Raised in Faith: The Early life of Bishop Elect Earl Fernandes
Bishop-elect Earl K. Fernandes, the son of immigrant parents from India, speaks about his childhood with reverence and a healthy dose of good humor.
“My father came to the United States in January of 1970. The Vietnam War was on and there was a shortage of physicians in this country because of the war, and so green cards were being granted to people from India, Philippines, Pakistan; because they spoke English and they could pass their U.S. medical licensure exam from abroad,” said Bishop-elect Fernandes. “My father came to work at St. Charles Hospital in Toledo, which was run by the Sisters of Mercy. They gave him a place to stay, and after a few months, he could bring my mom and my brothers over. That was in March of 1970, and then in 1971, 72 and 73, my parents had three more boys.”
He continued, “So we were five boys growing up together … in a little three-bedroom house. We went to St. Thomas Aquinas Church on the eastside of Toledo, right next to a Sun Oil refinery. Everyone in our neighborhood [was] working class. My father never let us tell anyone what he did for a living, even though some of them knew. He just didn’t want that kind of class difference. And we lived pretty simply, and my parents were very devout people.”
Because they were immigrants with no other family nearby, the Fernandeses had to rely on themselves. “My mother said, ‘You boys are going to have to work hard and pray hard and study hard.’”
He continued, “Some kids, they’d go to the zoo for fun. We’d go to the zoo and have to write essays about the animals we saw at the zoo. So we’re all pretty intellectually driven, but we had just very, very strong bonds with the church and with our classmates in the school. And it really led to a kind of a lively childhood.”
The Catholic faith instilled in them from early childhood was central to everything the Fernandes family did.
“My parents were very devout, so we prayed the rosary every night as a family. Even before we could really read and write … our rosary concluded with the Angelus [and] the Litany of Lareto, which we had to memorize. And then one ‘Our Father’ [and] one ‘Hail Mary’ for peace in the world, [another] for the poor souls of purgatory, [another] for this, that and the other. I mean, it just went on,” Bishop-elect Fernandes said with a glint of humor, “And we boys, of course, we’d have to kneel there on our floor and our knees would hurt. And we tried to say our ‘Hail Mary’s’ really fast, and if my dad couldn’t understand us, he’d say, ‘Repeat.’ And we’d try to go faster. And if he said, ‘Repeat,’ three times, he’d take off a slipper and threaten us with it…”
Bishop-elect Fernandes said later in life he realized his parents were trying to instill in their sons the value of daily prayer. And he was especially impacted by the way his parents lived their faith when they didn’t think anyone was looking.
“One evening I remember not being able to sleep, and so I got up and it was during Lent. And I remember my father going over to the refrigerator and pulling out two eggs and putting them on the scale and the bigger one he gave to my mother for her supper and the smaller one he kept for himself. So it made an impression on me that, for them, faith was real,” he said.
He and his brothers spent much of their time at church, especially as altar servers. Fernandes attended St. Francis de Sales High School on the west side of Toledo, which was run by the Oblate priests.
“[The priests] taught religion, but I also had oblate priests teaching me calculus, chemistry, physics. And so it was perfectly normal to think about being a priest or religious brother,” he said.
At one point in high school, a teacher asked the students if any had considered the priesthood.
Fernandes noted that he had, and when literature about religious vocations arrived at their house, he spoke with his father about it.
“I was very good in school and especially in Latin, and when it came time to apply for college, because of some of the challenges that my parents and brothers had as immigrants, my mother would make us say our prayers. We prayed the morning offering. But then she’d add stuff like, ‘Pray that you’ll be a good boy, a tall boy and a doctor. Everyone respects doctors,’” said Fernandes with a smile.
At the time, Fernandes’ mother worked at the University of Toledo and he was able to attend with his tuition waived. There he pursued pre-med biology, as did his brothers.
Bishop-elect Fernandes paused, laughed and said, “Three of my brothers are physicians. And the fourth brother is a magistrate. So we say a doctor, a lawyer and a priest walk into a bar and we’re just telling a family story.”
Fernandes felt tugs toward a religious vocation throughout his young adulthood, talking to vocations directors during high school and college. For his third year of college, he opted to study abroad in Manchester, England.
“I thought, Well, I’m away from home now. This might be the time I start skipping Mass, but in England, the one thing that was familiar to me was the Mass. And there was an Irish priest, Father Ian Kelly, and he was a great preacher. He had a great singing voice and I found that he presented the faith in an attractive way. And so I found that not only did I not skip Mass, but I started to go to Mass every day and I formed bonds with those in the Catholic student union there.”
While abroad, Fernandes made his first trip to Rome. “Just before Christmas I was in Rome, and I remember walking into St. Peter’s Basilica for the first time. I remember how quickly my heart started to beat.… And I came to the tomb of St. Peter. And I fell to my knees, and then I knew that God’s really calling me to be a priest.”
He continued, “But then what did I do? I came back to America, took my MCATs, got back together with my old girlfriend, moved to Cincinnati, did anything I could to avoid responding to the call, even though I knew. But somehow or the other, God catches up with you.”
Fernandes moved to Cincinnati for medical school and tried to attend daily Mass at St. Monica’s. “One day I got in a fight with the priest there, but I remembered what Father Kelly said: ‘Earl, when an Irishman doesn’t like the bartender, does he give up drinking? He says, No, we go to the next pub up the road,’” Bishop-elect Fernandes laughed. “And so the next pub up the road, the next closest church, was Sacred Heart Italian Church, down in Camp Washington.”
He continued, “And I went down there and there were two elderly Italian priests, Father Angel and Father Mario. Father Mario was the pastor, and he was 75 at the time and celebrating his 50th anniversary as a priest. He came to America in 1945 as a missionary. I looked at him and I thought, ‘I could be that old and be a priest and be happy. I’m going to talk to that priest about my vocation.’”
Following his conversation with Father Mario, Fernandes talked numerous times with vocations directors, a physician Jesuit priest and the medical school’s dean. After many unreturned calls from the Vocations Director for the Diocese of Toledo, he reached out to the Vocations Director for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, who returned his call. Together they discussed the amount of
time already invested in his medical degree, and Fernandes ultimately decided to spend a year at a discernment house in Rome.
“At the end of that year, I decided to come back to Cincinnati and begin the seminary. And so I began the seminary in 1997, and was ordained in 2002.”
Although his journey to the priesthood was a long and winding one, Bishop-elect Fernandes knows that God led him to be exactly where he’s supposed to be.
This article appeared in the June 2022 edition of The Catholic Telegraph Magazine. For your complimentary subscription, click here.