Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Photo By Michael Alexander
Bishop Luis Zarama gathers a select group of teens and young adults in the sacristy, where he surprises them with VIP guest tickets to his Sept. 29 ordination.


Former Parishioners Not Surprised By His Selection

By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published October 1, 2009

As friends, family members and the Archdiocese of Atlanta as a whole welcomed its new auxiliary bishop on Tuesday, Sept. 29, parishioners of Bishop Luis Zarama’s former parishes collectively smiled as they watched their pastor earn recognition they felt he deserves.

“We expect him to be pope, but I won’t live that long,” said Bud Attonito with a chuckle.

Attonito and his wife, Joan, have been parishioners at St. Helena Church in Clayton for nearly 10 years and fondly remember the time then Father Zarama spent at their North Georgia church.

“I don’t think any of us were surprised,” said Attonito of the announcement of his elevation. “We knew that others would recognize in him what we see in him.”

“He got us through some tough times,” added Joan.

Both Bud and Joan are cancer survivors and felt blessed to have Bishop Zarama near them during their time of suffering. The couple is still close to the new auxiliary bishop, e-mailing fairly regularly and visiting with him whenever he comes to the mountain town of Clayton.

Attonito, who serves on the parish council for St. Helena Church, said he and his wife were married 50 years before she converted to Catholicism. He said that Bishop Zarama was the “number one reason” she decided to become a Catholic.

It was the “love, humility and holiness” of Bishop Zarama that touched the couple, especially Joan, he said.

Attonito specifically appreciated the bishop’s open affection and genuine caring for his parishioners.

“If he tells you he’s praying for you, he’s praying for you,” said Attonito. “You just know that he loves you.”

Mia Pond, a parishioner of Sacred Heart Church, Atlanta, offers a similar sentiment. She was around during Father Zarama’s time as parochial vicar at the downtown parish from 1993 to 1996.

“He is just marvelous,” Pond said. “He was for everybody—young, old, Anglo, Hispanic.”

Pond, who serves in the Altar and Rosary Society, which is responsible for cleaning and decorating the sanctuary, warmly remembers his time there. She said he would come every Friday morning to have coffee and visit with the group.

“We just hated to see him go,” she said. “But now he can be the pastor of the whole archdiocese!”

Pond specifically remembers his “wonderful sermons,” and said his words still stay with her.

“He would give the dearest sermons. He always got right to the heart of the Gospel,” she said, even though he sometimes worried about his facility in speaking English.

Sacred Heart Church Ladies Altar & Rosary Society members (l-r) Catherine Arey, Denise Olivera Betty Smith, Anna Leverich and Mia Pond clean the Atlanta church every Friday morning. Smith, Leverich and Pond were members of the society when Bishop Luis Zarama was assigned to the parish as a parochial vicar. Photo By Michael Alexander

“We need him here in Atlanta,” she added. “There couldn’t be a better person (for auxiliary bishop).”

J.D. Wellons and his wife, Marcia, also became close friends with Bishop Zarama—or “Father Luis” as many of his former parishioners still call him—during his time as pastor of St. Mark Church in Clarkesville.

The couple moved to the parish in 1996, just as Father Zarama was assigned there.

“Father Luis is, and continues to be, a great friend,” Wellons said, adding that the bishop still keeps in touch with them.

The couple’s first Mass at St. Mark Church was also Father Zarama’s first Mass as pastor there.

“We followed him from his first Mass to his departing Mass,” he said.

Wellons was reading a Clarkesville newspaper when he noticed an article announcing the elevation of Bishop Zarama to auxiliary bishop of the Atlanta Archdiocese.

“Immediately my phone started ringing,” said Wellons. He recalled that Father Zarama served on the board of directors for the local Habitat for Humanity affiliate during his time in Clarkesville, and calls were pouring in from those who came to know him through that endeavor.

Three people, who are not Catholic, who served on the board with Father Zarama called Wellons to express their delight in the news, all saying that he is an example of a true shepherd.

This just confirmed what Wellons and his wife already knew.

Another excited parishioner of St. Mark Church is Beth Walsh, who said she will have to get used to calling him bishop. She and her husband remember coming to Mass celebrated by Father Zarama over 10 years ago and were immediately struck by his presence.

“I remember my husband saying about Father Luis: ‘This is truly a holy man. I would not be surprised if we see him as pope someday,’” she said about the first Mass they attended.

“There may have been a slight language barrier at first, but all of us listened intently to Father Luis because we knew we would receive knowledge and blessings from his homilies,” she added. “We always looked forward to seeing him and hearing him.”

Walsh said the day Father Zarama told the parish he was leaving and going to Atlanta to serve as vicar general of the archdiocese, even the most stalwart parishioners had tears in their eyes.

“It was a blow, to say the least,” she said. “We knew we would miss him sorely, and we still do. … Humble, loving, calm, congenial, caring, non-judgmental, fair-minded. These are but a few of the words that describe Father Luis. When you have been touched by knowing him, you will never forget him.”

While many former parishioners agree it was sad to see him leave their parish, they know he will serve the archdiocese well.

“We wish him well in his new position,” said Walsh. “He will do good wherever he goes, but his footsteps will always echo with us at St. Mark. We love him. Always will.”