Bishop William Murphy, center, congratulates Msgr. Jeffrey Madley after presiding...

Bishop William Murphy, center, congratulates Msgr. Jeffrey Madley after presiding over the Sunday morning Mass. (May 27, 2012) Credit: Gordon M. Grant

A Cuban-American who grew up in West New York, N.J., and is serving as a priest in the Philadelphia area will be the first Latino auxiliary bishop in the history of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, church officials announced Friday.

Bishop-elect Nelson Perez, 50, said he was stunned by the news, while Bishop William Murphy called it a sign of the growing impact of Latinos on Long Island.

"It's a recognition of the importance of Latino Catholics in our diocese," Murphy said in an interview after announcing Perez's appointment during a 7:45 a.m. Mass at St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre. "It is a big moment."

Perez, who attended, said, "It's a great joy and privilege that the Holy Father has given me."

Murphy also announced that the Vatican has named a second new auxiliary bishop -- Msgr. Robert Brennan, who is currently vicar general, or the No. 2 official in the diocese.

"I am honored and humbled that the Holy Father extended this call to serve the Lord in a new way," said Brennan, who will continue to serve as vicar general.

Newsday reported last week that Latinos now account for at least 25 percent of Catholics on Long Island, compared to less than 10 percent in the early 1980s, according to Latino Catholic leaders.

Murphy disclosed earlier that he had submitted a list of three Latinos to Pope Benedict XVI seeking approval of one as an auxiliary bishop here. Rockville Centre is the fifth-largest diocese in the United States and home to 1.7 million Catholics.

Perez, fluent in Spanish, will be assigned to the eastern vicariate, or section, of Long Island, stretching from Bay Shore to Montauk.

As an auxiliary bishop, he will assist Murphy in his duties, such as overseeing confirmations, but he will also have a special focus on Latinos islandwide.

His appointment was greeted enthusiastically by Latino community leaders. "I'm encouraged," said the Rev. William Brisotti, a bilingual priest who has worked with Latinos in the diocese since the 1960s. "I hope he [Perez] will have a sensitivity for the multicultural Latino population on Long Island."

Cubans account for just 2.2 percent of Latinos here, according to the latest census numbers.

Perez said his parents fled Cuba in late 1960, nearly two years after Fidel Castro took power. Six months later, he was born in Miami. A few years after that, the family moved to the Cuban-American enclave of West New York. "I like to say that I was made in Cuba and I'm packaged here," he said, adding that his parents left Cuba "seeking to preserve the freedom that God had given them that was quickly taken away."

He said he was aware of ethnic tensions on Long Island, including the 2008 killing of Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero in Patchogue that police labeled a hate crime, but said he would seek unity and healing.

"We're one human family, with one heart . . . God has created us all as equals in his eyes," he said. "There's a unity in the church that goes beyond language and cultures because what unites us is our faith in Christ."

Murphy called Perez "an extraordinary man, a great pastor," and said Brennan "is so well-loved and well-liked and well-known in our community."

The two are expected to be installed as auxiliary bishops July 25. That will give the diocese four auxiliary bishops, though the other two -- John Dunne and Paul Walsh -- are nearing retirement age.

New appointees

Auxiliary Bishop-elect Nelson J. Perez

Age 50

Born In Miami in 1961 to Cuban parents who fled Castro's government almost 2 years before.

Grew up in West New York, N.J. Has spent half his life in New York metropolitan area. Attended Montclair State College, taught in Catholic school in Puerto Rico before entering seminary in Philadelphia.

Ordained as priest in 1989 Currently pastor of St. Agnes Parish in West Chester, Pa. Also served as founding director of Catholic Institute for Evangelization in Philadelphia; adjunct faculty at La Salle University; assistant director of Office for Hispanic Catholics in Philadelphia.

Auxiliary Bishop-elect Robert J. Brennan

Age 50


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