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Bishop Gregory Parkes prepares to lead Tampa Bay's 500,000 Catholics

ST. PETERSBURG — Roman Catholics shouldn't be surprised if they run into their new spiritual leader snagging buy-one-get-one deals at the grocery store.

Bishop Gregory L. Parkes will probably be wearing a T-shirt and shorts.

The 52-year-old does his own shopping and cooking. Pasta, grilling and slow-cooked meals are his specialty. He does his own laundry, too.

His mother taught him and his two brothers to be independent.

LIVE COVERAGE: Watch Bishop Parkes' installation live beginning at 1 p.m. Wednesday.

Joan Parkes died at age 60 in 2000. Their father, Ronald Parkes, was 63 when he died two years later. Losing them taught the bishop something even more important.

"I think having experienced that loss personally, that helped me to be a better priest," said Parkes, "to be able to minister to others who experienced similar loss."

Soon he will minister to Tampa Bay's Catholics. Parkes is set to be installed Wednesday as the fifth bishop of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, an area of about 500,000 Catholics spread across Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties.

He led the Pensacola-Tallahassee Diocese before his appointment to the larger Tampa Bay diocese was announced in late November.

"It's difficult to leave a place that has been my home for the past five years," he said, "but I'm looking forward to a new opportunity.

"I am just very much looking forward to getting to know my new diocese and to meeting the people that I'm called to serve there."

Parkes grew up on the south shore of Long Island, N.Y., the second of three sons. His parents moved to Ormond Beach in 1984. They were devout Catholics and hoped that one day there would be a priest in the family.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Gregory Parkes, new bishop of Diocese of St. Petersburg, heard call to priesthood at Tampa's Christ the King

They got two. Youngest brother Stephen Parkes, 51, is a priest in the Orlando Diocese.

Tampa Bay's new bishop started out as a banker. He earned a bachelor's degree in finance from Florida State University, then spent seven years working in Tampa at the former Barnett Bank. He dated and was open to getting married back then, but said he "just never found that person that I felt that God was calling me to spend my life with."

That he abandoned a career in finance for the priesthood wasn't unexpected, his brothers said. "It was just very much in him," said Stephen Parkes, now the pastor of the 4,000-family Annunciation Catholic Church in Altamonte Springs.

"Greg, he always had a calling to the priesthood, even as a kid," recalled big brother Christopher Parkes, 55, who recently retired after working for the Department of the Navy. He was the only brother who married and has a daughter, Courtney, 24.

"The thought of being a priest was something that I thought about since I was probably in grade school," Gregory Parkes said.

But it was when he started working at the bank that the priesthood called to him:

"I would attend daily Mass at Christ the King (Church in Tampa) as often as I was able to and spend time before and after Mass asking God what was his will for my life."

He also confided in his parents.

"Of course, they were very happy that I was considering the priesthood," he said. "They said that they were not surprised, that they suspected that I might have a vocation or a call to the priesthood."

Stephen Parkes was ordained in 1998. Gregory Parkes followed in 1999.

"They were full of joy," the bishop said of his parents.

But neither was there to see him become a bishop in 2012.

Gregory Parkes succeeds Bishop Robert Lynch, 75, who is retiring after serving nearly 21 years as bishop of the St. Petersburg Diocese.

Parkes' new diocese is demographically more diverse than his previous one. And more Catholic.

"The Panhandle is a very Christian area, but not very Catholic," he said. "Only 5 percent of the people are Catholic."

He speaks enough Spanish to celebrate Mass in that language, he said, and since he studied in Rome, also knows "a little bit" of Italian.

Parkes is expected to continue Lynch's ease with social media. Lynch was known for his forthright and prolific blogs. Parkes is active on Twitter (follow@BishopParkes). In December, he posted a 2011 photo of himself struggling to hold three newly baptized babies in front of his congregation. "What was I thinking!" he wrote.

Valerie Schumm, 64, director of the Alpha Center, a pregnancy resource facility in Pensacola, said she appreciated the bishop sharing his travels across the diocese on Facebook.

"He was phenomenal how he would travel to the various parishes, " she said. "We are going to miss him very much. The new diocese is so blessed to get him as their bishop."

The bishop did face some controversy in the Pensacola-Tallahassee Diocese.

Parents were upset with the way Parkes handled their complaints about the Rev. Roy C. Marien, a priest who wrote two fictional ebooks for adults that contained graphic sexual descriptions. Some parents criticized Parkes for failing to address their concerns after Marien became the president of St. John Paul II Catholic High School in Tallahassee in July.

"Many passages create and describe in the most lewd and lascivious terms, the sexual and physical proclivities, inclinations and abuse of underage youth," parent Michael Murtha wrote to Parkes in May on behalf of those parents.

He later withdrew his son from the high school.

"This issue was awful and it was devastating to my family to have to leave John Paul," Murtha told the Tampa Bay Times.

Parkes defended Marien, saying that while he respects the parents' right to be concerned, he noted the priest had never been accused of inappropriate behavior.

In a statement to the Times about the episode, the bishop said: "Regarding his personal writings, drawn from his experience in pastoral care for the mentally ill, refugees and victims of wars, as well as, victims of human trafficking, Fr. Marien's frank portrayal of the human condition conveys the despair and resilience of the human spirit in the face of most tragic experiences in life."

Parkes is believed to be the tallest Catholic bishop in the United States. But then he comes from a family of tall people. He and brother Christopher Parkes are both 6 feet, 8 inches.

"Stephen is the short one," Gregory Parkes joked about his 6-foot-4 younger brother.

The bishop was teased a bit for his height growing up, but said he was also in demand for certain sports, especially basketball. Then he got interested in golf. Local Catholics might see him at some sporting events.

"When I do have some downtime, I enjoy watching sports," Gregory Parkes said. "I'm a big, big sports fan. I'm already a Bucs fan." He followed the team when he lived in Tampa.

"I enjoy playing golf, and I would say spending time outside at the beach or just going for a drive is kind of relaxing to me."

The bond between the brothers remains strong. That's how their parents raised them.

"We were a very typical middle-class Catholic family," the bishop said. "We went to Mass together as a family and we were always very involved in church activities.

"We always had friends who were priests who would come over to the house for dinner or for holidays. I think that was also an influence on my vocation."

But the brothers' responsibilities often made it difficult to get together. Now retired, eldest brother Christopher Parkes recently moved to Utah.

But they still "make it a point" to get together, he said.

Stephen Parkes said his brother Gregory is "a man of the church, a man of good principles," who is ready to lead the St. Petersburg Diocese.

"He is dedicated to the church, dedicated to the people and to be fair and to be just . . ." he said. "I think he is well-prepared for the responsibilities that he is about to assume.

"He will look to the Lord for strength and what he needs for this new responsibility."

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes

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