By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published April 19, 2018 | En Español
ATLANTA—From an early age, Joel Konzen knew he wanted to be a priest.
Lifelong friend John Hermes remembers him playing as if he were saying Mass, substituting a Necco wafer for a communion host.
Now, members of his childhood church, St. Boniface, are talking about how they can get this native son of Oak Harbor, Ohio, to visit and celebrate the sacraments with them as a bishop.
Oak Harbor is a village of a few thousand people in northern Ohio, about 30 miles from Toledo and 10 from Lake Erie. He grew up as the youngest child, his father a pharmacist and his mother a teacher. His brother, Ray, said the town was a fine place to grow up where “an occasional candy bar may be missing from the store.” In fact, Bishop Konzen is the only “notable person” on the village’s Wikipedia page.
He was born in 1950. At 14 he moved to Columbus, Ohio, to enroll in high school at the Pontifical College Josephinum. He would later join the religious congregation of the Society of Mary, known as Marists.
He has spent more time in Atlanta than in his hometown, but he has never forgotten his roots. He returns regularly to rural Ohio, especially around Thanksgiving and Christmas, to help pastors at parishes and missions. He’ll also take time during those visits to gather with nearly two dozen cousins for Mass in a family garage that doubles as a simple church. Cousin Linda Frey said, “Afterward, there’s a big potluck.”
A lifelong school administrator, he is known for traits essential to leading Marist School, the successful, iconic independent Atlanta Catholic high school: smart, thinks well on his feet, analytical, does not rush to judgment, with a good sense of humor.
His new ministry will take him from the intimate campus to serving as a spiritual leader for Catholics in 103 parishes and missions in the 69 counties of the Atlanta Archdiocese. As an auxiliary bishop, he will serve in administrative and sacramental roles given to him by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory.
Among the dignitaries, including bishops and scores of clergy attending his ordination April 3, were his brother, nieces, cousins and longtime friends who made the nearly 700-mile trip from Ohio.
There are few people who turn childhood dreams into reality. But his brother never strayed from his goal to serve the church as a priest, said Ray Konzen, 70.
“He had the calling early. He’d play like a priest,” he said. At the events surrounding the ordination, Ray said he got emotional. “He’s happy. I noticed that,” he said about his brother.
Hermes, 69, attended the ordination with his wife, Sharon. Hermes said Bishop Konzen appeared calm amidst the ornate rituals, which he considered a sign that his longtime friend is the “right person, for the right position, and it’s the right time.”
Faith and church were part of life in the Konzen family. The two boys were altar servers. They attended religious education classes taught by sisters in the rectory basement.
It was up to Sister Patricia Schnapp, a member of the Sisters of Mercy, to teach those classes in the early 1960s. Sister Schnapp, 81, remembered the young Konzen as one of the better students. “He always sat up front. He was always bright-eyed. He was the leader of the pack. Everything about him was always vibrant,” she said.
She recalled being pleased when he told her about his interest in priestly life.
“He seemed so together. He seemed to have a sturdy soul,” she said.
The two see each other and when in Ohio he stops by to share “a lengthy meal and chance to catch up,” said Sister Schnapp, who spoke from her apartment in Toledo. A photo of jazz musicians hangs on the wall, along with an image of the founder of her religious community, Venerable Mother Catherine McAuley. Sister Schnapp went on from teaching religious education to earning a doctorate in English, with a focus on the author James Baldwin. She retired from teaching at Siena Heights University in Michigan but is still involved in prison ministry, teaching short stories to inmates.
About her former student serving as a bishop, Sister Schnapp’s surprise was followed by joy. After his long tenure as principal at Marist, she imagined him moving on to a university, not serving as a bishop.
“I was shocked, but secondly, I was thrilled,” she said. “We need more bishops like him. I know he’ll be a gift to the archdiocese.”
The sister said she sees her friend “going to the peripheries,” as Pope Francis encourages priests and bishops to do. Under his leadership, Marist School helped establish Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School to provide students from working class families with a college prep education, and he serves on its board of trustees. In addition, he told her he wants to learn more Spanish, not only to celebrate Mass, but also to engage in conversations with people.
“He doesn’t freak out. He doesn’t let difficulties deter him. He’s got fine leadership,” she said.
Frey, 79, said her cousin is humble, content to enjoy a meal of chicken and potatoes in her kitchen. “He has a wonderful personality. He’s friendly with everybody,” she said.
To see the ancient rite of ordination celebrated at the Cathedral of Christ the King was amazing, she said.
“I could hardly believe it was happening. It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy,” she said.
Hermes, 69, a retired bank chief financial officer, has known the bishop since they were children. The friendship began over games of pinochle. Konzen and his father played cards against Hermes and his mother. They both later attended high school seminary. Hermes returned home after two years, but the relationship stuck.
He said his friend has successfully served as principal at Marist, and now his teaching experience moves out of the classroom and will be shared throughout the archdiocese.
“I thought he’s very capable, but it’s nothing he campaigned for. He will do a good job,” said Hermes.
Watching the ordination, Hermes said he was struck by the number of people congratulating the new bishop who were part of his earliest days as a deacon decades ago. Bishop Konzen is a memorable person, who draws people to him with his goodness, he said.