebrate Mass at an Akron church.
As he delivered a homily on the importance of the people who make up a parish, he spoke not from the pulpit but down among the pews. Addressing the crowd without notes, he cracked jokes and shared brief asides with individual congregants.
Afterward, he lingered for nearly half an hour, offering hugs and posing for selfies with parishioners and clergy alike.
“I just love him,” said Betty Naswadi, 77, who described sending letters to the mayor, the governor of Ohio, and the bishop when her brother turned 100 asking them to send birthday cards.
Only Pérez replied and even then, she said, “I was just expecting a rubber-stamped card. He sent a handwritten letter.”
Describing his own gift for forging connections, Pérez speaks with understated humility.
“Like any particular profession, you make connections with people and close friends,” he said. “I have friendships that go back to my earliest life. To me, they’re simply family.”
That talent for cementing bonds has been evident from the earliest days of Pérez’s career.
Born in Miami to Cuban immigrants who fled in 1960 during the first major exodus after Fidel Castro took power, Pérez jokes that he was “made in Cuba, but unpackaged here.”
His father, David, a banker, and his mother, Emma, a homemaker, moved to the Cuban enclave of West New York, N.J., to raise their three sons. And in the shadow of Manhattan’s skyline, Pérez grew up taking karate lessons, riding bikes with his brothers, and playing sports.
In high school, he even had what his brother Louis Martin has described as a “beautiful girlfriend.” (She married someone else after he decided to become a priest. Pérez eventually baptized her children.)
Pérez doesn’t recall a specific moment he felt called to join the priesthood. Instead, he describes “a whisper that drew me in and never left.”
His family, though, saw the signs from early on.
“Sometimes we’d come home from Mass on Sunday when we were young and Nelson would do a mock Mass,” Louis Martin, now 54, has said. “He would coerce me into being his altar boy.”
When one morning at St. Joseph of the Palisades parish in New Jersey, Pérez saw that no altar servers had shown up for the service and appointed himself.
“I just walked back to the sacristy and put on the cassock,” he recalled. “The priest looked at me and asked, ‘Who are you?’ I told him, ‘I’m your new altar server.’ He just kind of smiled and went with it.”
After college at Montclair State University in New Jersey, where he earned a degree in psychology, Pérez taught at a Catholic grade school in Puerto Rico for two years before enrolling at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood.
He arrived stateside with the understanding that he would return to the island as soon as he was ordained. But Pérez’s laid-back, affable style and ability to communicate fluently with Philadelphia’s community of Hispanic Catholics quickly made an impression.
Anna Vega recalls meeting a young Pérez when he was a deacon assigned as a candidate for the priesthood to the La Milagrosa Chapel in Spring Garden, one of the few Catholic churches focused on ministering to Spanish-speakers in the ’80s in an archdiocese that had not always kept pace with shifting demographic demands of the region.
“I was just praying, ‘Papa Dios, please don’t send him back’ " to Puerto Rico, she said. “He was just so ready. So, so good. I just thought, we have to find a way to keep him here.”
Cardinal Bevilacqua agreed.
“And just like that, I was traded like a baseball player,” Pérez recalls.
The cardinal quickly put Pérez to work after his ordination in parishes in the Olney and Lawncrest sections of the city and then, in West Chester — neighborhoods with aging, historically white congregations that were rapidly being supplanted by an influx of new immigrant churchgoers.
Parishioners in each credit Pérez’s knack for collaboration, his sense of humor, and his direct yet understanding style with building bridges between demographics that did not always accept each other’s needs.
In 1993, Pérez was named founding director of the Catholic Institute for Evangelization — an archdiocesan ministry focused on training laypeople and clergy to reach North Philadelphia’s largely Hispanic population. The new post allowed him to expand his influence to a generation of young Catholics.
Among them was Jhoselyn Martinez, who was first impressed by Pérez as a Dominican teenager growing up in South Philadelphia. She later followed him to St. William’s in Lawncrest. Then, at the institute, Pérez, who was still one of only a few Hispanic archdiocesan priests, became her mentor. She credits him with helping to shape her career.
“To see yourself in another person, when you’re looking at Catholic leadership, means everything,” said Martinez, who now works in the archdiocesan communications office. “There’s a great sense of happiness to be with someone where not only the language but the nuances of the culture are understood. This is a person just like you — someone that could be you.”
By the time Pope Benedict XVI appointed Pérez as an auxiliary bishop in 2012 and sent him to the Diocese of Rockville Centre on Long Island, it took only months for the affection he had engendered among Philadelphia congregants and clerics to make itself apparent to his new colleagues.
Days before his first Christmas in his new post, Pérez was nearly killed in a 35-car pileup on the Long Island Expressway, when a tractor-trailer hauling Hurricane Sandy debris barreled into his vehicle. Emergency responders pried him from the wreckage using the Jaws of Life. The injuries he sustained required multiple surgeries, a lengthy hospital stay, and 14 grueling weeks of physical therapy.
But as the Rev. Robert Kuznik and a few Rockville Centre priests waited by his bedside, well-wishers and clergy from down the coast began streaming in.
“We used to joke that no sick person has ever been anointed so much,” said Kuznik, who lived in the same rectory with Pérez for the next five years in New York.
For his part, Pérez describes his survival and recovery as a clarifying moment that would shape the rest of his life.
“Everything you think is really, really important falls away in an instant,” he said. “It really refocused me on the fact that the people in my life were most important.”
As during his tenure in Philadelphia, church leaders in Rockville Centre, then later in Cleveland, leaned on Pérez as a resource to connect to their growing Hispanic populations. And as his profile grew, he went on to hold leadership roles in committees on immigration and Hispanic affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
But despite the role Hispanic ministry has played throughout his career, Pérez bristled when asked at a news conference last month how his work with minority communities had shaped his approach to his job.
“When I became a bishop in New York and Cleveland, they asked me the same thing: ‘How does it feel to be a Hispanic bishop?’ ” he said. “That doesn’t exist. What exists is a Roman Catholic bishop that happens to speak Spanish.”
He clarified later: “It’s a gift that I bring to the church, and it’s very needed. But to me, it’s not working with Hispanics or Anglos, or Italians or Polish. It’s all the work of the church.”
Still, Vellenga, the director of missions for the Cleveland Diocese, described Pérez’s talents for reaching and inspiring Hispanic Catholics as “perhaps his greatest gift.”
“The bottom line is the Hispanic community is the future of the Catholic Church in the United States,” he said. “And it’s a blessing to have someone that can connect on that level.”
It was Pérez’s connection to the immigration story of his parents and the dozens of migrants he has met throughout his career that brought him and Wisniewski together in Cleveland when he learned of her husband’s impending deportation, the bishop says.
Despite having been deported three times before and returning to the United States illegally, Pedro Hernández had been granted a legal work permit and a stay of deportation to help care for his 28-year-old stepson, who has cerebral palsy. Both privileges were inexplicably revoked on short notice within the first year of the Trump administration.
“It was heart-wrenching to hear what was happening to them,” Pérez said. “I wanted to go and be with them … as a bishop being with his people and his families.”
Wisniewski says she did not even know her new bishop was Hispanic before Pérez showed up unannounced at the immigration office to bring his influence to bear. But as he pleaded with agents to understand the hardship her husband’s absence would pose for Wisniewski and her ability to continue to care for her disabled son, a lasting connection was born.
“To see him see me,” she said, “it just gave me a little more oomph to keep fighting and to keep going.”
Pérez’s pleas didn’t stop the removal proceedings. Hernández now lives on a farm near Acapulco, just feet from the church where he and Wisniewski were married — one he built with his brothers before coming to the United States.
The family keeps in touch over Skype, hoping one day he’ll be able to return. And in the meantime, Wisniewski gets by, caring for her children with help from her parish and church.
The news that Pérez was leaving for Philadelphia hit her family hard.
Wisniewski’s 11-year-old son, Luis, heard about the bishop’s imminent departure at Catholic school and came home in tears, asking what that might mean for his father.
“Louie, it doesn’t mean nothing," she recalls telling him. "I don’t think [the bishop] will ever forget us — no matter where he is, no matter where we are.”
But as Pérez’s time in Cleveland drew short, she felt compelled to track him down, thank him again, and say goodbye. At an event last month at Luis’ school, Wisniewski embraced Pérez warmly. They called Hernández in Mexico together, while Luis, in tears, clung to the bishop’s side.
“I can’t change the circumstances. That’s not within my purview,” Pérez said. “But I can be with them. I can keep praying that someday Pedro will get to come home.”
As Pérez faces his next challenge — an archdiocese he already knows well, but one whose flock has shrunk, whose finances have grown strained, and whose history of mismanaging sex-abuse complaints has resurfaced since the last time he was here — he is approaching the job with that same mentality.
He won’t pretend he has all the answers, he says. But he will listen, he will be present, he will be himself.
“I don’t come back with anything special,” Pérez said. “I just come back with me.”