Lessons from Lehman
Bishop-elect Earl K. Fernandes earned his spot leading the Diocese of Columbus by being a competent, intelligent and compassionate priest for 20 years. To the people who knew him right out of seminary, those qualities were already evident.
After his 2002 ordination, Father Fernandes was assigned as associate pastor of Holy Angels and chaplain at Lehman Catholic High School in Sidney, OH. At the high school he taught religion, morality and vocations, while also leading Kairos retreats and getting to know the students and staff.
“He’s just an exceptional human in so many ways,” said Melissa Safreed, a math teacher at Lehman Catholic for 25 years. “He’s so bright. He’s so accepting and so welcoming, so kind. What else can we ask for in the world today? He was a good teacher because of those things. He was very wise beyond his years.”
Father Fernandes was particularly capable in reaching young people because he recognized their uniqueness.
“He values the young people as individuals,” Safreed said. “He doesn’t make them feel important, he makes them realize how important they are. As a role model for young men, they need that so badly today… He was in his element working with youth at that age.”
Bishop-elect Fernandes credited the Catholic identity of Lehman Catholic for his success, but acknowledged his one- on-one approach.
“At Lehman, it’s kind of unique,” Bishop-elect Fernandes said. “They had Eucharistic adoration and confessions available every Thursday. They had Mass every Friday. And kids were somewhat interested in faith. A lot of them [eventually] married in the Church and, therefore, stayed connected to the Church. I thought, if I can be interested in them, maybe they’ll be interested in the Church. I learned a lot from their enthusiasm for life, the way to be creative.”
Father Earl has been known since his early days as a man who takes each interaction seriously, but with a smile. He demonstrates this in remembering so many people he meets – a useful skill when taking charge of the 23-county diocese covering central and southern Ohio.
“He has a memory that is incredible,” Safreed said. “He remembers names and situations and specific occurrences all these years later. When he’s come up graciously and celebrated Mass with us in recent years, he remembers the faculty who were here way back when and the different conversations we had. He just loves people.”
“Those were some of the happiest years of my life being there, because as a young priest, everyone wants you to succeed,” he said. “Young people, somehow, they know how to connect. As we mature, we sometimes lose touch with their life. And so, we have to remain close to them one way or the other. I can’t be like a young person. I’m not going to be a young person ever again. I can’t. And sometimes young people need an adult in the room. They need a father figure. But to know that their father loves them is important. And to know as a priest that you’re loved by others is also important.”
If others’ testimonies count, the bishop-elect is clearly loved. In fact, some believe Columbus may not be the final destination for the ministry to which God is calling him.
“We always told him he was on the fast track to Rome,” said Denise Staufer, principal at Holy Angels and former principal at Lehman Catholic. “He’s just so personable and kind and so humble. He’s very intelligent and is always teaching about the Gospel and the faith.”
This article appeared in the June 2022 edition of The Catholic Telegraph Magazine. For your complimentary subscription, click here.