By Linda Andrade Rodrigues, Anchor Correspondent
FALL RIVER, Mass. — I may never be granted an audience with a pope, but I have experienced the next best thing.
As a staff writer for a secular daily newspaper, I had the rare privilege of interviewing Bishop George W. Coleman twice.
Shortly after his election as diocesan administrator by fellow priests, he was named seventh Bishop of the Diocese of Fall River by Pope John Paul II.
A few days before his ordination on July 22, 2003, I reported to his residence on Highland Avenue.
Waiting patiently to meet the native son who would lead 350,000 parishioners during one of the most volatile periods in American Catholic Church history, I noted that he would take on the daunting challenge of serving the diocese that produced two cardinals in the past 35 years.
“Never in my wildest imagination did I ever think this would happen,” he said of his elevation from parish priest to bishop. “I don’t know why the Holy Father chose me, but I am grateful to serve the Church in this wonderful diocese.”
In Spiritual preparation for his ordination, the bishop-elect had attended the Mass of Saints Peter and Paul celebrated by Pope John Paul II in Rome.
“I prayed to St. Peter that through his intercession I might be a good shepherd,” he said.
Born on Feb. 1, 1939 in Fall River, he grew up in Somerset and attended public schools and St. Patrick’s Church.
“As a family, we were close to the parish,” he said. “I remember that I had great admiration for our pastors.”
He graduated from Msgr. James Coyle High School in Taunton and was accepted at Holy Cross College in Worcester, where he spent two years working toward a bachelor’s degree.
But then his calling came.
“It’s still a mystery to me,” he said.
He applied to St. John’s Seminary in Brighton.
“During the spring and early summer I hadn’t heard anything from the diocese, and I thought that I would be returning to Holy Cross,” he said.
But in late summer the letter finally arrived.
“I was attracted to becoming a parish priest,” he said. “My family was very supportive.”
He also attended Pontifical North American College in Rome, earning a graduate degree in Sacred Theology from the Gregorian University. He was ordained a priest by Bishop Francis F. Reh, rector of the North American College, in St. Peter’s Basilica on Dec. 16, 1964.
Through the years his parish assignments included St. Kilian’s Church in New Bedford, St. Louis Church in Fall River, Our Lady of Victory Church in Centerville, St. Patrick Church in Fall River and Corpus Christi Church in Sandwich. He also served as Diocesan Director of Education, dean of the Cape Cod and Islands Deanery, and vicar general and moderator of the curia.
Now, two years after the clergy abuse scandal ignited, he was taking the helm of the diocese.
“I pray that no new instances will arise, but should they arise, I will handle them as Bishop Sean did in accord with diocesan policies,” the bishop-elect said. “He dealt very definitively with allegations, and I will do the same. We must provide a safe environment for all children.”
Four years later I sat at a conference table with Bishop Coleman in his Fall River office, having been granted one of the few interviews he sanctioned during his tenure.
“I don’t know if I can describe my leadership style,” he said. “I don’t want to be the person who accomplishes something. It’s the Church that accomplishes something good.”
It was a few months after the Michael Bianco immigration raid in New Bedford, where something very good indeed was accomplished by the Church, according to the bishop.
“The response was truly that of the Church at all levels,” he said. “The diocese responded, the priests of the diocese were present and the people of the diocese have contributed very generously to the needs of the migrants who were affected. So overall, the way we responded was the way I believe we should respond to what has been called a humanitarian crisis.”
He called the raid the clearest example of a flawed immigration law.
“The human person has a God-given dignity that every country and every government ought to respect,” he said.
He shared the story of his grandfather who emigrated from Ireland during the famine.
“No one would hire an Irish Catholic,” he said.
Consequently, his grandfather headed west and worked in a Nevada silver mine for a few years. With his earnings he returned to Massachusetts, bought land and became a farmer.
“I hope that the welcome we can provide to migrants and immigrants might be a warmer welcome than he received,” he said.
One of his most controversial decisions occurred early in his tenure in July 2004 when he merged four New Bedford parishes: Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, St. Anne, St. Hedwig and St. James.
“We need to insure a stronger Church for future generations, just as former generations insured that for us,” he said.
He put into place a diocesan review board to examine any clergy abuse allegations that surfaced. In October 2004, he removed a pastor amid child pornography allegations. The priest was ultimately tried and convicted of the crime.
“Locally, we have recovered,” he said. “We are attempting to regain credibility. We hope that this will never happen again in the Church.”
He also expressed his concern about the number of Catholics on the registers who seldom participate in Mass, especially those who may disagree with the some of the Church’s teachings.
“They are always welcome,” he said. “Over the years people have always been seeking truth, and I certainly encourage people to do that. My hope is that people who are seeking God and who are seeking truth will find it in the Catholic Church.”