ORLANDO, Florida – No one likes cold eggs, but on the morning of July 2, Father Stephen Parkes’s breakfast would have to wait.
The pastor of Annunciation Parish in Altamonte Springs had just embarked on his weekly 31-mile bike ride. He generally used that time to pray the mysteries of the rosary, as since it was a Thursday, he began the luminous mysteries. But something also inspired him to pray the joyful mysteries as well.
When he returned to the rectory, he prepared breakfast and just before enjoying it, he received a phone call — from the Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States.
The subject of the call would change the life of the priest who has served the Orlando Diocese for 22 years. He was informed that Pope Francis has appointed him as the 15th bishop of the Diocese of Savannah, Georgia.
“Needless to say, I was very surprised, and, as you can imagine, my mind went blank for a few moments,” the 55-year-old said July 8, the day his appointment was official. “I was very glad I prayed those extra mysteries on my bike ride. I’m humbled by the confidence the Holy Father has placed in me to be the next shepherd of the beautiful of Savannah.”
“I am grateful for decades of the seeds of the Catholic faith that have planted here in the 90 counties of the diocese,” Parkes said during a small news conference in Savannah. “Together, may we have the grace and vision to continue to grace and vision to tend and nurture these seeds of faith and plant new ones as missionary disciples for years to come.”
During the conference, which was livestreamed on the diocese’s website, along with its main and Hispanic Ministry Facebook page, Parkes spoke to the faithful in both English and Spanish, and requested, with a humble smile, patience with his ability to speak Spanish.
Along with learning Spanish in high school in New York and at the University of South Florida in Tampa, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in marketing, Parkes learned Spanish through an immersion course he took years ago in Costa Rica, as well as during Mass celebrated in Spanish at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary, which he attended in Boynton Beach.
He described learning Spanish while celebrating Mass and reading the missal in Spanish as a “very beautiful and comforting way to learn a language.”
Ordained for the Diocese of Orlando in 1998, Parkes said his past 22 years of priesthood have made him realize his “deep love of parish ministry” and said he is blessed in experience in campus ministry at the University of Central Florida in Orlando and his parish assignments of Annunciation and Most Precious Blood in Oviedo, where he was tapped as founding pastor in 2005.
He said he is grateful for his priestly mentors in the diocese and the people he has served.
“They taught me not only about ministry, but I have learned from them the inexhaustible nature and presence of God’s love, of his goodness and of his mercy,” he said, adding he welcomes those who were watching the news conference online. “We are living in extraordinary times as we face a pandemic and recent social unrest. For all us, now more than ever, we need hope and healing, and we need recognition of God’s image that is in the life of every human person.”
In the past few months, Parkes said he has especially reflected on the words of St. Paul from Romans chapter 12, verse 12: “Endure in affliction. Persevere in prayer.”
“Today, I ask you to please pray for me,” he said, as he held back tears and took a moment, “that I can be the shepherd that God has called me to be and that you need and deserve. I also make my commitment to pray for you, your loved ones and your intentions. We may not see each other each day, but, my friends, may we meet each day in our prayers.”
After his comments, Parkes took questions from those in attendance, with the first relating to his height. He’s 6-foot-4, so it might seem natural to ask whether the priest is an avid basketball player. Sporting a smile, he answered, “Just because someone is tall doesn’t mean you’re always good at basketball.”
It was a question also fielded many times by his brother — Bishop Gregory L. Parkes of St. Petersburg, Florida. He is 4 inches taller than his brother and at 6-foot-8 is the tallest prelate in the United States.
“I always looked up to him,” both in example and physical stature, said Parkes, who has the brother-bishop connection and the Savannah appointment in common with someone: retired Bishop J. Kevin Boland, who was at the news conference.
He headed the Georgia diocese for 16 years, from 1995 to 2011, when he retired. His brother was the late Bishop Raymond J. Boland, bishop of Birmingham, Alabama, from 1988 until 1993, when he was named bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri. He served there until his retirement in 2005. He died Feb. 27, 2014, in Cork, Ireland, the brothers’ homeland.
“My parents were dedicated to our Catholic faith and provided a beautiful example of family life to their sons,” said the newly named bishop.
Born in Mineola, New York, June 2, 1965, to Joan and Ronald Parkes, he is the youngest of the couple’s three boys. His brother, Christopher, died in 2017. His parents also are deceased.
Like Bishop Gregory Parkes, his journey to the priesthood did not begin until after college and life in the workplace. In a 1995 interview with the Florida Catholic, Orlando’s diocesan newspaper, he said he had envisioned himself as a husband and father until he went on a “Come and See” weekend and the seed for priestly vocation was planted.
“I heard there that a true vocation doesn’t go away,” he said. “You might ignore it for a while, but if it’s meant to be, the idea keeps coming back.”
During his news conference in Savannah, Parkes was asked whether his appointment as a bishop displays confidence in his ability to shepherd. Taking a beat before answering, he remarked that the appointment is still somewhat overwhelming.
While he will learn on the job the tasks of his office, he hopes to do a lot of traveling and visiting to meet and celebrate with as many priests, religious and laity as he possible.
“We as Catholic have good news to share. It was brought to us in the beginning. The good news is the presence of Christ. The good news is the Lord being born into our world over 2,000 years ago, and walking this earth,” he said. “And I think to be able to bring that as the bishop of this diocese, that to me is something very exciting and very humbling, but something I know the Lord will help me do as well.”
Gonzalez is on the staff of the Florida Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Orlando.