By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published August 4, 2017 | En Español
ATLANTA—After remarks in English at the press conference announcing his appointment as auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Bishop Bernard E. “Ned” Shlesinger spoke to Hispanic Catholics by sharing a few words in Spanish.
Bishop Shlesinger first studied Spanish as a student at Mount Vernon High School in Virginia.
Once entering the seminary for the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina, a two-month Spanish immersion program through the diocese helped him improve in the language to be able to minister to Hispanics at the parishes and missions where he served.
“My teachers were the people of Raleigh. You really don’t learn Spanish until you have to use it,” he said at the May 15 news conference.
“My Spanish is not perfect. It is good enough to communicate, I think, and to do pastoral work.”
In North Carolina, then-Father Shlesinger served as pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in the rural Newton Grove deanery for nearly 10 years. While director of vocations, he worked additionally as administrator of Maria, Reina de las Americas Church in Mount Olive and two missions, Santa Teresa del Niño Jesús Mission in Beulaville and Santa Clara Mission in Magnolia, North Carolina.
Bishop Shlesinger, who received a degree in agricultural engineering at Virginia Tech, made a connection with the rural communities and the Hispanic families living there.
Deacon Bill O’Donoghue of Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Atlanta served in the Air Force with Bishop Shlesinger. O’Donoghue’s wife, Amy, has family roots in the Newton Grove area.
“Typical Ned, he looked around at his parish and said ‘I’ve got to learn Spanish’,” said Deacon O’Donoghue.
The deacon said the priest wanted to be able to speak Spanish better so he could understand his parishioners beyond the confessional.
Parishioners of the church and rural missions of the deanery would regularly give produce or whatever bounty they had to share with little means to give financially.
“I get chickens,” Father Shlesinger told the O’Donoghues.
“It didn’t matter. He was so joyous to accept it. He accepted both just as humbly. He’s always been that way,” said Deacon O’Donoghue.
The deacon once talked to his former co-pilot after he had been driving around on a tractor doing some work. The priest told his friend that being a farmer would have been his dream job.
“I think he will always have a soft spot for these agricultural, rural communities,” said Deacon O’Donoghue.
The Diocese of Raleigh comprises the 54 eastern counties of North Carolina, covering approximately 32,000 square miles. The number of registered Catholics is 222,671, with an estimated 250,000 unregistered Hispanics, the diocese estimates.
The Office of Intercultural and Ethnic Diversity of the Archdiocese of Atlanta estimates there are 450,000 Hispanics/Latin Americans in the counties served in north and central Georgia.
Father James Garneau of Raleigh was attending priest during Bishop Shlesinger’s ordination Mass. Father Garneau has known the auxiliary since seminary, and preached the homily at his friend’s first Mass.
Father Garneau was vicar for Hispanic ministries in Raleigh and emphasized his fellow priest’s willingness to serve the Latino community of North Carolina.
“Ned has never held back from recognizing that need,” said Father Garneau.
Florentino Rodriguez worships at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Newton Grove and is one of its most active lay volunteers. He has known Bishop Shlesinger for 15 years.
“Very surprised, very happy,” is how Rodriguez felt upon hearing the news of his former pastor’s appointment as an auxiliary bishop.
By telephone from his Selma, North Carolina, home, Rodriguez said he understands English better than he speaks the language.
His 15-year-old daughter, Iltze, spoke on her family’s behalf about Bishop Shlesinger.
“He’s a good priest. I guess it’s the way he communicated with the people,” she said.
They had a chance to visit with the priest as he returned for a send-off prayer service and reception, held June 8 at the Newton Grove parish.
The family believes in Bishop Shlesinger’s gifts as a leader in the church.
“I think he’ll be a great one,” said Iltze Rodriguez.