Bishop George W. Coleman was born in Fall River 75 years ago. He grew up in St. Patrick’s Parish nearby, and spent his life here.
The man who will replace him took a more circuitous route: Born in Brazil, Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha will take over as the head of the Diocese of Fall River in September, having been appointed by Pope Francis this week. He leaves the Archdiocese of Newark, where he served as an auxiliary bishop.
But despite the 4,000 miles between their backgrounds, Catholics here say each man’s past qualifies him to lead this diverse diocese of about 300,000 parishoners across 84 parishes and 11 missions. Coleman’s departure will be felt deeply, they say, but da Cunha — fluent in English, Portuguese, and Spanish — could be perfectly positioned to address a community that is changing.
Fall River’s Hispanic population more than doubled between 2000 and 2010, according to census data. And the city has long had a large population of people with Portuguese ancestry — over 40 percent, according to census estimates.
Coleman, who submitted his resignation letter when he turned 75 in February in keeping with church law, will serve until da Cunha, 60, is installed.
“I know of him because of my work with immigration issues for the diocese over the years, and I know of his good work,” said the Rev. Jack Oliveira of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church in New Bedford. He said da Cunha’s reputation for cultural sensitivity, and his linguistic dexterity in a diocese where many speak Portuguese, make him a good fit for Fall River. “There is so much to learn about the ethnic groups that make up the faithful of this diocese: their faith, their traditions,” da Cunha said at a news conference this week before returning to Newark. “I’m willing to learn from them and to celebrate our faith together.”
That openness will be key to da Cunha’s success as he arrives and the diocese continues to change, said the Rev. Craig A. Pregana, pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe in New Bedford and director of the diocese’s Hispanic apostolate.
“He seems to be very open to other cultures, and our diocese has other cultures,” Pregana said. “Among the Spanish, they’re moving to Protestant churches. The Catholic churches need to find a response to that.”
Da Cunha leaves a Newark Archdiocese that spent the early months of this year embroiled in a controversy over the $500,000 expansion of a palatial retirement home for Archbishop John J. Myers.
In his role as the top deputy to Myers, da Cunha had also been active in the archdiocese’s response to sexual abuse scandals there. Da Cunha spent 36 years in the Newark Archdiocese as seminarian, vicar, pastor, and finally as a bishop.
“From my first meeting with him in 2001 . . . I saw the heart of a pastor,” said Myers in a statement released Thursday.
“He seems very warm, and he seems very approachable. I think he’s very eager to learn about us,” said Arlene McNamee, executive director of Catholic Social Services of Fall River. She said Coleman has long been a supporter of her organization’s social justice work, and would be missed. But with a new bishop come new opportunities.
“I think it’s going to be a new experience for all of us,” McNamee said. “I think it will strengthen our links with the immigrant community, which can only be a positive.”
Carole Broskoskie, a parishioner who has been manning one of the prayer phone lines at Holy Name Church for eight years, said da Cunha’s appointment made sense for Fall River.
“It helps with the language and the understanding of the culture,” she said. “This has been a heavily populated Portuguese community for years on end.”
Even so, she said, de Cunha has big shoes to fill. Coleman, she said, “is a very big part of the community here. We’re just hoping he’ll follow in the same footsteps — to be available, not be secluded.”
Recalling her many moves as a self-described “Navy wife,” Broskoskie said she has a lot of respect for bishops moved suddenly to an unfamiliar city.
“I have to learn the geography and the history of this diocese,” da Cunha said Thursday. But he said his commitment to give his best to build up the church is sincere.
“I could never, in my wildest dreams, imagine myself standing here as the future bishop of this diocese,” da Cunha said. “Only God’s plan, and God’s will, could make it possible.”