While Nelson Pérez was a priest in Philadelphia more than a decade ago, he often came to confess his sins at the Shrine of St. John Neumann, the fourth bishop of Philadelphia, whose body is entombed inside the shrine in the city’s Northern Liberties section.
At the time, Pérez had no idea — he’d one day succeed Neumann himself.
Pérez, currently the bishop of the Diocese of Cleveland, returned to the shrine Friday, the day after he was named the next archbishop to lead the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and its 1.3 million-member flock. He visited the shrine — alongside current Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, who is retiring — and greeted dozens of students who attend St. Peter the Apostle School.
Pérez and Chaput briefly prayed, before Pérez accepted a gift from Rev. Edmund Faliskie, the shrine’s director. Pérez then spoke to the faithful who had gathered, cracking a joke as he asked for prayers “as we begin this journey that brought me back to the land of the cheesesteaks.”
“I’m still shocked,” Pérez said during his brief remarks. “A little bit more tranquil, but still shocked that I’m back here.”
The students offered a blessing, raising their hands toward the bishop and speaking in unison. Then Pérez, who will be Philadelphia’s first Hispanic archbishop, walked through the crowd for a few moments, shaking hands with some students and adults who had gathered, greeting them in both English and Spanish.
He shook hands with a young boy who said his name was also Nelson, thanked two Philadelphia police officers providing security, and asked a 6ABC reporter to “say ‘hi’ to [longtime anchor] Jim Gardner for me.”
Students flanked by their teachers said they were grateful for the visit, and that it reminded them of the sanctity of where they go to school.
“You really start to think that we’re in a special place here,” said Monica Peterson, a 12-year-old seventh grader who lives in North Philly. Added her classmate Nadia Russell, 13: “It seems like he really loves it here.”
Later in the day, Pérez was greeted by seven 3-year-olds singing “El Barquito Chiquitito” at Casa del Carmen’s preschool in North Philly.
But it wasn’t just the children who looked forward to the visit of the new archbishop. Beatriz Negrón, 52, who works for Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections, took the day off to see with her twin sister, Abigail, the priest they’ve know for 30 years — first when they were members of the Spanish-language choir at St. Ambrose and then at St. Williams when Pérez was head of each of those parishes.
Despite having seen him as recently as last year for the 100th anniversary Mass of St. Williams, Abigail Negrón wasn’t sure how to act in the presence of an archbishop.
Soon, she and her sister will figure it out: Pérez requested they both join the choir at Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul.